In a small Kabul classroom protected by thick curtains from the men outside elbowing each other to catch a glimpse of such a rare event, 12 young Afghan women journalists completed a week of journalism training in March this year, probably the first ever of its kind.
A common enough occurrence in many countries, journalism training for women in Afghanistan faces enormous obstacles--security threats, social restrictions and opposition from male relatives, Western donor fatigue, and the decline of training funds. All signs pointed to failure, except the determination and tenacity of the young Afghan women participants and the organizer, British-American journalist Amie Ferris-Rotman.
“I met naysayers from day one,” said Ferris-Rottman, a former Reuters senior correspondent in Kabul and founder of Sahar Speaks, a program providing training, mentoring, and international publishing opportunities for Afghan women journalists, which launched its first round this year. Ferris-Rottman said inspiration for the program grew out of the anger she felt about the sexism and discrimination towards Afghan women she witnessed while reporting from the country herself.
“The program has emboldened the participants to probe more, and it has also boosted their self-esteem in a very patriarchal society where women are often pushed aside in the workplace,” she said.
In addition to receiving training, the participants have been matched with mentors and are preparing stories about Afghan women’s lives that will be published in The Huffington Post, according to a cooperation agreement.
“We need female journalists to narrate women's stories, which are often difficult for men to feel, understand, and report on,” said Zahra, one of the trainees.
Ferris-Rottman explains that she chose the name of the program to evoke the experiences of every Afghan woman, as Sahar is a common name for women in Afghanistan. Though the women participating in the program have faced serious difficulties, the diversity of their backgrounds and interests proves they are more than the sum of the obstacles they’ve overcome. Among them were journalism students, mothers, a youth newspaper founder, and breadwinners who support their families by working as journalists.
Participants learned about the basics of news gathering, interviewing techniques, finding sources, multimedia storytelling techniques, and how to pitch stories to foreign media. They were mentored by international journalists like CNN Producer Antonia Mortensen and Afghan BBC journalist Najiba Feroz.RFE/RL Afghan Service Kabul bureau correspondent Sahar Lewal shared her experiences as a local female journalist and peer.
“We spoke about the dangers--that they will be threatened by both militants and government officials, that they will face discrimination and patriarchal attitudes in the work place, and even hardships in their home life,” said Lewal. “But I also encouraged them to stand against all of these obstacles and raise their voices for Afghan women, because even if we cannot stop all of these violations of our rights at this moment, at least we can try to build a safer future for the next generation of women.”
The trainees are now working on their stories with assigned mentors. Zahra is reporting on the legal and social difficulties Afghan women face when seeking a divorce. Sparghai is writing an article about her mother’s life as a young woman in the pre-Taliban 1970s, when women in Afghanistan enjoyed a substantial amount of freedom in comparison to her own life now. Alia is preparing a series of profiles on women entrepreneurs, and Sitara is doing a feature on women musicians.
Organizers and mentors hope this first round of training will be the antecedent to a new era in Afghan media, where women tell their own stories to their communities and the world.
“We have to fight,” said Lewal during her talk with the trainees in March. “Otherwise the men will never give us room.”