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

Women's Voices Missing From Media

The shortage of female journalists is preventing Afghan women from telling their stories.
By Salima Ghafari
Afghan women are a mystery to much of the world, their tales of tragedy, oppression, and occasional joy largely hidden from view. In large part this is because they lack anyone who can speak for them in the media.

“If we want to know what is going on with Afghan women, we need to have more female journalists,” said Malalai Shinwari, a former BBC reporter turned lawmaker. “A woman living at home is not allowed to talk to a male stranger. She cannot tell him her problems.”

The dearth of female reporters is most keenly felt outside the capital, particularly in the conservative, Pashtun-dominated south. But it is in these areas that women reporters are most urgently needed, according to Afghanistan’s small but growing contingent of female journalists.

Until she decided to run for parliament last summer, Shinwari travelled all over the country collecting the stories of Afghan women.

“In remote provinces, I would meet with women, and they would tell me things they had never even told their mothers or sisters,” she said. “Even though I’m now in parliament, I think journalism was my best job.”

But female journalists encounter obstacles that their male counterparts do not face.

“I always had to have a male family member with me when I travelled,” said Shinwari. “This was an Islamic principle that had to be observed, and it was a problem,” she said.

Some women journalists have been reluctant to return to their profession after the repression they suffered under Taleban rule. But others like Shokria Kohistani are keen to make up for lost time.

Kohistani, who writes for the state-run Kabul Times, was unable to work as a professional journalist when the Taleban were in power. But along with a few others, she did try.

“In the first days of the Taleban regime we came to our office a few times, wearing burqas. But things had changed. When we’d prepared an article and had to talk to the editor, who was Taleban, the national security people called us names and threw books at us. So we left and never went back,” she said.

Once the Taleban were ousted, Kohistani, who graduated from the journalism department of Kabul University, returned to the Kabul Times, where she now reports on a wide range of social and political issues.

But she still encounters problems, as Afghanistan’s conservative society remains resistant to women in professional roles.

“Afghans don’t know a lot about journalism,” she said. “Sometimes we go out to report, and ask people questions. They say, ‘Are you a prosecutor, that you should interrogate me?’"

Like Shinwari, Kohistani sees a need for more women to join the profession.

“When you go to a press conference, it’s almost always all men,” she said. “There are just not enough women journalists.”

Shafiqa Habibi is the founder and director of the Woman Journalists’ Centre as well as the head of the New Afghanistan Women Association. The centre, inaugurated in March 2005, is the female branch of the Afghan National Journalists’ Union.

“We wanted there to be a special centre for women journalists so that they can work independently,” she said. “Women need to strive to change society’s attitudes to about women and their rights.”

Only female reporters can go inside families and see how other women live, she added.

Habibi believes women have some limitations as reporters, “If there is a terrorist incident or an explosion, women cannot go there. They are afraid.”

But such views come as a surprise to women reporters like Asma Habib of the BBC, who reported from the scene of the March 12 assassination attempt on Sibghatullah Mojaddidi, speaker of the upper house of parliament.

“I am not afraid,” she said. “It is not the first time I have covered such events. Male and female journalists have the same abilities – the most important thing is to get the news quickly and accurately.”

Lailuma Noori is a reporter and political analyst at the Kabul Times who trained in international journalism in Moscow. Unlike the majority of women, she was able to keep working throughout the Taleban period, writing for Saba, a woman’s magazine, although this posed particular challenges.

“My boss was Taleban, and he asked me to write about a new decree on the hijab [headcovering for women]. I was a bit confused about how to do it – the decree was very, very bad - nonsensical. But I finally got a quote from Shafiqa Habibi, and they accepted that,” she laughed.

Now her working life is much freer, but Lailuma still chafes under the restrictions imposed by her editorial board.

“The Kabul Times is a state newspaper. It is the voice of the nation, so we are not free to report the facts as they are,” she said.

Salima Ghafari is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul. Wahidullah Amani also contributed to this report.