Author: Shirazuddin Siddiqi, November 9 2015 - Three years after its launch, Shirazuddin Siddiqi reflects on how Afghanistan's TV debate show Open Jirga continues to provide a voice to Afghans amid insecurity and increased uncertainty.

In October 2012, we launched Open Jirga, our TV show in Afghanistan, with big ambitions. We wanted to play a role, however small, in ensuring a smooth and successful journey for the Afghan people through tough and testing times. Right from its first episode, Open Jirga brought together people from across the country to question their leaders on critical ttopics such as security, corruption, the economy, religion and the role of women.

But the lengthy dispute over the election results in April 2014, which led to the establishment of the National Unity Government (NUG), set Afghanistan on an entirely different path from the one the nation had dreamed about. High expectations of the NUG were not met. Government processes became paralysed, security got worse and worse, the economy suffered, corruption continued and money began to drain from the country in record amounts.

An estimated 7,000 young, educated Afghans are now reportedly leaving the country every month. From midnight, the queue outside the passport office runs into the thousands as people line up before the doors open for business at 8am.

With critical military, political and governance challenges piling up in Afghanistan, we seem further away from our ambitions than we first were when we launched Open Jirga three years ago. This is not what success looks like.

Courage and clarity

Success, perhaps, lies elsewhere. It lies in transforming silent frustration into unmistakably powerful voices. Voices such as Haleema Hamidi’s, who works as a shepherd and lives in Baghlan province in northern Afghanistan, which has long suffered from violence and insecurity and where the Taliban has recently captured territory.

In a recent Open Jirga which focused on the impact of Afghans migrating, Haleema articulated her worries with extraordinary courage and clarity.

"I have a message for young Afghans, those who go abroad," she said. "Do they take their sisters, their mothers? No, they don’t. They shouldn’t go abroad, they shouldn’t flee. They should stay in their homeland, defend their homeland, defend their reputation and dignity. They should defend their sisters and mothers… Afghanistan is our homeland. No matter how much unrest there is, how much devastation there is, we defend our country. We have honour. We have dignity."

Despite coming from a conservative rural district, she sat in a mixed audience – which is a novelty in itself - flanked by men from other provinces who were complete strangers to her.

She confidently identified the problem as weak leadership. "The government has responsibility," she said. "The youth join the national army and the national police. They get besieged, they call the higher authorities to say we have been besieged, we don’t have provisions, we don't have equipment, we need help. No help is given to them. The President is the father of the nation, he [should act like] the father of the nation. For God's sake, if he can’t be a father, he should at least pay as much attention to the nation as a stepfather does… This is all I have to say."

She sat down to huge applause from a studio audience which was a true cross-section of Afghan society, with all ethnic, linguistic, religious and regional groups represented.

Online debate

Before this particular episode was broadcast on TV, Open Jirga's producer posted Haleema's powerful speech on Facebook. Breaking all the programme’s records online, it received over one thousand views per hour in the first three days. In the 72 hours after it was uploaded, it was viewed over 81,000 times, liked over 2,250 times, shared nearly 1,800 times and attracted 299 comments from all sides of the argument.

"What truly excellent logic," said one commenter praising Haleema’s eloquence. Another said, "Dear respected lady, those young people who have chosen to stay die of hunger" while another commenter also complained that, "those who educated themselves remain unemployed".

Such comments collectively reflect the ever increasing level of disaffection and disillusionment with the Afghan state. Such words need to be heard by national leaders and by the whole nation. They need a platform.

Haleema's clear message delivered in the simplest possible way struck a chord and led these and a lot of other people to express their frustration. The expression of frustration alone does not solve anything. But the absence of a mechanism for expressing it can have very dire consequences for a country as fragile as Afghanistan.

Even if our original ambitions of playing a role, however small, in the changing history of Afghanistan may not have been met yet, with Open Jirga, we are determined to continue giving a national platform for people like Haleema to have their voices heard.

Click here to access this BBC Media Action blog and related links on their work in Afghanistan.
Image credit: BBC Media Action

BBC Media Action
BBC Media Centre, MC3A, 201 Wood Lane
W12 7TQ
United Kingdom (UK)
Phone: 44 (0) 20 8008 0001
Fax: 44 (0) 20 8008 5970