Last year, authorities in the east of Afghanistan decided to shut down a cemetery. The problem was that this particular cemetery was not just a final resting place; it had taken on a second function as a marketplace where women in the city could meet and trade. With the closure, the financial lifeline the women had created for themselves, was cut. There were some protests, the story was covered in a local newspaper, and that was it.
Afghan media has experienced a significant growth spurt over the past years. In 2000, the country was home to 15 news outlets; in 2014 the figure was just shy of 1,000. Hidden within these numbers is another slowly expanding subcategory. Of around 12,000 working journalists in Afghanistan today, some 2,000–2,500 are women, up from an estimated 1,000 in 2006. The truly vital role these women play in Afghan society is too often overlooked.
In a country where traditional cultural norms still hold significant sway, strict limitations on contact between the sexes continue to be enforced in many areas. As a result, there are spaces only female journalists have access to, grievances only female journalists can be told and important realities of women’s lives that only female journalists can report on. Where women media workers are few and far between, such stories — like in the case of the cemetery closure — go underreported, or are buried entirely.
“Covering and focusing on women’s issues is always my favourite, and when I produce programs and make reports on these issues, I really like it and think I’ve done something important,” Radio Sahar Station Manager Humaira Habib told Index. Radio Sahar is part of Parwana (butterfly), a network of radio stations dotted around Afghanistan, which focuses on stories that impact women and their rights and needs. And from the managerial to the executive level, they are all-female operations.
Habib says she made the decision to go into journalism in 2002, and was influenced by the plight of women under the Taliban. “I thought journalism was a good tool to reach to all the aims and goals, and to solve the problems and challenges of women. I think media plays a very important role in informing citizens,” she explained. “This was the reason I decided to study journalism.”
But while the long view seems to suggest the number of Habib’s female compatriots will continue to grow, serious challenges and setbacks remain the reality in the shorter term.
Part of the problem is that the same traditional norms that make female journalist’s contribution especially valuable, still present a significant barrier to many women joining the media industry. As reporter Zarghona Salihi told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, journalism is widely viewed as “immoral work” that carries with it social stigma for women.
“Parents don’t permit their daughters to become journalists [in particular] because female journalists soon turn popular and that puts them in lots of troubles,” news radio host Haseena Ahmadi told Voice of America.
Another, more direct and overt challenge is the seemingly worsening security situation for media workers in general, and the particular threats faced by women. Since 2001, 49 journalists have been killed, and attacks went up 64 per cent from 2013 to 2014, according to a recent report from Human Rights Watch. What’s more, they face a multi-pronged assault — from the government and local authorities, as well as from war lords and the Taliban. Meanwhile, impunity for such crimes persists.
Women must deal with all this, and then some. “Female journalists face particularly formidable challenges. Social and cultural restrictions limit their mobility in urban as well as rural areas, and increase their vulnerability to threats and attacks, including sexual violence,” the Human Rights Watch report states. Since 2010, three female journalists have been killed, including 26-year old Palwasha Tokhi, stabbed to death outside her house in September last year. The Afghan Journalists Safety Committee says that “dozens have been intimidated to stop working”. In 2013, Shaffiqa Habibi, director of the Afghan Women Journalist Union, estimated that 300 professional female journalists had stopped working due to safety concerns.
“The big challenge that journalists face here is the security problem. That really hurts us,” agrees Habib. In 2004 she was threatened by authorities and told she could never again work as a journalist in the western province of Herat. But she fought back, and today continues to hold a senior role at a radio station in that province. As one young journalist told International Media Support: “I have been threatened by the Taliban, corrupt authorities, warlords and even the government. But none of these threats will ever stop me from what I do.”
The struggle, however, doesn’t end by challenging traditions and braving a volatile security situation. Female journalists in Afghanistan are also facing a problem familiar to women all over the world: they’re simply not getting the chances their male counterparts are. On this point, international media has failed Afghanistan’s women reporters. While Amie Ferris-Rotman was working as Reuters’ Afghanistan correspondent, she realised that none of the foreign news outlets hired Afghan female correspondents, in any capacity.
“I found this hypocritical,” she told Index. “We put out a plethora of stories on women’s rights and the awful hurdles Afghan women face, yet we did not take the extra step to hear their stories in a professional context.”
Pointing to the continued prevalence of separation between the genders, she argues that by not giving a platform to female Afghan journalists, we are missing the full story. The journalists, meanwhile, are denied good networks and professional opportunities to further their careers. To help rectify this situation, Ferris-Rotman has set up the Sahar Speaks programme, to offer training and mentoring by peers from around the world to Afghan female journalists, with the aim of helping them produce stories to be published by international outlets. As she has written about the project: “Imagine how rich and nuanced the other side of the Afghan story can be, if told by its own women, not by Afghan men or foreign reporters.”
Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, the director of media freedom advocacy group Nai, which is behind the Parwana network, believes it to be very important that Afghanistan’s female reporter pool continues to grow. Certain topics, he explains, are still considered by some to be taboo for men to cover. He mentions literacy rates among women, violations against women and how women are treated both in rural and urban areas as examples of stories that “raised the need of having women journalists to report”.
Habib stresses the importance of increasing the number of female reporters outside the bigger cities, where many women’s issues that male journalists have limited access to, go uncovered. This is a “serious problem” she says, adding that “we need to train girls from those places to at least learn basic journalism to cooperate with local and national media”.
Despite the challenges, Khalvatgar, who has been nominated for an Index award for his media freedom campaigning in Afghanistan, is confident that there is enthusiasm among women to work in the sector. He points to his experience of visiting journalism schools and seeing a higher number of female than male students, as one indicator. “There are a lot of hopes and wishes among women to become journalists,” he says.
Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani vowed during his 2014 election campaign to uphold freedom of expression and protect journalists against abuse. Whether he will stick to his promise down the line, so the enthusiasm Khalvatgar speaks about can truly be harnessed, remains to be seen. What is clear, is that without more women feeling encouraged and safe enough to join Habib and her colleagues in their work, important stories will continue to go untold.