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

Photo: Flickr

Afghan Journalists
In some of the world’s most vulnerable regions, journalists face prominent hurdles as they fight for their freedom of expression, an integral right preserved by the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Reporters Sans Frontières has been taking action in protecting the liberties of journalists, specifically female ones, and their freedom of speech so as to combat the threat of violence against journalists in Afghanistan.

In March 2017, the organization opened the “Center for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists,” while in November, it held a training and advocacy visit to support safety within the field. Facing intimidation from the Taliban, as well as social pressures, women reporters encounter many obstacles in their pursuit of the truth, making such efforts essential.

Reporters Sans Frontières

In 1985, Reporters Sans Frontières, or RSF, was founded by four journalists in Montpellier, France with the intention of defending freedom of information and investigating violations across the globe. RSF has written to authorities and challenged governments that have put these rights in jeopardy, as well as supported journalists who have been imprisoned or exiled.

The non-governmental organization aims to construct pluralistic political systems and champion the right to seek factual material without hindrance; interestingly, the group also promotes the presence of watchdogs that have the ability to question corrupt authority.

RSF and the Media

Among other activities, RSF provides press releases about media freedoms in a variety of languages, generates awareness campaigns, and offers assistance and legal aid to endangered journalists. A report from Radio Free Europe stated that 2017 was one of the most violent years for journalists in Afghanistan.

According to the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee, 20 journalists and media workers were killed, with 169 threats made to reporters.

Mistreatment of Female Journalists

RSF attributes much of Afghani conflict to civil war, with many intimidations and deaths coming from the Taliban. As a result of such in-fighting, the country has seen the rise of many “black holes” in information.

For female journalists, the situation is particularly perilous, as many have been confronted with the threat of attack or silencing. In many cases, and often as a result of such treatment, social pressures discourage women from becoming journalists, as their families may impress upon them the dangers of the profession.

Women experience harassment in the workplace as well as patriarchal standards, and the number of female journalists in Afghanistan has decreased since 2015.

Center for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists

In March 2017 on the eve of International Women’s Day, RSF opened the Center for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists — Afghanistan’s first center for the protection of female journalists’ rights. Based in Kabul and headed by Afghan journalist Farida Nekzad, the center provides a forum for women, combats discrimination, calls for equal rights and wages, advocates for better work conditions and prevents abuses.

The Center has offered support to reporters working in war zones, as well as organized seminars on physical and digital safety. The center will lobby the government to call for workplace safety and talk with families about their perceptions of female journalists.

Uniting Journalists

In recent months, Reporters Sans Frontières has been making stronger efforts to protect the rights of female journalists in Afghanistan. From November 22, 2017, the organization held a training and advocacy visit that focused on women journalists.

It organized seminars in Mazar-i- Sharif, Herat and Charikar, and even held a special seminar in Kabul for women reporters in conflict zones. At the meetings, journalists spoke about their experiences being threatened by armed non-state groups and the necessity of self-censorship.

Through the visit, RSF was able to unite journalists and create a discussion on the safety of reporters, with 65 journalists from 60 Afghan media outlets attending.

A Culture of Tolerance

Journalists in Afghanistan are met with a treacherous socio-political climate, facing the threat of violence and risking the loss of the right to expression. With its endeavors in the country, Reporters Sans Frontières has sought to protect the integrity of these reporters, support their safety and promote a culture of tolerance and freedom of information.

Efforts such as the foundation of the Center for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists and RSF’s seminars can enable greater independence of the media going forward.

– Shira Laucharoen

Photo: Flickr