Women and Journalism
Sunday, 29 June 2003
The first day of the women journalists’ conference went extremely well, with more than 80 journalists representing 14 provinces, including Kabul. The speakers included prominent male and female journalists, legal experts, veteran female political activists, three ministers and the American Ambassador. [photo essay]
The Ambassador’s arrival was a short, action-packed performance with half a dozen big body-guards, some of them in their late fifties, with big guns and walkie-talkies and a sniffing dog to check for any explosives. Once the place had been declared secure, the Ambassador arrived and walked up five flights of stairs, even though the guards had planned to use the lift – which is not very reliable. He delivered a well written speech, with lots of praise for Afghan and Islamic culture, including a quote from the Qor’an.
The other speeches on journalism, women’s rights and other issues also went well, except for a couple of men who seemed to have found a good pulpit to preach, praise themselves or share their sorrows with a sympathetic female audience. Almost all the women speakers were to the point, brief and clear.
Two were excellent. One of them, a veteran jurist and a Minister of State for Women, Dr Mahbuba Hoquqmal, reviewed Afghanistan’s legal history and its impact on women. The other, Dr Samia Ebadi-Roshangar, one of the first woman graduates from Kabul University’s Faculty of Journalism and the second woman in Afghanistan to obtain a PhD, went through a long list of prominent women in Afghan and Moslem history, rejecting the idea that women in Afghanistan have been miserable creatures in need of pity and charity.
The speakers on the session on freedom of expression and the global media included the local bureau chiefs of the BBC Persian and Pashto service and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Afghanistan service. Both are male, and both were quite good and their presentations were followed by very good questions from the audience. The longest debate was about impartiality and whether it was possible in conditions such as Afghanistan’s. The answer was that while it may not be possible to be impartial between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, it is possible to give a balanced account of both and let the audience judge for themselves.
Several delegates I spoke to said they had enjoyed the presentations and discussions at the first meeting of Afghan women journalists. For some, this was a rare opportunity to travel to the capital. The delegate from Qandahar, a radio presenter known only by her first name, Massouma, was the only woman journalist in that important province. She told me this was her first visit to Kabul in 12 years.
The delegate from Mazar-e-Sharif, Maria Sezawar, whom I met four months ago at another meeting about women and media, is the deputy editor of Bidar-e-Balkh [Awake in Balkh] newspaper, which her father founded 80 years ago. She has recently been in great difficulty over an article of hers which was misprinted and appeared to be criticizing Islam. A sentence of death passed on her by a group of local clergy has only been averted by local women officials pleading with the clergy for about a month, trying to prove that the journalist is actually a faithful Moslem. She’s still worried about what might happen to her.
The day ended with the screening of Mr Siddiq Barmak’s powerful, award-winning film, Osama. It’s about an orphaned girl, during the Taliban reign, who has her hair cut and boy’s clothes put on her by her grand-mother so she’d look like a boy and could go out to work to help her family. The scenes of her walking on the streets fearing that she could be found out were as scary as any film I have seen, because of the superb acting of the young girl who is in fact an orphan. I won’t tell you more about this film, because it’s well worth seeing.
The audience, most of them Afghan women and men, were captivated by the firm. For many it must have been the first movie they were seeing in years. Tomorrow we have another film – our own 8 March documentary – as well as a play and a musical performance. I wish you were here.
Monday, 30 June 2003
The conference ended happily. Today we had a session on violence and discrimination against women and one about women and the constitution. Plenty of fresh information was presented, mostly by women, followed by very interesting discussions. Q&As were among the most popular parts of the programme, according to the participants’ evaluation notes.
Some information was shocking, for instance the fact that in Qandahar, in southern Afghanistan, a woman giving birth to a girl would be given less food than one with a boy. A woman who has a quarrel with her husband can end up having her head shaved. These accounts came from the province’s only woman journalist who has one son, 17, and three daughters – Parissa, Roya and Hasna. She had brought along the 18-months old Hasna and had to go and feed her last night rather than watch the film about the conditions of Afghan women.
In the south-eastern province of Khost, said a young woman journalist, girls are given brooms rather than pencils. A young woman form Herat in the west voiced the complaints of many others: forced marriage of children. She said she had been ‘engaged’ to a man he did not like, eight years ago, when she was 12. Seven years later, she had decided that she had to break the forced tie and had spent the past year struggling through the courts, with no result. She said the new constitution should give a woman the right to marry the man she loves.
Maria Sezawar from Mazar-e-Sharif explained to me today what had happened to her article, printed in her political party’s newspaper. The party is led by the Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the deputy Defence Minister, who does not follow the central government very much and whose forces are fighting those led by another General who also has a post in the central government, which he does not obey very closely either. Inevitably, each side is waiting to get the other into a tight corner.
One such trap was provided when the woman journalist’s article was misprinted, in her own newspaper, and came up with a sentence that said ‘the rules of the enlightened Islam have done the greatest damage to […] women in Afghanistan.’ She had in fact written, as a correction in the next issue made clear, that ‘ignorance about women’s right in the rules of the enlightened Islam has done the most damage to […] women in Afghanistan.’
That did not stop a rival newspaper from running a brief front page item quoting the offending line, without referring to the correction, and describing it as a page from The Satanic Verses. The paper then said that Afghanistan’s Supreme Court was likely to sentence the writer to death. The court did not, but a group of senior clergymen were reported to have ruled that the writer had to be killed. As I said yesterday, the problem now seems to be over, but the writer is still very fearful about her safety. So would be anyone else in her position, I guess.
That’s enough sad stories, because we also had a very good discussion about Mr Barmak’s film, the screening of our 8 March film, two short plays – one in Dari (Persian) and one in Pashto – and two musical performances in the two languages. As a by-product of the conference, we also learned that the text published by a magazine three weeks ago and purported to be the draft of the new constitution of Afghanistan is nothing of the sort.
The information came from a senior official who was attending the conference to chair the discussion about women and the constitution. The official said one reason why the text was not genuine was that it says ‘Afghanistan will have an Islamic and democratic government.’ Everybody knows, said the official, that the people of Afghanistan hate the word ‘democratic’, which was part of the name of the country’s 1980s Soviet-Backed government.
Funnily enough, in the three weeks since the text was published no newspaper, radio or television programme has picked up the story, nor has the government dismissed it by writing to the press. This at a time when listening to some people and reading the papers, you would think the whole nation is gripped by the constitution and the constitutional process.
But what mattered most, as several journalists said, was that during the two-day conference, so many of them had gotten together for the very first time to share experiences and learn new things – exactly what the Afghan Women Journalists’ Forum had set as the objective of the event. It has been a very educational and enjoyable two days for me, and I think the ladies’ will do a very good job with the future ones.
At the end of the conference, I was talking to a lady who has been a presenter on Afghanistan radio and television for 25 years, and had been one of our best speakers. She said she wanted to thank me for having made it possible for women journalists to get together and for having given life to names that had died – such as hers.
Speaking to Mr Barmak, who came back to Afghanistan a year ago after many years in exile, we were comparing notes on our experiences here. One thought that came up was that working in Afghanistan is more rewarding than, say, in the West, because by doing even something very small you could make people happy. A thought that followed was that by doing even something very small, you get a huge amount of thanks, and you also become happy. I think the comment by the lady who was so kind to me proves the point.
[During its one-year operation, the Afghan Women Journalists’ Forum held a total of four conferences, the biggest of which was attended by around 300 women working for the media across Afghanistan. Proceedings of the conferences were published and two are available online: 1st conference report; 2nd conference report).
The high point of the 4th conference (3-4 March 2004), was the election of a five-member board of management to establish the Forum as a registered organisation with a constitution and expand its activities to the provinces. Of the Forum’s four founding members – Ms Suraya Parlika, Ms Jamila Mujahid and Ms Shukria Barakzi and Ms Najiba Maram – only Ms Maram ran as a candidate and was elected.
The other winners were: Ms Mary Nabard-Ain, editor of Seerat weekly; Ms Nahid Bashardost, writer, poet and former editor of the monthly, Malalai; Ms Jamila Omar, journalism lecturer at Kabul University and a senior reporter with Kabul Weekly; and Ms Maryam Haidari, from the Voice of Afghan Women Radio.
Soon after the elected members had drawn up the Forum’s constitution, the project I had managed was terminated because of funding problems. The Afghan Women Journalists’ Forum did not survive either – one of the many examples of discontinued efforts by the international community to improve the conditions in Afghanistan.
Although we managed to add UNIFEM’s name to the conference banners of the 1st conference at the last moment, as noted previously in these diaries, another error on the main banner, ‘The 1th conference’, instead of ‘The 1st Conference’, went undetected. The same thing happened six months later at the 3rd conference which was announced as the ‘3th’. Looking at the banners several years on, I am reminded of a more amusing sign in Tehran, many more years ago, marking a main street in the center of the city, now known as Keshavarz Boulevard, as ‘Boulevard of Queen Elizabeth the 2th’.]
Tuesday, 1 July 2003
The past few days have seen, once again in John Major’s words, ‘a not inconsiderable’ amount of violence in parts of Afghanistan. In Jalalabad, capital of the eastern province of Nangarhar, part of the south-and-eastern Pashtun areas, several rockets landed near the UNICEF office. Reports say some windows were shattered, but no one was hurt. This was the second attack on the UNICEF office in the city.
Down south, in Qandahar, there was a bomb explosion in a mosque – the first such attack anyone can remember – in which twenty-five people were wounded, five of them seriously. The attack seems to have been aimed at the prayer leader at the mosque who had spoken against a recent statement by the Taliban that had said Afghanistan was dar-ol-harb, or a battle-field for Moslems who should wage jihad.
The day after the explosion, the city and the hospitalized victims were visited by ‘jackstraw’, as some newspapers here have been calling the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. News reports said this was the first such visit to Qandahar – another novelty for the people there, after the bomb blast in the mosque. I hope the wounded have found the ‘jackstraw’ visit a healing experience.
In the morning we went to Aina Center to congratulate the women journalists on their successful conference, the film crew on the completion of their 8 March documentary, and the Aina regional ream for having made it possible for women journalists form 13 provinces to attend the conference. We gave them flowers – from Afghanistan and Pakistan – and chocolates from Iran.
I spent most of the rest of the day reading the recent newspapers I had not had a proper chance to see. One story still running is that of the Aftab journalists who are coming under attack from newspapers belonging to opposition groups. One paper that has been critical of the government said the row over Aftab had revealed a ‘snake that had been hiding in the midst of Afghanistan’s press’.
Mojahed, the newspaper of Jam’iyat-e Eslami, whose leader and former president Mr Rabbani had been severely attacked in Aftab, ran several pieces, all of them measured and polite, questioning the premises of the Aftab articles and their writers’ idea of freedom. Referring to the argument that Aftab writers should be free to express their opinions, the paper said there is no such unlimited freedom anywhere in the world. In the US, said Mojahed, you could be jailed for setting the US flag on fire, and in some European countries you could go to jail for writing anything against the Jewish people. So why, asked the paper, should a journalist in Afghanistan be free to attack the religion revered by almost the entire population?
The Deputy Minister of Information and Culture, Abdul Hameed Mobarez, last week likened the writing of the offending articles to an airplane hijacking that could be best resolved through negotiations. I can only assume that the imagery is meant to portray the newspaper as the airplane and the writers as the hijackers – rather strange, considering that it was their own paper, not someone else’s. Nonetheless, some might argue that the successful end of some hijackings has come about through storming the plane and killing the hijackers. The saga continues.
Wednesday, 2 July 2003
A visit to Kabul University, especially its Department of Journalism, had been one of my objectives since I got here, but I decided to delay it until such time as I had a better understanding of the media in Afghanistan. Today I made the visit, spent about two hours in the Department and left with a tentative agreement to organise a five day course for working journalists, most of them women, and most of them from the provinces.
The department is 40 years old, I learned to my surprise and delight. Like everything and everybody in Afghanistan it has survived the past quarter century’s political turmoil, increasing poverty and continuous warfare by running down its resources, keeping a low profile and accommodating the various pressures exerted on it.
The Dean, Dr Kazem Ahang, is a clever man who looks probably ten years older than his real age. He is very skilful in saying what he thinks is expected of him, but he did speak passionately about journalism in Afghanistan and his own department’s achievements, including the fact that it has eight women among its teaching staff. When I told him of my own mixed feelings of deep sorrow over what has happened to Afghanistan, and respect and pride for their ability to have preserved so much, tears dropped from his eyes.
Two of the women staff members also write for the best newspaper in Kabul, the Dari [Persian]-English language, Kabul Weekly. They are both very good reporters, and one of them asked some of the sharpest questions during our two-day conference. In a brief discussion, we came up with the blue-print for a course that I am designing right now and will finalise soon. It was great to see a group of journalists, even in war ravaged Afghanistan, getting to the basic point and coming up with a plan which in a bureaucracy would take weeks.
To get to the campus, we had to travel through one of the most mysterious neighbourhoods in the world – West Kabul, about which I have written already. My fourth view of the early 1990s total destruction, on both sides of the main street, by different ethnic militias lined up against each other, was as saddening and frightening as the first one. I also heard horrifying stories of what people had done to each other in the explosion of decades of frustration and hatred caused by political, economic, ethnic and other conflicts.
Inside the university, life took on the appearance of any campus in the world. Students were studying or resting in the fairly well-maintained gardens, under the shade of tall trees. It took a couple of questions for us to find the Journalism Department – on the first floor of the building that houses the Department of Law. Getting close to the door of the building, what was notable was the absence of any girls among the students. There were girl students, but inside the building, walking along the corridors covered in the darkness caused by a power cut.
I learned that before the civil wars, girls had made up the majority of students in the faculty of journalism, but they are now the minority. However, the number of girls applying for university places has risen dramatically over the past year and a half. Given some peace and security, Afghanistan is highly likely to follow Iran’s example with more girls entering university than boys.
Thursday, 3 July 2003
Having heard or read about demonstrations in Kabul several times, today I saw one myself. About 50 people had gathered outside the Foreign Ministry, about three minutes’ walk from our office, with banners that said ‘Salman Rushdies must be executed’ and ‘The Culture Minister, [Seyed-Makhdoum] Raheen, and his Deputy, [Abdul Hameed] Mobarez, must be dismissed for having supported infidels’. They had also shouted ‘Death to America’ and ‘Death to Sima Samar’.
I am sure you have figured out that this was the continuation of the protest against the Aftab journalists, Mr Mahdavi and Mr Sistani, who are apparently out of jail, but must be under protection – perhaps at the Foreign Ministry. Who knows? The anti-American slogan is also self-explanatory.
But what about Sima Samar? Well, she was Afghanistan’s first women’s affairs minister, appointed almost exactly a year ago, but was removed shortly afterwards because she was reported to have said that Islamic laws had held back the women of Afghanistan. She denied having made such a comment, but her position was untenable and she was replaced by the current minister, Dr Habiba Sarabi.
Sima Samar, a doctor of medicine by training, then became head of Afghanistan’s very active and high-profile Independent Human Rights Commission. The reason why today’s demo was also asking for her death is that she helped launch the Aftab newspaper and, according to Mr Mahdavi, gave him a computer that he sold to pay for the paper’s expenses.
I don’t know who today’s demonstrators were, but they are unlikely to be the one and only such group. In his attacks, Mr Mahdavi named about six religious leaders. Each of these has considerable following and is unhappy with the government for a variety of reasons, including the recent campaign of criticizing those who led the anti-Soviet campaign because of the internecine fighting that killed thousands of people and destroyed so much of Kabul.
While the cabinet ministers, some of whom have come from abroad, have been careful not to say anything openly hostile to the Mojahedin leaders, the Aftab case has led to more transparent confrontation. Very much like Iran after the 1979 revolution, while the government of Afghanistan controls the national radio and television and a few newspapers, many papers belong to or are backed by opposition groups. In these newspapers, criticism of the Aftab journalists has continued.
The most important ‘domestic’ news is Agha Sarwar’s departure tomorrow on a two-week leave to visit his family in the Pakistani city of Quetta. Over the past decades, large numbers of Hazaras have immigrated to Quetta, first to escape ethnic persecution and then because of the war in Afghansitan. Agha Sarwar who has not seen his family for six months, will get on a taxi or mini-bus at 3am tomorrow at the start of a 14 hour journey to Qandahar. The trip used to take 5-6 hours before the road was thoroughly potholed because of war and lack of maintenance.
From Qandahar, Agha Sarwar will have to travel to the south-eastern border area of Spin Boldaq, the scene of heavy fighting between the American troops and the Taliban. At the border, he will have to get off the Afghan vehicle and walk a short distance to the other side and get on a Pakistani vehicle for a journey of a few hours to Quetta. On the Pakistani side, the distance is shorter and the road much better, but he will have to pay about one half of the fare for the much longer Kabul-Qandahar journey, because the service also includes the costs of entering Pakistan illegally. On his way back to Afghanistan, Agha Sarwar will cross the border, he says, with one of his very sweet smiles, as a returning refugee.
While Agha Sarwar’s away, a Hazara lady called Ozra will be cooking for us, very well, I think, judging by the soup she made today. She used to work for an Iranian UN official in Pakistan. When we were introduced yesterday, I told her that she was welcomed and that I hoped she would have a good time here. The reply, in fluent Iranian, was ‘merci’.
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