There are very few Pashtun women working as journalists in Pakistan, but Rabia Akram is one of them. As a reporter for RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal, she has worked since 2012 in the Islamabad bureau, where she is the only female correspondent. Akram spoke to RFE/RL about the obstacles facing women journalists in Pakistan and the challenges of reporting on women’s issues.
RFE/RL: Pashtun society is quite conservative, and not many Pashtun women appear in public, let alone go out to work. Why are you one of the few exceptions?
I'm the first girl in my family to go to university and get an MA, and on top of that, I won a fellowship for journalism training in Germany. It's a big deal for a Pashtun woman to be allowed to travel alone at all, and especially to a foreign country. I'm grateful to my family, and above all to my father and my brother, who supported me in this. In a traditional Pashtun family, higher education for girls is not considered important, though that trend is changing a bit now and more women go to university than was the case 8 or 10 years ago.
RFE/RL: How can you work effectively as a journalist under these conditions?
I practice journalism within my social and cultural norms while respecting traditions, but doing so one needs a lot of patience. For example, because of my work at Radio Mashaal, I had to move from my family home in Peshawar to Islamabad where the bureau is, and to observe custom and tradition, my mother had to relocate with me. My family could not possibly have let me go on my own. Journalism is about patience, and if I can do it, any Pakistani girl can do it.
RFE/RL: What are the biggest challenges for a woman reporter in Pakistan?
Well, in general it can be rather complicated to be a reporter in Pakistan, mainly because of security reasons, as the situation in some areas of the country can get rather volatile. There were quite a few female students in my class at Peshawar University, but only a handful of them are actually working in the field now. I’ve travelled in the tribal areas (FATA) many times. It was hard. I was always escorted by policemen or security people; I was never allowed to travel there on my own. Pashtun society is very traditional, and though in general men respect women highly, in rare cases they may refuse to talk to you because you are a female reporter. This is because men are shy to talk to women; it's not our tradition. It's not the norm for Pashtun women to take jobs.
RFE/RL: Could you describe your background and how it prepared you for this type of work?
I graduated from Peshawar University's Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication in February 2010. In the final year at university, I joined the Peshawar University Campus Radio, and soon afterwards I began contributing to Khyber Radio, which covers the Khyber Agency of the FATA. I reported mostly on women and social issues. I also worked with Internews and Intermedia on their projects in the tribal areas. My career so far has centered on that region, and mainly on the Khyber Agency.
In 2010 I also worked with the BBC on their special project "Lifeline Pakistan," covering the devastating floods that had hit Pakistan in late July that year. About 20 million people were directly affected--it was a huge humanitarian disaster. I led the Pashto team, and this particular project gave a boost to my career. I became known in the field of journalism.
RFE/RL: What is your most memorable report?
If I had to name the report which had the greatest impact, it would be the one about women in Khyber-Paktunia's Charsadda district who lost their husbands during bombing raids there. If the breadwinner of the family is killed, it's difficult for a woman to find a job, especially in such a remote area. In general it is very difficult to gather accurate information about Pashtun women. Because of cultural constrains, they are not very willing to talk about their problems to a reporter, especially on radio and TV. After Radio Mashaal aired my report about the women of Charsadda, many NGO's approached these women offering them help. I'm happy that my report had such an impact and resulted in concrete help.
--by Zydrone Krasauskiene