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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 October 2005, 02:46 GMT 03:46 UK
TV show aims to be Afghan Oprah

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Kabul

Afghan women
The war left many Afghan women mentally scarred
At the well-secured offices of the Tolo TV station in Kabul, presenter Farzana Samimi is getting ready for a new show called Banu - "woman" in the Dari language.

The 27-year-old veterinary science and psychology major turned TV presenter says the show is about problems faced by Afghan women - largely a taboo subject.

Three times a week for the past month, Ms Samimi has teamed up with a Kabul-based psychiatrist, Mohammed Yasin Babrak, to talk about the "psychological and social problems" of women.

Today's subject is about the common fears that women usually have, says Ms Samimi, who thought up the programme.

In a poky blue-walled studio, the presenter and doctor sit on beige leather seats across a wooden table.

A ceramic tea pot and three cups on the table complete the minimalist setting.

Common fears

Ms Samimi begins by asking Dr Babrak about the fears women usually have.

The discussion drags a little - a long talkathon on phobias.

Women in Afghanistan have no control over their destiny
Farzana Samimi

But even this is quite revolutionary in war-ravaged Afghanistan, where women are still struggling to make their voices heard, four years after the demise of the Taleban.

Banu aspires to become an Oprah Winfrey clone, where women can sit around a table or phone in to discuss their problems.

"Most Afghan women cannot pour their hearts out to anyone when they have a problem. We hope to make this programme their pulpit, so to speak," says Ms Samimi.

The daughter of an engineer father who now lives with her homemaker mother in Turkey, Ms Samimi believes Afghan women are among the worst off in the world.

"They have not got their rights in family and society. Even if she wants to change her hairstyle, she has to get her husband's permission. They have no control over their destiny. Obviously, they suffer many problems, including mental ones," she says.

Ms Samimi was luckier than most Afghan women - she chose a calling in television after training to be a psychologist. Her siblings have been lucky too - one sister is a doctor, the other painter, and the third is studying economics.

She says she thought up the show after watching the plight of women go from bad to worse over the war-ravaged years in Afghanistan.

Scars of war

Dr Babrak came in handy to answer questions - the Pakistan-trained psychiatrist sees some 40 women patients at his Kabul chamber every week.

The nearly three-decade-long civil war impacted on women most in Afghanistan.

In Kabul alone, 30,000 were left as widows and the only earning members of their family, according to one estimate.

During the civil war, women were killed, raped and abused by the various warlord-led militias.

"Most of the women who come to me don't know what is going wrong with them. Most of them suffer from forgetfulness, mood swings, schizophrenia," says Dr Babrak.

Women exercising in a gym in Herat, Western Afghanistan
Women are trying to make their voices heard

He talks to them and sometimes prescribes pills. But long-term psychotherapy for women patients is still impossible.

"This is a traditional country. There is no concept of a shrink's couch here," says Dr Babrak.

So Banu is one way of telling women how they may be able to cope with their problems without visiting a doctor.

The afternoon show seemed to have struck a chord already - women have begun writing in about their problems, and calling in after watching the programme.

Ms Samimi is already a star in the making for her women viewers and has stopped going to markets as "people bother me".

She confesses she feels "scared sometimes" hosting a show for women - a former presenter for Tolo TV, who used to work for a popular youth music show, was shot dead by unknown gunmen in Kabul in May.

"My husband really does not want me to do this programme because of security fears. But I still manage because I want to do something for women," she says.

Only time will tell whether Banu picks up and becomes a talking point in Afghanistan, but for the moment the plucky presenter and good doctor will soldier on.

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