The following piece was excerpted from a report Natalia Caruso (MADRE Program Coordinator) and I wrote for 2009 edition of the publication Youth Media Reporter. Since we published this, we have heard from our partners at OWFI that the radio program is currently reaching an audience of six million.
When the US occupation of Iraq began in 2003, it triggered a civil war and a widespread communal unraveling. Doctrinal differences that had previously failed to divide Shiite and Sunni communities soon became seemingly insurmountable. The U.S. occupation policy that dismantled a largely secular government ushered in a government bureaucracy predicated on ethnic and religious divisions.
In this context, opportunities for youth fell away. According to the Population Reference Bureau, some 33 percent of the Iraqi population is made up of young people between the ages of 10 and 24. As sectarian militias took hold across the country, and as chances for employment and community engagement disappeared, young people became prime targets for militia recruitment. Moreover, as neighborhoods were increasingly segregated along sectarian lines, a youth seeking interactions with others across heavily-policed identity lines would be sealed off. Yet, in the “hot zones” of Baghdad, Iraq, young artists have launched a radio station called Al Mousawat (Equality) that will broadcast a message of unity and peace against sectarian violence.
Since the beginning in 2003, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) stepped in to create opportunities for young Sunni and Shiite poets, musicians and artists in Baghdad to come together in a call for peace. In the past, MADRE and OWFI have coordinated large public events such as poetry slams, dramatic readings and musical performances, drawing crowds numbering in the thousands. The OWFI staff is young and largely female–a constituency that is under attack from Islamic militias—and their dedication to the cause of unity and peace is impressive.
In October 2009, OWFI launched a new radio broadcast: the Al Mousawat Radio. For two hours each week, women have control of a new corner of airspace not run by religious or ethnic groups and not influenced by the state.
The radio station presents an incredible opportunity for OWFI to reach out to women who have felt isolated and alone, who have not been a part of the progressive exchanges that OWFI facilitates and who might be ready to join in the conversation.
The programming is designed to relate to women’s everyday struggles against sexual violence and discrimination, while showing an alternative to the fundamentalist mindset of mainstream media. The central message of Al Mousawat Radio is that the women listening are not alone. It will serve as a connection between Iraqi women and youth and the progressive community.
OWFI’s work is constantly plagued by the lack of security, and these issues will continue to challenge young OWFI activists as they work to make this project a reality.