The 'Afghan Girl', with the dulcet voice, is a champion of women's rights

She is a very well-known personality in both Afghanistan and Canada. Popularly known as the ‘Afghan girl’ and “Oprah of Afghanistan,” Mozhdah Jamalzadah is a singer, songwriter, TV personality, influencer, and speaker

Kavita Bajeli-Datt Sep 22, 2020

She is a very well-known personality in both Afghanistan and Canada. Popularly known as the ‘Afghan girl’ and “Oprah of Afghanistan,” Mozhdah Jamalzadah is a singer, songwriter, TV personality, influencer, and speaker. But she is known more for being a champion of women's rights.

Her journey has not been easy. The TV presenter and pop star left Afghanistan with her family when she was just five years old. Escaping via Pakistan, she finally ended up in Vancouver, Canada. She may have had a life of freedom in her adopted country, but her heart continued to beat for the thousands of women and girls living back home suffering under the oppressive Taliban rule.

Jamalzadah was in her early 20s when her father wrote the lyrics to what would become the song that launched her musical career.  And that song was “Afghan girl.”

Her father, who runs a pizza restaurant, had written a protest poem about a group of young girls who had been attacked with acid by the Taliban operatives as a warning about what happens to girls who go to school. Remembering her own childhood and the struggles girls still faced every day in Afghanistan, Jamalzadah turned the poem into a song.

It became an instant hit in Afghanistan as people, mostly girls, related to the song.  Afghan Girl was 2009's song of the year in Afghanistan. It also earned Jamalzadah many nominations and awards at the Afghan and international TV and radio stations.  She sings both in English and Farsi.

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In December 2009, she was offered a position to work with an up-and-coming television station in Afghanistan, 1TV.

This was the beginning of her journey to stardom.

The success of the pop song and her television show resulted in her being invited to perform for then US President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama at the White House in 2010 on the occasion of International Women’s Day.

Born on December 27, 1982, in Kabul, this Afghan singer with the dulcet voice, was raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, and studied broadcast journalism at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, and Philosophy and Political Science at the University of British Columbia.  She used to write poems since childhood, and her mother, who works at a hair salon,  ensured that she took music lessons. In fact, it was her mother, Nasrin, who thought of the concept of holding a talk show on the lines of American talk show host Oprah Winfrey.  The concept was liked by 1TV.  

In an interview with The Guardian, Jamalzadah said her visit to Afghanistan was “magical”, despite there being many restrictions like even wearing a hijab. She became the host of "The Mozhdah Show" which later became the subject of international media, as it gave some positive reports out of war-torn Afghanistan. The show's popularity earned her the title of "Oprah of Afghanistan" by western media. 

On the Mozhdah Show, she and her producers created programmes that addressed taboo topics in Afghan society, and what it was like to be a woman, a child, a person living in Afghan society. The show, which also took up issues like domestic violence and divorce, also provided her the chance to explore and learn more about the current situation in Afghanistan through the eyes of Afghans.  The show ran from 2009 to 2011.

She is both loved and trolled.

About the time when she was living in Afghanistan and hosting the TV show, she said: "When I was the host of my talk show in Kabul, I had to make sure that I was dressed in a certain way. I had to wear a full headscarf. My outfits had to be covered but I still tried to push the boundaries. I remember not wearing the headscarf purposely 'by accident' one time — and they didn't air my show. 

“We were getting threats from extremists who did not want a woman with a show like mine speaking so openly about taboo topics such as women's rights.” She had to leave Afghanistan and the show in 2011 following threats to her life.

On her return to Canada, she said she felt “defeated”. She felt her one chance of bringing some change in the lives of Afghan people has ended. And then she thought, she could do much more sitting miles away in Canada. 

Today, she has a very strong social media presence in Afghanistan and she constantly fights for women's and girls' rights. She is not only loved but trolled too. There was a time when she slept with a gun under her pillow. 

Last year, she also acted in the film ‘Red Snow’ and a biography on her life was released by Greystone Books, titled "Voice of Rebellion." The biography has been written by journalist and documentary filmmaker Roberta Staley. 

“My goal is to be a women’s rights activist in the world,” she said in an interview with the Guardian in 2019. “I have to work to get myself to a position where I can speak for women who don’t have a voice, on a much bigger scale. That’s my goal now.” 

She is aware that she faces constant threats. “I’d rather have a shorter, more meaningful life if I were to end up dead than to just live my life in fear,” Jamalzadah was quoted as saying by HuffPost Canada.

(The writer is a veteran journalist. She can be contacted at kavita.b@spsindia.in)