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Al-Mahaba Hopes to Reclaim Audience

Unifying various factions in Iraq and promoting peace is no small measure, especially when extremists frequently kill Iraqis making such a stand.

Unifying various factions in Iraq and promoting peace is no small measure, especially when extremists frequently kill Iraqis making such a stand. Yet this is what the staff at Baghdad’s Al-Mahaba (Love) Voice of Women radio station tries to do every day.

Initially funded by UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, Al-Mahaba’s commercial FM broadcasts deliver topical interviews, listener call-ins, music, poetry and education aimed at women — many of whom remain cloistered in their homes.

Radio Al-Mahaba’s announcers “talk about democracy, they talk about freedom of expression and they provide a platform for Iraqi women to voice their opinions about all kinds of issues and matters related to them,” said Bushra Jamil, Al-Mahaba’s spokeswoman. Until Al-Mahaba signed on April 1, 2005, “There was no woman’s station in Iraq.”

In October 2005 a massive car bomb aimed at a neighboring hotel destroyed Radio Al-Mahaba’s 5 kW transmitter. This was followed by the failure of a rented 3 kW transmitter, leaving Radio Al-Mahaba using a rented 1 kW model. The equipment loss drastically cut into its coverage and thus its advertising revenues. As a result, “We’ve been struggling along this last year to make ends meet,” says Jamil. To keep Radio Al-Mahaba alive, “for a whole month our staff members donated their wages to the station.”

The operation has been helped with the donation of a new Platinum Series Z5 5 kW FM transmitter from Harris Radio Broadcast Systems. When this new solid-state unit is on air — at press time, it was being installed by Radio Al-Mahaba staff after being shipped to Baghdad at Harris’ expense — Radio Al-Mahaba will be back at full strength.

“It’s difficult to describe the significance of this 5 kW transmitter to the continued success of our radio station,” said Jamil. “It means we’ll be able to reach the small towns and rural villages where women remain extremely isolated from news and education. The illiteracy rate for Iraqi women is now at approximately 75 percent, so this makes our radio broadcasts even more vital.”

Who listens?

Although Radio Al-Mahaba is programmed as a woman’s station, its program content emphasizes human rights, equality and freedom for all. The station has attracted listeners of both sexes and all ages, based on listener caller information compiled by RA’s assistant manager. (Officials asked Radio World not to publish publishing the names of staff or listeners, for safety reasons.)

Take the 7-8 p.m. show, which covers “different issues like psychological issues, social subjects, family problems and relationships between people and their friends and lovers,” wrote RA’s assistant manager from Baghdad, plus “contributions from the listeners, which can be anything such as singing a song, reading poetry, any scientific information, and also telling jokes.”

Among those calling in were a “an employee in ministry of education … listening to us because we are the first radio station demanding woman rights”; “a graduate from the college of Islamic science, calling us because she considers us breaking all of what she has learned in life and college;” and a 40-ish male contractor “calling us because of the girls calling us and ‘he loves girls,’” he said.

Radio Al-Mahaba’s trials have not gone unnoticed by the international community. For instance, ABC Radio’s “Satellite Sisters” have embraced the station’s efforts and sought to raise $100,000 from their listeners to keep it going. “As Iraqi women are increasingly confined to their homes out of fear, the radio is their only community,” explained a post on “When you contribute to the campaign to ‘Keep Al-Mahaba Talking’ you become a member of that special community we call the satellite sisterhood.”

Harris stepped up by providing the transmitter, one that Jamil hopes will allow Radio Al-Mahaba to become financially self-sustaining. Harris became involved in Iraq through its re-build of the Iraqi Media Network. Debra Huttenburg, vice president and general manager of the company’s Radio Broadcast Systems business unit, said, “Communication is vital to the people of Iraq, and Radio Al-Mahaba operates daily under the harshest conditions imaginable.”

In December, Jamil e-mailed to supporters, “The situation is deteriorating here rapidly, the criminal gangs supported by corrupted police and army individuals are controlling the streets. We asked all the females at the station to stay home.” She said she spoke with one of the staff and “you could hear the sound of bombs, fire exchange and the sirens all day.” She described a city of dirty hospitals, few doctors and relentless fighting by insurgents and militia. “For the first time since 2003 I feel extremely scared for my people and for Iraq’s future. Yet it is our promise not to give up no matter what will happen.”

Tough times ahead

Despite the support of the Satellite Sisters and Harris, the future remains daunting for Radio Al-Mahaba’s staff and listeners. Jamil said earlier that security in the country had deteriorated to the point that “the violence has become part of daily life.”

Add Iraq’s shattered infrastructure and high unemployment — Jamil said “a lot of the students and young people who call have their Bachelors [degrees] and they don’t have any jobs” — and there’s no quick fix on the horizon. But goals of peace, stability and unity remain at Radio Al-Mahaba.

“We want for this violence to end,” said Jamil. “We want to see a good, non-corrupt and decent government that treats all Iraqis as Iraqis, that doesn’t ignite the sectarian violence and differences among people.” Until this happens, Radio Al-Mahaba hopes to continue to spread its message of tolerance, equality and human rights. “When we talk to Iraqis, we tell them to stay united and keep their faith,” Jamil told Radio World. “A better day will come; don’t give up.”