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From Kabul to Washington: One Woman's Journey - 2002-07-25


Voice of America’s Pashto service, which broadcasts to Afghanistan, was established in July of 1982. Spozhmai Maiwandi was a founding member of the service, and later became its chief.

She arrived in the United States to begin working in VOA’s Pashto service on July 4 - Independence Day in America, and the day the service began its broadcasts to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. She says the decision to leave Kabul was not an easy one.

“The first difficulty was to leave my parents back there. My father was ill, and when I went to say good-bye to him do you know what he told me? He told me, ‘Spozhmai, if you were going to America in search of economic prosperity, I would have told you not to go. But you’re going there for a very sacred mission, that is to let the people of Afghanistan know, in their own language, that other than communism, another system, another way of life exists, and that is democracy.’”

Soviet forces had been in Afghanistan for two years at the time Spozhmai Maiwandi and her family escaped to Pakistan on their way to America. Ms Maiwandi says life under the Soviets was very difficult, with constant fear, intimidation, and surveillance.

“At night, we would sleep, and there would be screaming, shouting and shooting. I would think as if it were my next-door neighbor, it would be on the same street. In the morning we would turn on the radio to find out what’s going on, and there would be music and the radio would say that oh, people are so happy, in such and such an area there was a big party welcoming the Soviet forces. And when we asked our neighbors, nobody would dare speak about it.”

Before the Soviet troops arrived to install a communist regime in Afghanistan, the country had been ruled by Zahir Shah – the now elderly king who is backing the present transitional government in Kabul. Spozhmai Maiwandi says that although Afghan society as a whole was tribal and tradition-bound, life in Kabul was not that different from life in other capitals in the world.

“Kabul was quite liberal. You could get an education. I would be dressed in European clothes. There would be a fashion in Paris, and the next morning, or the second or third morning, it would be in Kabul. The women were beautiful, they were free, especially if they were a little bit wealthy, they had everything available to them. Government had, I would say, if not 50 at least 40 percent of the workers were women, doctors were women, teachers were women, we had women in the Cabinet, in the Parliament.”

Spozhmai Maiwandi herself graduated from Kabul University with a degree in English. She was working in the American Embassy when she was invited to take the test to apply for the Voice of America’s Pashto service, which was then being organized.

“Within a month they came back and said, ‘You’ve passed with flying colors’. Believe it or not, at that time I didn’t know what “flying colors” meant, but from the expression on the face of the ambassador I knew that it must be not bad. As soon as he left the room I went to the dictionary and looked up what this ‘flying colors’ means, and that made me very happy. And that’s how I ended up here.”

The Maiwandi family – Spozhmai, her husband and two children, aged six and seven, left Afghanistan separately, disguised as villagers. Spozhmai and her daughter reached the border with Pakistan on foot, escorted through the arid mountains by smugglers.

“The smuggler went to this last post, where there were Afghan and Soviet soldiers, and told them, ‘She’s my sister-in-law, she’s sick’ – and I was of course covered in the burkha, the very famous burkha that later under the Taliban – how shall I say it, the whole world found out about it. That one actually saved my life, and saved the lives of many-many-many men and women during the Soviet invasion, because they would wear that, and that’s how they would be smuggled, and nobody would recognize them, who they are.”

At the Voice of America, Spozhmai worked initially as a broadcaster-announcer-editor. She learned every aspect of the radio business, translating news from English into Pashto, writing radio scripts, serving as program producer, hosting airshows.

Pashto airshow opening

In 1991 Spozmai Maiwandi was selected to be the chief of the Pashto service. Not only was she younger than most of the members of her staff, but some of the men had been her professors back in Kabul.

“When I first came I had lots of difficulty. The service did not want me as a service chief. And so they went and complained, and somebody from Personnel sat and talked with them, ‘What IS the problem? Is she not qualified? Is she not good for the job? What is the problem?’ And one of these editors said, ‘No, she’s qualified, she’s very good. But you don’t know. She’s a woman.’”

In part 2 of this profile, Spozhmai Maiwandi will talk about how she won the respect of the men on her staff, and about the frustrations and satisfactions of directing the Pashto Service’s broadcasts to Afghanistan.

English Programs Feature #7-36561 Broadcast July 29, 2002