Women's rights remain highly controversial in Afghanistan, as evidenced by the parliament's debate over and ultimate refusal last May to approve a law aimed at preventing violence against women.
While women journalists should enjoy new protections under a media law adopted last spring, their experiences reveal that conservative traditions remain deeply embedded in the country’s culture, and that those who are brave enough to challenge them will need more than legal reform.
In Afghanistan’s male-dominated society, women journalists are forced to confront cultural taboos on a daily basis, usually starting at home. Rigid inequality between men and women is widely assumed and reinforced. In many places, a woman’s presence outside the home is considered inappropriate. In this context, it comes as no surprise that most families refuse to allow female relatives to work in the media. The security situation in the country has added another set of restrictions on what women can and cannot do.
Even with war and insurgency inside the country, Zarghona Salihi, a senior reporter at Pazhwak News Agency, Afghanistan’s sole wire service provider, believes culture represents the primary barrier to women practicing journalism.
“If we were talking about 10 years ago, we could blame the country’s worsening security for the suffering of women in the media, but we’re not. Journalism has always been a troublesome task for women,” Salihi told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan, locally known as Radio Azadi
“As a woman I face restrictions in my professional life not just because we live in a post-civil war society, but also because we are forced to remain traditional and consider extreme religious views,” she said, explaining that Afghanistan’s mores dictate women are generally expected to stay home and avoid any encounter with men other than close family members.
Journalism is widely viewed as “immoral work,” Salihi added, and carries practical challenges as well as social stigma for women. Sexual harassment on the streets and at work places is common for women journalists, but often goes unreported and unaddressed.
“I can’t work on holidays because my family believes a good woman shouldn’t. Then, I can’t work past 5 p.m. because society considers it wrong. I can’t wear certain clothes. I can’t go to certain places. Crossing these lines is immoral,” she said.
The abysmal security situation in Afghanistan makes working risky for both male and female journalists.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ
), a New York-based international media watchdog, has closely monitored the security situation of journalists in Afghanistan, describing it as a country where media workers are regularly targeted for their profession. CPJ’s research indicates that 21 journalists were “murdered with a clear motive
” related to their reporting since the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001.
The Afghan Journalists’ Safety Committee
(AJSC), a Kabul-based monitoring organization, reported 41 incidents of shootings, text message threats, and physical and verbal abuse of journalists in Afghanistan in the first six months of 2013.
Ongoing militancy is responsible for widespread violence that subjects journalists to danger. It also raises the risk of reporting on political, security, religious, and cultural issues.
The AJSC has documented the murders of at least three women journalists in connection with their work in the past seven years and dozens of death threats, with many more threats likely going unreported.
In an interview with Radio Azadi in November, 2013 Sabir Fahim, a senior researcher and reporter at NAI, a media advocacy group in Afghanistan, explained the multitude of threats currently confronting women in Afghanistan.
“Journalists in Afghanistan not only face intimidation from a militant Taliban, but also government-backed warlords, drug-smugglers, and government officials,” he said.
The persistence of threats has prompted local advocacy groups to question the government’s willingness to investigate and punish perpetrators. CPJ’s research
finds that since 1992, 67 percent of targeted murders of journalists have been met with “complete impunity,” while only 33 percent of such cases have received “full justice.”
Several cases are illustrative of the absence of justice for such crimes.
Sanga Amaj, a Kabul-based TV presenter, was shot in her home in 2007. The Taliban did not take responsibility for her death, nor did authorities conduct a conclusive investigation or try suspects. Amaj’s family and friends created a website
where they published letters they received before Amaj’s death with warnings that she should stop working for “westerners.”
Similarly, Sahima Rezayee, a popular TV music show host, was shot dead in her home
in central Kabul in 2005. According to Fahim, there was little reporting of her murder or a complete investigation into her death.
Zakia Zaki, a journalist who ran the private broadcaster Peace Radio, was killed in Parwan province, north of Kabul in 2007. In an interview with Azadi correspondent Ahmad Hanaysh, her daughter said Zaki constantly received warnings related to her work from “local powerful men.”
In an interview with Radio Azadi in 2010, Nelufar, a former journalist with Afghanistan’s State TV in the country’s western Heart province, spoke with Radio Azadi’s Freshta Jalaizai about the threats that ultimately forced her to flee the country and take refuge in France.
“Constantly I received warnings from local warlords, but they didn’t bother me until I was attacked. I wouldn’t have been alive if locals hadn’t rushed my body to the local hospital,” Nelufar said. “I worked with a local media organization and studied journalism at the same time. But in only one year, I was attacked twice. [The warlords] don’t want Afghanistan and its people live in freedom and peace.”
Despite such challenges, the number of women in Afghanistan’s media sector has been increasing since the fall of the Taliban regime, and the concurrent rise of independent media in the country has afforded them new opportunities to work.
According to the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture, women comprise approximately 1,500 of the more than 10,000 journalists, reporters, and other personnel working for the media. Afghanistan currently boasts around 75 independent television channels, 200 radio stations, and hundreds of newspapers and magazines.
Several Afghan women journalists have received international awards in recognition of their courage. Najiba Ayubi
and Farida Nekzad
won the International Women’s Media Foundation “Courage in Journalism Award,” in 2013 and 2009 respectively.
Gulmeena Yosufzai, a young poet and writer who currently has a fellowship with Radio Azadi in Kabul, reflected on her choice to pursue journalism in an interview with RFE/RL.
“We have left behind a never ending period of oppression, extremism, and violence and arrived at the point where one says, enough is enough,” Said Yosufzai.