The stories of female Afghan writers and reporters are critical to the journalistic landscape of a country that sharply discriminates against women. Founded in 2015, Sahar Speaks brings these unique voices to light, providing mentoring, training and publishing opportunities for Afghan female journalists.
According to the organization, the name “Sahar” translated into English means “dawn,” meant to imply that a new period in time is commencing in which women can share their narratives and bring them to light. The program is transforming the journalism career path, allowing female correspondents to participate in international media and fostering their representation in the global field.
Women represent a marginalized group in Afghanistan and many cannot even openly speak with men. While the press corps is comprised of 9,000 journalists, only about 1,000 are female. After the 2001 expulsion of the Taliban, many news offices were established in Afghanistan by foreigners who primarily hired men and their close relatives. Until the origination of Sahar Speaks, no female reporters worked at foreign news outlets in Kabul.
British-American journalist Amie Ferris-Rotman founded the program to address this issue of gender inequity, giving women a platform through which they can freely communicate their perspectives. The project has helped to support insight into the lives of Afghan women whose experiences and accounts have been absent from the public eye.
While Afghan men or people from different countries are usually the ones telling the stories of Afghan women, the organization aims to return agency to Afghan female correspondents. Sahar Speaks has trained 22 Afghan female journalists and has prepared them for work on an international level. Through the program, budding reporters are paired with mentors and learn foundational journalism skills while addressing the challenges that they may face in the workplace.
Women face obstacles such as security threats and social barriers, including disapproval from family, yet Sahar Speaks aims to equip these women with the confidence to tell accurate stories. In 2016, 12 members of Sahar Speaks were selected to have their work published in The Huffington Post. Subjects ranged from the experience of having to dress like a boy in order to attend school to the practice of being married as a child. In 2017, journalists worked with The Huffington Post again to tell visual stories.
Alumnae of Sahar Speaks have gone on to pursue careers at the BBC, al Jazeera and The New York Times. In the fall of 2017, Ferris-Rotman collaborated with her mother, Lesley Ferris, to stage the stories that journalists had developed for The Huffington Post into a theatrical production.
Working with Ferris’ London-based drama company, Palindrome Productions, the performance debuted at Theatre 503 and brought to life three half-hour plays based on the experiences of the Afghan reporters. By presenting issues of gender and cultural restrictions through this medium, the production brought new attention to commonly overlooked conditions and sources of conflict, raising awareness on an international level.
Sahar Speaks is doing the essential job of giving Afghan women a voice in international media that has been absent for too long a time. By training reporters and equipping them with the skills they need to pursue a career in journalism, the organization is creating a changing culture where women can share accounts and seek out equity in society. While the perspectives of Afghan women have been obscured until recently, Sahar Speaks is shining a light on a new era where women will be empowered to express their stories and join a global discussion.
– Shira Laucharoen