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Afghan Women Write New Narratives About Themselves, With Courage


Mahbooba Hazara, a participant of Sahar Speaks, which trains Afghan women to become professional journalists, working above Kabul. More female Afghans are learning to speak for themselves, casting off stereotypes. JOËL VAN HOUDT

Throughout the world, Afghan women are often portrayed as victims by the media and other institutions, needing foreign rescue or summoning deep pity for their oppression. Women’s literacy rate is less than half that of men’s in the country, and it remains one of the worst places in the world for a girl to obtain an education. These are all barriers that, in addition to the recurring violence in the country, make it difficult for Afghan women to speak for themselves.

Now, female Afghan journalists are challenging some of the stereotypes imposed on them, through several new media projects, slowly creating spaces for women’s voices.

This year, Zan TV became Afghanistan’s first television network for and by women. Meaning “women’s TV” in Farsi, it features female producers and presenters, with men working behind the scenes. Many of the women working for Zan TV are under 25 years old, involved in journalism for the first time.

“We are not seeing the achievements of women in the last 16 years, and we need to actually know about them,” said Hamid Samir, who started Zan TV, in an interview with PassBlue.

The network, which covers topics from women’s rights to children’s shows, was quickly celebrated by the international press for “transforming attitudes.” Numerous large media sites swooped into Kabul, the capital, and produced videos about the network before it had even broadcast much of its own. Newspapers in Europe and the United States praised Zan TV’s arrival, but not all Afghans agree that the network has been transformative.

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“In my opinion, [Zan TV] is for show, and it won’t really change anything in society,” said Farahnaz Forotan, a reporter for Afghanistan’s largest media channel, TOLO News, in an interview. “Shouldn’t women participate in decision-making? People see that women are physically present, but the boss is a man.” Forotan was referring to  Zan TV’s founder.

“For me, the problem is that we want to separate women from society,” Forotan continued. “We have to admit that women, in any normal circumstances, work alongside men.”

Forotan broke gender barriers herself by reporting from Afghanistan’s war-torn provinces. When the country’s former minister of defense, Bismillah Mohammadi, told Forotan she could not join his team on a trip to a conflict zone because the team had to stay the night and fighting could break out where they were — a situation that he considered dangerous and inappropriate for a woman — she insisted on going. Years later, Mohammadi still commends her courage, and many young Afghan women see Forotan as a role model.

Yet while women may not own Zan TV, they shape its content and, like Forotan, challenge the perception that Afghan women are total victims in a country that has a reputation for treating women and girls harshly. Recently, the network covered topics that included United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, which requires the equal participation of women in peace negotiations and related mandates.

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Zan TV has also reported on female entrepreneurs, the Invictus Games in Toronto and women’s perspectives on Ashura, one of the holiest days for Shiite Muslims, which was subdued this year after terrorist attacks on Shiite mosques.

Samir, Zan TV’s founder, said the program on Resolution 1325 was especially well received not only by viewers but also by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, who presented the network with an award this month for its coverage of women’s rights.

According to Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, the managing director of Nai, an Afghan nongovernmental organization that promotes independent media and free expression in the country, media initiatives that focus on women’s rights, like Zan TV, have been welcomed by Afghan women.

“They want the outlets to focus not only on violence, but on the success of women, on the braveness of women and on the dark points of their lives that no one is daring to touch base on,” he said in an email.

Zan TV is a new network for and by women, based in Kabul, but it is owned by a man. ZAN TV

Efforts to change stereotypes about Afghan women are not confined to work inside the country. In 2016, Amie Ferris-Rotman, a former Reuters correspondent from Britain based in Afghanistan, created Sahar Speaks, which trains female Afghan journalists in the country to report for international media outlets. She said she was troubled by the fact that not a single Afghan woman was working as a correspondent for English-language news outlets — before 2016 — anywhere in the world, leaving their stories to be told by Afghan men and foreigners.

So far, Ferris-Rotman said, participants of Sahar Speaks have landed jobs with organizations like The New York Times, the BBC, Al Jazeera and News Deeply. She developed Sahar Speaks through a John S. Knight journalism fellowship at Stanford University and now receives funding from supporters like the Sigrid Rausing Trust and the British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group. Besides learning how to pitch stories to foreign media, as well as learning ethics, story structure, photography, video and interview techniques, Sahar Speaks trains women to handle the sexism they may face in the workplace.

“A lot of women said they’ve been sexually propositioned and even touched while interviewing a man,” Ferris-Rotman, who is now based in Moscow with Foreign Policy, said in an interview with PassBlue.

“What we learned was that some of them actually felt this was just an unavoidable part of the job,” she added. “So we share techniques to avoid harassment and abuse that, for them, were completely new.”

The women participating in Sahar Speaks, for example, were taught to bring a friend or colleague to interviews and to make sure that others knew their whereabouts. They also role-played to practice responding to harassment, “having fun,” Ferris-Rotman said, in the process, “pretending to be really gross men.”

Participants have learned how female journalists in other countries cover women’s rights — something that Ferris-Rotman said was one of the most rewarding aspects of the program: participants realized they were not alone.

“They said, ‘We always thought Afghan women have it so bad, but [sexism] is everywhere!’ “

After weeks of training and months of mentorship with experienced female journalists from around the world, participants published their articles, videos and photography through a partnership with the Huffington Post. (They were not paid for their content, however, a matter on which the Huffington Post declined to comment, but they were paid for their participation in the training program.)

This year, Sahar Speaks participants published articles on such topics as Afghan women who defied male family members to start their own businesses, the resilience of Afghanistan’s rural women, a travel agency run by women in the country and the lives of the nation’s 3,000 female police officers.

Their articles, and those by other Afghan female journalists, confront not only Afghan women’s hardships but also their agency. Such work could have a political impact.

Wazhmah Osman, who grew up in Kabul and is a professor of media and Afghan politics at Temple University in Philadelphia, said, “Afghan women journalists [are] more qualified to speak about issues impacting Afghan women” — than outsiders reporting on these matters.

“Afghan women have lived through and are still living with war, religious fundamentalism and extreme misogyny,” Osman continued. “They know exactly how their lives devolved into the deplorable conditions of today and when, under which governments their situations deteriorated. As such, foreign organizations that are interested in improving women’s rights need to prioritize collaborating with Afghan women and their organizations.”

Moreover, international interest in Afghan women’s rights have been linked to calls for foreign intervention. As Rafia Zakaria, a columnist for Dawn, Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper, recently pointed out, organizations and governments have invoked Afghan women’s rights in their campaigns for military interference.

After 9/11, for example, Laura Bush, the United States first lady at the time, gave a speech in which she denounced Afghan women’s loss of the right to wear nailpolish, saying “the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”

Her speech became part of the Bush administration’s campaign to gain support for military intervention in Afghanistan; immediately after the speech, the US State Department released a report about the Taliban’s “War Against Women.” Fifteen years later, Laura Bush argued that American troops should stay in the country, because otherwise, “we would have to start all over again,” referring to the seeming progress of Afghan women’s rights.

In 2015, the US Embassy tweeted a photo of women marching for their rights without clarifying that the march occurred in the 1980s, during the Soviet regime, which was later overthrown by the American-backed mujahideen. Just a few years later, a faction of the mujahideen formed the Taliban.

Recently, Afghan women’s style of dress captured the interest of Donald Trump, who this summer announced that the US would increase the number of American troops to Afghanistan, apparently a decision he made partly after he saw a 1972 photograph of women wearing miniskirts in Kabul. Since then, Afghan civilians have continued to be killed in American airstrikes, the White House has granted the CIA more leeway in drone strikes and recently a US military raid in the country led to the death of 32 civilians, including six women and 20 children.

Jade Jackman, center, teaches Afghan women enrolled in the Sahar Speaks training program. Participants have written on such topics as the resilience of rural women. JOËL VAN HOUDT

Seeming to legitimize military intervention based partly on the aim of empowering Afghan women has been criticized, and Osman, the Temple University professor, argued, “The key for Afghan women to gain their rights back [is] Afghan women being able to speak for themselves and represent themselves.”

Afghan women are making strides in telling their own stories at the grass roots as well. Free Women Writers, for example, publishes stories about social justice, art, peace-building, politics and other topics. Started by an Afghan journalist and human-rights activist, Noorjahan Akbar, the site has more than 125 women from Afghanistan and the diaspora who contribute stories in English and in Dari.

Contributors, especially women from inside Afghanistan, sometimes write under a pseudonym to protect themselves against threats — an issue that all female Afghan journalists and writers face in the country. To combat gender-based violence (87 percent of Afghan women have experienced domestic violence at least once), Free Women Writers participates in a campaign to stop sexual harassment on the streets and created a gender-based violence guide that combines research with firsthand accounts and lessons from Afghan women.

The Persian edition of the guide is available free online and as a book, and proceeds from the English version are used to improve Afghan women’s access to education and awareness-raising literature. In addition to more than 50,000 online readers, Free Women Writers reaches women in Afghanistan who do not have access to the Internet through partnerships with local papers and a radio station.

Free Women Writers uses “pens to fight terrorism and patriarchy,” it says, and hopes to “challenge the one-dimensional portrayal of Afghanistan and Afghans at a global level by elevating authentic Afghan voices.”

Maryam Laly, who grew up in Kabul and became a refugee in Iran and in Pakistan before coming to the US for schooling, is a contributor from Washington, D.C.

“Afghan women are judges, lawyers, pilots, writers and activists,” she said. “They are ordinary women who are supporting their daughters to go to school.

“To know those real stories — the stories that happen everyday — those heroes that exist among us, that is something that I think is lacking in the Western media.”

This article was updated.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Elizabeth Walsh is a journalist covering international politics and women’s rights. She has a master’s degree in international affairs from Sciences Po and a bachelor’s degree in literature and gender studies from the University of Virginia. She speaks English and French.

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