Afghanistan - Women Reporters Under Threat in Herat

Female journalists stay at home or change profession because of attacks.

By Shapoor Saber in Herat (ARR No. 323, 24-June-09)

Khadija Ahadi used to be the most active journalism student in town. At press conferences in Herat, she would always be there with her video camera, usually the only woman in the room. Nobody was surprised that she landed a job as the deputy editor-in-chief of Radio Faryad after her studies. But now her successful career has suddenly been stopped – by force.

“Some men threatened me because I am a reporter, but initially I kept working and I didn’t tell my family because they would have stopped me,” said Ahadi, 32. “Then one day they threw two grenades in my house. I have not gone to work since.’’

Although Herat is the most developed and secure province of Afghanistan after Kabul, very traditional views on the role of women in society persist. Women are struggling to make an appearance in public life.

Ahadi is not the only woman journalist with problems. Those who graduate from the journalism department of Herat University also face violent resistance when they start working. The situation is so bad that an increasing number of women reporters stay at home or change profession.

They all know about Nilofar Habibi, the former newsreader on Herat’s state-run radio and television station. Last year, men cut her in the arm with a razor blade and threatened to kill her if she appeared on television again. Shortly thereafter, a woman came to the house of the 22-year-old journalist and stabbed her in the stomach.

Habibi survived, but only by fleeing the country. With the help of media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, she went to Qatar. Now she is studying in France, according to her former boss Hassamoddin Shams. Habibi’s family doesn’t want to talk about their daughter to the media for fear that it will again attract attention from her attackers.

It is considered shameful for a woman to be working outside the home, explained Associate Professor Mohammad Dawood Munir, who is a lecturer at the faculty of literature of Herat University, “Especially if the daughter of a family appears on television.”

Attacks such as the ones against Ahadi and Habibi are often ascribed to the Taleban, because of their severe restrictions on women during their repressive rule of the country in the late 1990s. But other groups, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami forces, or just conservative local vigilantes, have also been known to carry out acts of violence.

Munir and others also say a lack of security creates a difficult environment for female journalists to work in.

The window that opened up for women to become journalists after the fall of the Taleban regime is already closing again. Only 15 out of 54 female students who graduated in the last four terms at the department of journalism of Herat University are now actually working in the media, said Bashir Ahmad Bahrowan, who lectures at the journalism department. ”That is a worrisome score,” he said.

”Although there are 11 local radio stations, five television stations and more than 40 newspapers operating in Herat, the number of female practitioners is low,” said Niamattullah Sarwari, the director of Herat’s department of information and culture.

Emam Mohammad Warimach, an official at the Afghan Journalism Centre in Herat, told IWPR that he had not been able to employ even one female journalist.

Sharafuddin Stanekzai, from the Journalists’ Support Committee in Herat, is very concerned about the difficulties that women face; female journalists have a much rougher time than their male colleagues, he said.

However, added Stanekzai, the authorities don’t always take their cases seriously. He pointed to two incidents with female reporters in which provincial security officials accused the journalists of lying.

In the face of such challenges, most of the female journalism graduates prefer to become teachers. “Security conditions are not good enough in Herat for a woman to go and gather news outside her office,” said Basira Ghafoori, who became a teacher after graduating from Herat University’s department of journalism. Another graduate student, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she left journalism because the people in her area didn’t like her being a reporter.

For those who struggle to continue in their profession, the future doesn’t appear bright. ‘’When I go out of the office to report on social issues in Herat, men on the street insult me,” said reporter Shukriya Noorzayee. “This kind of behaviour makes it difficult for women to work in journalism.”

Ahadi still looks back on the happy times when she was presenting live programmes on Radio Faryad, times when she didn’t care what other people said about her. Although she has not managed to open doors for women reporters as she would have liked, and has been forced to stay at home herself, she has hope.

“I am optimistic,” she said. ‘’Nobody thought the Taleban regime would collapse and women could go out of their homes and work, but it has happened. Now I hope that the day will come when I can get out of my home and resume my work without fear.’’

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