Against all odds, feisty women journalists continue to be undeterred by threats of persecution
Women journalists routinely face harassment and threats, including death threats while covering conflict zones everywhere, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet these feisty women continue to swim against the tide and create space for themselves in journalism.
Farida Nekzad, 40, is a role model for many girls keen on pursuing journalism in Afghanistan today. She has faced threats of kidnapping, acid attacks and even an attempt to blow up her apartment ever since she set up her own news agency eight years ago in Kabul. Despite the fact that the Taliban routinely bombards her with threatening e-mails and phone calls warning her of horrendous consequences if she continues her work, Nekzad remains undeterred.
In a country where women’s voices often go unheard, Waqt (which means time in the native Dari dialect), is one amongst the handful of women-dominated media outlets making its presence felt. Recalling the initial days of her difficult journey, Nekzad says, “It wasn’t easy. When the Taliban took over, my parents took refuge in Pakistan and I had to withdraw my name from Kabul University where I was studying journalism. I taught in private Pakistani schools, supervised basic education programmes for Afghan refugees and helped out with Afghan cultural groups in Peshawar. But I wanted to be a journalist. So I went to India and continued my education at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in New Delhi. Later, I began to write as a freelancer for both Afghan and Pakistani publications.”
When Nekzad returned to her country in late 2001, she was devastated with the destruction she saw everywhere. In 2004, her Kabul-based Pajhwok Afghan News first started publishing work in Dari, Pashto and English.
“We were always stirring the political class with the kind of stories we carried, especially those concerning Afghan warlords and provincial power brokers. Features that commented on new restrictions being imposed on women and the resurgence of violence against women too created quite a furor. I remember one controversial story we published about a warlord exchanging his dog for a young girl, which raised a big hue and cry. Our reporters including me were many times asked to ‘beg for an apology’ or be killed.” Nekzad describes working as a journalist in her country as “walking on a sword”.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, since late 2001, 19 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan — 18 while covering war. In Pakistan, 34 have lost their lives, seven while covering war. A report of the South Asia Media Monitor reveals that in 2012, 13 journalists lost their lives in Pakistan and two in Afghanistan.
After the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001, a large number of women journalists joined media outlets in the war-torn region even though it is still difficult for them to operate owing to deeply entrenched cultural and religious barriers.
“We journalists often faced intimidation from militants, government-backed warlords, drug-smugglers and government officials who interfere with our coverage and dictate terms and conditions of our work...Being a woman one becomes very vulnerable as no steps have been taken for the safety and security of women journalists,” says Hela Haya, a journalist with a local radio station in Kandahar.
The Pakistan Association of Television Journalists (ATJ) has only 50 women among its 700 members. Defying this statistic, women are now visible in the Pakistani media as anchors and talk show hosts on dozens of private radio and television channels, thanks to the burgeoning electronic media industry. There are approximately 3,200 journalists in Pakistan — 2,842 men and 362 women, making it a ratio of 5:1.
Similarly, Afghanistan’s Independent Journalists Association (AIJA) reports that there are around 25 to 30 per cent women journalists and media workers among the 10,000-odd media persons working there.
While the media is a growing industry in both countries, issues like sexual harassment and unequal pay packets are a matter of grave concern, even as the battle against severely limiting cultural norms and perceptions continues. Says Shamim Bano, a senior political reporter with The News, a English daily published from Karachi, “Most of the time Pakistani women journalists are not assigned any important beats like politics, economics, courts or even sports. We simply have to fight harder.”
Young Pakistani journalists, Sabba, from Friday Times Weekly and Shumaisa Rehman from News One, are mentally prepared to accept the challenges that come with their profession. They state in unison, “We know that the odds are against us, but we have to fight to initiate a change.”
(Women's Feature Service)