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Winning back their country: on Afghan women re-entering the public space (hindu )

Afghan women are re-entering the public space in Kabul, but it’s imperative to take empowerment to countryside

During the Taliban rule, like all other working women in Afghanistan, Suraya Raisada had to quit her job. “I began giving tuitions to schoolchildren at home,” said Ms. Raisada in broken Urdu, a reporter with a leading daily in Afghanistan who began working in the early 1990s during the mujahideen period. When the Taliban came into power in 1996, women were prohibited from public life, except for providing health care to other women. They were also not allowed to attend school. Further, severe restrictions were placed on the media. In 2001, when the Taliban were ousted, Ms. Raisada rejoined the daily. As I sat in her office in Kabul with three more Afghan women reporters, incomprehensible murmurs in a mélange of Dari, English and Urdu filled the room. She continued, “I studied journalism at Kabul University in the early 1990s. My parents have always supported me and have encouraged me to work.”

Another woman reporter, Shukria Kohistani, who works at the same daily, also had to leave her job during the Taliban period. She explained, “My parents and especially my father encouraged me and my sister to work.” Ms. Raisada noted that in Afghanistan the communities in general, particularly outside Kabul, do not easily accept working women.

Women and journalism
In Afghanistan, the idea that women should be viewed as contributing members of society beyond motherhood was introduced during Amir Habibullah’s reign (1901-1919). Mahmud Beg Tarzi, who began publishing a bimonthly newspaper called Seraj-ul-Ahkbar Afghanieh in 1911, argued that under egalitarian Islam women are not denied education. Tarzi devoted a special section in Seraj-ul-Akhbar to women’s issues titled ‘Celebrating Women of the World’, edited by his wife Asma.

During King Amanullah’s period (1919-1929), the first woman’s magazine, Erschad-al-Nasswan was published in 1922 by Queen Suraya in Kabul. During Zahir Shah’s rule (1933-1973), the 1964 Constitution allowed women to vote and enter politics. The 1960s and early 1970s saw the expansion of press and women increasingly entered journalism.

After Shah’s government was overthrown in a 1973 coup, severe constraints were placed on the media in the late 1970s and during the years of the Soviet invasion although women’s rights were promoted. The Taliban era (1996-2001) dealt a severe blow to both media freedom and rights of women in the country.

Since 2001, women, mostly in Kabul, began to engage in public life and there was a boom in the media industry that continues to date.

It is critical to note that the reforms of the 1920s, 1960s and 1970s for women’s rights in Afghanistan were mostly limited to urban women. Post-2001, noted Maliha, translator for a private news agency in Kabul, the status of Afghan women improved, but it remained limited to major cities. “Even now women in remote areas are not really aware of their rights,” she said. It is imperative that the reforms reach the rural women, and in a manner that doesn’t alienate them from their family and kinship networks.

Hamidullah Arefi, editor-in-chief of state-run daily The Kabul Times, said, “In Kabul, there are many women in the media; however, in the provinces there are just a handful.” He added that there are currently seven female journalists in his paper.

In the recent past some women have left journalism due to the hostile security situation in the country, including frequent terror attacks such as the one in Kabul on Wednesday in which 90 people were killed. Journalists in Afghanistan are often under pressure from different sides such as the Taliban, Islamic State, warlords and the state. When I asked Ms. Raisada and Ms. Kohistani about the challenges, both noted that women journalists are paid much less than their male counterparts. “For both women and men reporters, a critical challenge is difficulty in accessing information from the provinces with Taliban presence,” added Ms. Raisada. Despite these challenges, both the reporters enthusiastically articulated their passion to continue as journalists and highlight the issues that confront their country.


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