From inside a rented two-room apartment in a commercial market in the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-e Sharif, a new sound emerges.
Najiyah Hanifi, a young Afghan radio journalist, heads up the region's first women's community radio station. "At first people in the building were uneasy about our presence, but they have adapted to it," said Hanifi.
Named after the ninth century Afghan Princess and famous poetess, Rabi'ah Balkhi, the station broadcasts two hours a day, carrying programs on public health, ethics, women's rights and entertainment, mostly consisting of Afghan songs. "As most of our people are illiterate, radio is the most powerful media tool for education," said Hanifi.
State-controlled radio was first introduced in Afghanistan in 1963, but its independence came to a halt ten years later with the end of King Muhammad Zahir Shah's reign. Since then, radio had been the voice of propaganda. During the Taliban era, when television and other forms of entertainment were banned, radio was used to propagate the regime's views-and female journalists were forbidden to work.
Since the fall of the Taliban, Canada's Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society (IMPACS) has contributed to the establishment of Radio Rabi'ah Balkhi as an alternative to the country's state-run radio stations. With financial assistance from the Canadian International Development Agency's Peacebuilding Fund, IMPACS supports the development of free media as a first step toward strengthening civil society and peace in Afghanistan.
"We believe it is important because a very small number of women work in the state radio and they have little control over the content," said Alexis Matrin, IMPACS's program director. "It's also an income and entertainment resource for women."
While Mazar-e Sharif remains one of the most volatile cities in Afghanistan, as rival warlords jostle for power, Radio Rabi'ah Balkhi has had no major problems. "The council of clerics questioned our existence, but the governor convinced them," said Hanifi. There is a degree of self-censorship, she added. "We are cautious with religion and controversial political issues."
Despite challenges, Rabi'ah Balkhi lives on, and many women find it useful. "We thought that after Taliban we would have more freedom," said local university student Humayrah Jamili. "But we still have to struggle, and this radio is our voice and hope."
IMPACS intends to establish 10 similar stations in towns and cities throughout the country toward the end of 2003.