Ten years ago, TV star Mozhdah Jamalzadah’s classmates at Vancouver’s John Oliver Secondary School voted her most likely to become famous.
Now she’s considered the Oprah Winfrey of Afghanistan, hosting her own talk show in Kabul while juggling a successful singing career.
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But the 28-year-old, who returned to her alma mater on Thursday to talk with students, said the not all Afghans are supportive of her show, which is controversial because it addresses taboo subjects like women’s rights and divorce.
“They don’t want girls in the entertainment field. They call me a disgrace to Afghans,” said Jamalzadah, who was born in Kabul and raised in Vancouver.
She said Afghanistan has come a long way since freeing itself from the oppressive rule of the Taliban, but that democracy hasn’t been welcomed by all.
“Women still don’t have the freedom they deserve,” she said.
“With all the opportunities we get here, you see what’s going on in the rest of the world and you realize how lucky you are. I wanted to go back (to Afghanistan) … and try to make a difference in the nation I left behind.”
Jamalzadah decided to become a voice for Afghanistan’s oppressed women and children through music.
She worked at KFC and Rogers Video to pay for vocal lessons and wrote her first hit, Afghan Girl, with her father.
Her singing career took off in Afghanistan – despite the reluctance of record companies to sign a female singer – and in March she was asked to perform Afghan Girl for the Obamas at the White House.
Jamalzadah was then given the chance to host an Oprah-style talk show, complete with its own “Dr. Phil” psychologist, in Kabul.
The program addresses family issues like child and spousal abuse, as well as social justice, and Jamalzadah said television is the best way to reach millions of illiterate Afghanis.
She was also determined to talk about divorce in light of the fact that many Afghan women – forced into unhappy and violent marriages – see suicide as their only way out.
“A lot of people at the station told me I couldn’t discuss this on TV and I challenged them and told them, ‘I’m going to do this.’ I had to bring up this issue.”
“Families are now asking me not to give up the show and go back to Canada.”
She said it’s this kind of feedback that motivates her to press on, despite receiving constant death threats.
The threats are something she shrugs off, saying her show is needed to enlighten fundamentalist Afghans, who are becoming more tolerant every day.
“Half of the staff at my TV station are women,” said Jamalzadah. “My producer is a 19-year-old girl. She’s the only person in her family who works.”
Jamalzadah said she’s buoyed by the values instilled in her in Canada – where she was encouraged to be a successful, outspoken, independent and educated woman.
She’s taking these values to Afghanistan.
“No one else can take my spot (on the show),” she said. “Because I’m the only one who has the guts to do this.”