The Afghan Magazine "Malalai"

The Voice of Afghan Women

Jamila Mujahed is editor of the only women's magazine in Afghanistan. For her work on the magazine "Malalai," which she founded to promote women's rights, she has been awarded the Johann Philipp Palm Prize. Petra Tabeling reports


photo: Petra Tabeling
The Prize was awarded to Jamila Mujahed for promoting freedom of the press and freedom of speech

​​Almost a year ago, the Grand Council in Afghanistan, or the Loya Jirga, ratified a new constitution. The equality of men and women and the freedom of the press are guaranteed in the constitution.

But implementing these promises is a long and difficult process, as journalist Jamila Mujahed has reported time and again in "Malalai," the only women's magazine in Afghanistan. She has written about women's participation in voting and about the growing problems with drugs, for example.

"Malalai," however, also prints articles about very different things: make-up tips or fitness studios are discussed here too. The name of the magazine is not a generic woman’s name: Malalai was an Afghan folk hero who became famous for resisting the British colonial powers and has been an important figure in the Afghan women's movement.

Media with means

After the defeat of the radical Islamic regime in Kabul at the end of 2001, Mujahed founded the magazine "Malalai" in February, 2002 with funding from UNESCO and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

Initially Mujahed and her assistants were able to publish their unique forum for women regularly in both the Dari and Paschtu languages. But since funding from the Böll Stiftung ran out in January, 2004, she and her editorial team have been struggling with financing problems.

The magazine has unfortunately not found enough financial support within Afghanistan. Advertisers, for example, have shown little interest: "Afghan businesses have not yet realized that they can reach a target group in our women's magazine. A media culture has yet to be established in this country, where we have had 25 years of war and suffering," she explains.

As winner of the Johann Philipp Palm prize for freedom of the press and freedom of speech, awarded every two years in Schorndorf near Stuttgart, the magazine will receive 10,000 euros—a much-needed boost.

The organization's board of trustees, in cooperation with Reporters without Borders, honored the "Malalai" magazine for "serving as a courageous example in the fight for freedom of the press and freedom of speech and in efforts to strengthen democracy and human rights, and for promoting the rights of women in Afghanistan."

A forum for the women's movement

For five years Mujahed, now 42, was not able to practice her profession under the Taliban regime; she was banished to living behind the burka. Mujahed secretly taught girls during this period.

Mujahed no longer wears the burka, at least not in the capital city, Kabul. "We have been able to secure some gains for Afghan women. Since the ratification of Afghanistan’s constitution we have been able to make a large contribution by informing Afghan women about their rights as equal citizens in our country," Mujahed says looking back at the past two years of her work.

Resistance from conservatives

But her work still meets with resistance from Islamic and other political forces. There are also male readers of the magazine, says Mujahed, "but some men have always been against us. They try to hinder our work through fundamentalist, Islamic means."

This journalist and mother of five children doesn't elaborate, however, on the means with which her work has been hindered. "It is thanks to the new government that we have been able to do our work in these past three years, and we are certain that we will reach our goal. But only slowly."

The goal: Reaching disadvantaged women

The problems of women who live in rural areas and under completely different circumstances than urban women also receive copious attention in "Malalei."

In many remote areas of the country, traditional clan structures are still very dominant. Most women in rural areas still wear the burka, health care is abysmal, life expectancy is 44 years, and the death rates are very high for women and children. Every tenth woman dies during a pregnancy. Most women are illiterate.

Mujahed tries to reach these women, too. "Because we know that many people cannot read or write, the magazine has lots of pictures and illustrations. We hope that this helps them understand and sparks their interest."

Because the illiteracy rate is so high, the radio is also a popular medium in Afghanistan. The sole radio program for women, "Voice of Afghan Women," which Mujahed organizes with five other journalists, also helps her to reach more women for four hours each day.

Important steps for women's futures

Many steps are still necessary in order to "reach the goal of equality between men and women in the way we intend," Mujahed believes.

"The first thing is disarmament, so that security can be achieved across the country. Secondly, the entire population must become literate, especially those living in rural areas. Thirdly, women's financial independence must be secured."

The latest cover of the magazine offers what is still a rather new image of women for the Afghan public: a modern, self-assured woman in makeup and without a headscarf. Next to her the headline reads: "Women's equality: A tough goal—but do-able."

Petra Tabeling

© 2004

Translation from German: Christina M. White

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