Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghanistan: Women’s Stories Left Untold

Social barriers still prevent female reporters from working in the media.
By Mukhtar Amiri

Not a single woman is employed at any of the radio stations currently broadcasting in the southern province of Zabul, an IWPR investigation has found.

Radio broadcasts reach an enormous number of people across the country, and the medium is a key part of the diverse media scene that has flourished in Afghanistan since the ousting of the Taleban in 2001.

More than 170 FM radio stations operate nationwide, and in Zabul three independent radio stations and a state-run broadcaster share the airwaves.

However, Nisar Ahmad Sapand, head of Zabul’s Shaikh Mati radio, told IWPR that the lack of female staff meant that many topics went unreported.

“We’ve talked to women about this and although they’re interested in working within the media industry, they tend to cite poor security and conservative cultural norms as a barrier to following this career path,” he said.

“The women’s families, for instance, may not allow them to work with us and because of this we’ve found we’ve had to cancel various programmes where we’ve needed female journalists to help us report on issues relating to women. It’s a major problem.”

Part of the issue is the failure of more conservative elements within Afghan society to embrace change, with many families frowning on the idea of women working outside the home at all.

Azizullah Bismil, acting director of Zabul’s department of information and culture, agreed that social barriers had largely prevented women from working in this field.

He said that officials had promoted workshops to increase public awareness of possible careers in the media. But he added that so far only men had attended the seminars.

“I agree there are cultural obstacles at play here but I urge the people of Zabul to allow women to work as journalists,” he said. “Women must be allowed to take a stand; to fight for their rights and report back to the government and the international community on the difficulties they face.”

Activists emphasised that female journalists could make a real impact on the lives of other women.  

Shabana Khushal, the head of Zabul NGO Khushal Khairia Bansat, said that female journalists were the ones best placed to cover gender issues.

She said, “When I invite male reporters to meetings to discuss the programmes our foundation’s involved in, I very often get hesitant responses.

“The difficulty is that our female participants may not feel they’re able to talk to male reporters and vice versa.

“Government departments in Zabul that work on behalf of women must take steps to encourage local media here to hire more female staff.”

Another activist, Mohammad Hotak, also told IWPR that female voices were needed to bring true social change.

“If more women worked in the media or in civil society then public awareness of the issues they face would be hugely increased,” he said. “Violence against women, for example, would come down.”

While women interested in pursuing a job in journalism agree that the career can bring wider social benefits, some say they are not prepared to pay what can be a high personal price.

“There are some issues that women can only really share with female reporters,” said Shabnam Fazli, a 25-year-old resident of the provincial capital Qalat. “Problems such as domestic violence and sexual harassment aren’t going to be discussed in front of a male journalist.”

Nonetheless, she said, she did not feel she could take her interest any further.

“I’ve attended some of the training courses on journalism, but due to the instability of Zabul province, as well as the cultural restrictions, I can’t work in the media,” Shabnam concluded.

Sediqa Jalali, director of Zabul’s department of women’s affairs, said that the state had an important role to play in changing this reality.

She said that while many young women in the province were clearly interested in journalism, there was a clear lack of training resources available to them.

“Female journalists are as important to our society as female doctors,” Jalali said. “And if Zabul media outlets are struggling for whatever reason to recruit women, then national outlets from Kabul such as Radio Television of Afghanistan (RTA) should make it their responsibility to send their female journalists out to our province at least once a month to report on women’s issues here.”

Fawzia Younusi Kakar, the secretary of Zabul’s provincial council, said that she believed this was a problem that could be solved.

“The Afghan government and the ministry of information and culture need to pay special attention to Zabul so that they can identify and eliminate the barriers preventing women from working in journalism,” she continued.

“This issue isn’t unprecedented. The problem existed elsewhere in other provinces but local authorities were able to step in and solve it. Relevant departments must work together.”

This report was produced under IWPR’s Supporting Investigative Reporting in Local Media and Strengthening Civil Society across Afghanistan initiative, funded by the British Embassy Kabul.