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Afghan Women Break Taboos to Report Their Stories

In Afghanistan, media coverage of women’s issues is often left to foreigners and men. But a new journalism program is giving Afghan women the skills and connections to tell their own stories to the world.

Written by Wadia Samadi Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Afghan female journalists receive training during the inaugural round of Sahar Speaks in March 2016. The initiative provides Afghan women with the skills, mentoring and publishing opportunities they need to reach a global audience. Joel van Houdt

While working in Kabul as a senior correspondent for Reuters, Amie Ferris-Rotman noticed a problem with the way she and her colleagues were doing their jobs. “I became increasingly irritated by the fact that we – the international press ­– hired Afghan male reporters and put out plenty of stories on Afghan women’s rights, but none of us took the extra step to actually hire an Afghan woman,” she recalls. “I tried to do this but was met with fierce opposition by local male staff.”

In Afghanistan, like in many other developing countries, women have little access to specialized networks and platforms to help them gain professional skills. Media coverage of events in the country is usually conducted by foreign correspondents who often neither speak the language nor fully understand the culture. As Rotman saw, the few local correspondents offering an insider’s perspective tend to be male.

The result is the world gets an incomplete view of what it’s like to live in Afghanistan. And Afghan women are denied the chance to utilize their natural storytelling skills to report on their surroundings.

To fix that imbalance, Rotman developed Sahar Speaks, a program that uses journalism as a tool to educate, employ and empower Afghan women to make their voices heard. Successful applicants work with mentors, who are all female foreign correspondents, to produce quality reporting that is then published by the Huffington Post. Since training started in February, a dozen young Afghan women have already found jobs in global newsrooms.

“I believe the main obstacle for these women is widespread sexism in a deeply patriarchal society,” says Rotman. “Afghan women need intentional investment, encouragement and support. There are things that we take for granted as Western women, such as walking down the street unharassed, going around town at night or in a car alone, or going to work once married, that are enormous hurdles for Afghan women. But these impediments do not mean they’re not worth hiring, as they have plenty to offer.”

The growth of Afghanistan’s media is one of the most significant developments since the fall of the Taliban. The country’s robust media sector employs 12,000 working journalists, of whom between 2,000 and 2,500 are women. But Afghan journalists have paid a high price for that progress. According to the advocacy nongovernmental organization Nai-Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan, 661 incidents of violence against Afghan journalists – including threats, murders, arrests, assaults and kidnappings – have been recorded since 2001. On top of these challenges, Afghan female journalists are also victims of gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

A woman working for any type of media outlet is considered a social taboo. Women looking to enter journalism are subjected to scorn and skepticism, with friends and family asking questions like, “Are you aware that women in media are not respected by society?” and “Do you realize the risks as the Taliban continues to target journalists on a daily basis?” Faced only with discouragement, many Afghan women quickly give up on their journalistic aspirations.

“Sahar Speaks is the opportunity I was waiting for,” says Zahra Nader, who was employed by the New York Times after finishing the program. “I want to be known as one of the well-known journalists from Afghanistan and I want my work to bring a positive change to my society.”

More and more young Afghan women are picking up their notebooks and cameras to show the rest of the world what life is like in their country. “I think we are realizing that our stories and our voices can make a difference,” says Noorjahan Akbar, founding editor of Free Women Writers, a blog on gender equality and social gender issues. “We have seen how good reporting can lead to change and some justice, even in Afghanistan where the rule of law is weak. Today, more Afghan women have higher education than at any other time in the history of our country and we are using our literacy, our knowledge and our resources to raise our voices.”

Akbar started her blog to give “a more nuanced perspective” on Afghanistan and the gender issues the country faces. Afghan women, she says, are growing frustrated with being talked about but rarely listened to – at home and abroad. “We want to change that by sharing our stories, dreams and fears in a safe platform,” she says.

Pushing against patriarchal repression, social stigma and personal risk, young Afghan female journalists are refusing to stay silent, believing that if they can get their stories out to the world, they can make a difference back home.

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