One day when Mozhdah Jamalzadah was in school, her teacher did something that, even at Jamalzadah’s young age, she knew was unacceptable.
“One of my teachers was being racist towards this Chinese immigrant girl who just came here and didn’t know what a dogsled was, and I just yelled at him,” she recalls. “I got in trouble for that. But at the end when I explained to the principal why I had been sent to the principal’s office, he was more understanding and took my side. If I see somebody in a bad situation, I want to do something about it.”
Jamalzadah has made headlines for consistently doing something about it. Born in Afghanistan, she moved to Canada with her family when she was eight years old—but her birthplace has never been far from her mind. “Growing up here [in Vancouver], I was constantly reminded by my parents about where I came from and that I could have been one of those girls in that situation—girls back home and in a lot of these Islamic countries are sold, given away into different circumstances. They’re seen more as property,” she says over a latte at Nordstrom Pacific Centre’s Ebar. “It really hurt me to see that a human could treat another human being as less of a person, in any situation.” According to justice organization Girls Not Brides, 35 per cent of Afghan girls are married before they turn 18; nine per cent are married before age 15. And according to a 2018 United Nations report, “Violence against women – murder, beating, mutilation, child marriage; giving away girls for dispute resolution (baad) and other harmful practices – remain widespread throughout Afghanistan, notwithstanding the Government’s concrete efforts to criminalise these practices and establish measures for accountability.”
Impassioned by the injustices that women were experiencing back home, Jamalzadah decided to use her voice—literally. Even though she never had aspirations to be a singer, she started recording Dari-language music addressed to her fellow Afghans. For her, singing was a way to get her message out: a message of inspiration, of hope for change in a country that largely ignores its women. And it worked.
Because she was singing to Afghan people (and in their language as opposed to English), Jamalzadah’s music quickly became a sensation among the Afghan diaspora around the world, and then in Afghanistan itself. In fact, she grew into such a household name that she was asked to move back to host Afghanistan’s Got Talent—but when she and her mother met with executives of the local network that had the licensing, they pitched their own idea instead. “My mom hands over this old DVD package of Oprah,” Zamalzadah recalls (foreshadowing: she would go on to meet Winfrey herself and appear on her show). Some of the team hadn’t heard of the American personality and entrepreneur, so they were told to watch a few episodes before the follow-up meeting. “The next day they were like, ‘Wow, she’s like Superwoman,’” says Zamalzadah. “And my mom was like, ‘Well, can we make Mozhdah the Afghan Superwoman, then?’”
And just like that, The Mozhdah Show was born. The first day of taping, her producers told her that she’d be lucky if 30 people showed up to watch in the audience—but there ended up being a whopping 250. “They didn’t even know what to do with the seating, they were panicking,” she says. “By the third show there was a lineup down the block.” The talk-show-meets-variety-show featured live musical performances (by Jamalzadah herself as well as special guests), interspersed with discussions on important topics relating to Afghan society. And amazingly, Afghan society started responding.
“When we were talking about child abuse and child brides, a woman stood up and said, ‘Look at me, I’m 50 years old but I look like I’m 80. I’m an example of what happens to a child bride; I was 12 when I was given away,’” Jamalzadah remembers. “The whole entire crew were shocked because they never expected an audience member to stand up and use herself as an example or speak out.” The popularity of The Mozhdah Show and of her most well-known song, “Afghan Girl,” led her to gain some very famous fans—including Barack and Michelle Obama. In 2010, for International Women’s Day, she flew to Washington to perform for the then-president and first lady at the White House. “It was,” she gushes, “the most amazing experience of my life.”
Despite this incredible level of success, not everyone loved Jamalzadah or her show. After all, it was quite radical for a Muslim country: she was a woman, on television, wearing whatever she wanted and talking about taboo issues like divorce and domestic violence. For all the fans who embraced her modern views, she had those—some of them even in her own extended family—who felt that a woman had no right to live such a life. She began receiving death threats, so in 2012 she made the difficult decision to leave the country. “I was forced out of there because of the show,” she says. “It became very controversial, and my life was in danger.”