Amie Ferris-Rotman on female journalists in Afghanistan: The biggest issue is sexism in a country where men enjoy far more freedoms and opportunities than women.
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Translation: Matea Matić
Accomplishments in the field of media and freedom of expression in Afghanistan are usually looked upon as the biggest success in the post-Taliban period. However, very little attention is given to research of the work environment of female journalists and to improving their situation, AJSC warns.

According to the study conducted by Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC) on the work conditions of female journalists in Afghanistan (The Reporting Heroes – A Study on the Condition of Afghan Female Journalists) two key issues female journalists face, among other social issues, are gender discrimination and sexual harassment. These issues are a result of decades of wars in Afghanistan, but they’re a direct product of the tradition and customs of that society. In such a traditional and patriarchal society, being born a woman means for the most part a lack of opportunities and many barriers to success.

Photo: Study of AJSC from March 2016

Photo: Study of AJSC from March 2016

In the Thomas Reuters Foundation study, Afghanistan is stated as the most dangerous country for women. In addition, it is also among the countries considered to be most dangerous for journalists. Having taken all of this into consideration, female media workers are facing intense challenges and are mainly “fighting” on several fronts. One includes persuading their immediate family to let them work outside the house, since many families are opposed to this and the decision of working in the media isn’t solely theirs’ (the women’s). Women working outside of the house, especially in the media, is still a taboo in itself in many parts of the country. According to the study of AJSC in which 100 female journalists from different provinces of Afghanistan were interviewed, 53% of them said that their families had a problem with their work in the media and that they struggled for months to obtain their family’s consent for working.

The second big problem, stated in the study, is sexual harassment; it heppening in the workplace or during free time. 69% of the interviewees reported that they had been subjected to some form of sexual harassment within their workplaces. Gender discrimination is another big issue that female journalists in Afghanistan face; more than half of the interviewees said that their salaries are lower than those of their male colleagues. Apart from gender discrimination, female journalists are faced with difficulties and threats, which affect all media workers in Afghanistan, male and female.

Since there is a lack of women in Afghan media, especially in foreign media, their stories are being told by Afghan men and men and women of other nationalities. Journalist Amie Ferris-Rotman identified/recognised this to be a major oversight and

in order to change this, she initiated the project “Sahar Speaks in order to enable and encourage Afghan female journalists, give them an opportunity to publish their articles and finally, give a voice to women in Afghanistan. As it is stated on their webpage, the vision behind this programme can be seen in the name itself, “Sahar Speaks”. Sahar is the most common female name in Afghanistan; it means “dawn”. Therefore, in this context, it has two meanings; it represents all women of Afghanistan and, at the same time, it marks a new period in which female reporters will be able to tell their stories to the world.

British-American journalist, Amie Ferris-Rotman, with years of experience in reporting from different countries, among which is also Afghanistan, and founder of the project “Sahar Speaks”, explained for Fairpress the idea of the project and referred to the issue of the lack of women correspondents for foreign media and the main problems female journalists face.

The problem I was trying to solve behind the establishment of Sahar Speaks is the total absence of Afghan women at the foreign news outlets. There are several reasons for this: the first, and most important, is sexism in a country where men enjoy far more freedoms and opportunities than women. The second involves the set-up of the foreign media in Afghanistan. Most of the bureaus/offices were established during and after the November 2001 ousting of the Taliban. They were set up by foreigners, who employed the male fixers and translators they had used to cover the civil war. Many of these men became established in the news organisations, and often hired their relatives and men they knew. Women were never part of this. Thirdly, Afghan women need intentional investment, encouragement and support. Things that we take for granted are enormous hurdles for them, such as walking down the street unharassed, going around town at night, etc. But these impediments do not mean they’re not worth hiring, emphasised Amie Ferris-Rotman for Fairpress.

Ferris-Rotman singled out lack of security as one of the key issues:

In developing the project, I was worried the participants may be prevented by the men in their lives, or societal restrictions such as freedom of movement, etc. But actually, these were not problems on the ground. The biggest challenge, as it probably is for everyone in Afghanistan, especially journalists, was security. The Sahar Speaks participants are strong-willed and independent, and everyone is safe, but still, this worried me enormously. We kept a pretty low profile during the actual training in Kabul: we didn’t publicise the place of our training (still don’t) and we didn’t use any pictures of the participants until after the training. We also didn’t post anything on social media during the training (much to the annoyance of the participants, who were super eager to tell the world about Sahar Speaks!).

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