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Afghan Women and the Media - Is Their Story Being Told?

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This past March, Pat Mitchell, President and CEO of The Paley Center for Media, hosted a round table discussion in conjunction with the U.S. - Afghan Women's Council. The focus was to examine how to support Afghan women in media. The agenda also addressed the type of stories about Afghan women that continue to grab the headlines - when stories make it to the public's awareness.

On hand was Melanne Verveer, one of the chairs of the U.S. - Afghan Women's Council, who presently serves as the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues. She was definitive on why "women matter" in Afghanistan. She said, "Our government believes very, very strongly that we have to continue to invest in the women." Verveer affirmed that life in Afghanistan would not get better for women until there is parity in their economic participation, and in the branches of judicial law and police training. "You can't divorce the civilian participation from the country's security." She referenced the U.S. Action Plan for Afghan Women, and was the first of many speakers to emphasize the utmost necessity of women being at the table in negotiations with the Taliban. Circling back to the issue of media, Verveer spoke about the women journalists she had met while in Afghanistan and why it was essential to support and strengthen their capacity to get the story of Afghanistan's girls and women told.

Mitchell underscored the difficulties facing women journalists in Afghanistan, very few of which make it to top-level roles. Mitchell opined that the most "significant story" in Afghanistan is "the story about women." In 2002, Mitchell helped to train and equip Afghan women journalists through a PBS sponsored program that created the documentary Afghanistan Unveiled. Mitchell informed those gathered, "That story could not have been told by a western journalist."

Conditions and concerns on the ground were addressed by many of the guests. Dr. Najib Sharifi talked about the "thirst of the Afghan community to have freedom of expression" reflected in the post-Taliban surge in independent media. Sharif discussed the challenge of "switching from rockets and bombs to communication." An ongoing and pressing concern is the safety of reporters.

Currently, 660 women comprise the ranks of the 2,000 media professionals in Afghanistan. In 2000, that number was zero. Kathleen Reen, from Internews - whose mission is "Empowering Local Media Worldwide," touched upon the need for more women on the technical and broadcasting side. She pointed to how women are hampered by family pressures and traveling difficulties, and explained why the mobile phone has become the source of media for so many in Afghanistan. She said that the "issue of the upcoming jirga" and women's representation in it needed to be repeatedly raised.

Mariam Atash Nawabi, President of AMDi International, a company focused on rule of law, economic development and multicultural communications work in Central Asia and the Middle East, targeted "media as a tool for social change." She spoke directly to how media laws are being formulated, and highlighted her belief that there was still an issue about censorship in a "baseline conservative Islamic country." Nawabi expressed concern about criminalizing offenses, which translates into jail time for journalists who ask questions the government doesn't like. She was outspoken about cases of violence against women journalists that were not prosecuted, stating flatly, "I'm tired of investigations. I want real action." With a view of media as the fourth branch of government, Nawabi reiterated that women need more access to technology, underscoring how the mobile phone is a way to disseminate health information and mobilize the vote. In her weekly thirty-minute show, she is striving to cover stories about Afghan women from a positive angle.

A recurrent theme was the need for reports of productive developments to come out of Afghanistan, to balance the "acid throwing stories." At the Diane von Furstenberg Awards, held at the United Nations shortly after the Paley event, I interviewed Sadiqa Basiri, who was being honored for her work as the founder of the Oruj Learning Center. She concurred emphatically. "In the west," she said, "there is only one story. Burquas." She spoke about how life has changed dramatically for educated women, such as those in the fields of engineering and medicine. "Doctors are back to the hospitals and their own practices. Now we have more than fifteen stations, and 50 percent of the broadcasters are women. There are women in sports playing soccer. Women have their own businesses and are traveling." Basiri did point out that in rural areas, little has changed due to the lack of education. "Only 18 percent of women are literate," Basiri said, "and only 1 percent of this percentile are the leaders." She mentioned that Afghan women had the right to vote in 1919, before women in the United Sates. She said, "The rights are in the Constitution, but not implemented. They are just done nominally."

The media needs to keep vigilant tabs on how the Afghan government deals with women's issues. As Basiri noted, "It's not the top stuff for Karzai." She related a story about a meeting he was suppose to have with women on March 8th, but then asked to reschedule to March 7th. Despite the change to accommodate his calendar, he didn't show up. The person who came on his behalf gave no explanation. One thousand women were in attendance, waiting.

The work of Afghan women on the ground is a story that Diana Rowan Rockefeller, Founder and Chair of Afghan Women Leaders Connect, would like to see get more play. A participant at the Paley event, I followed up with her by telephone to get her insights. "I'd really like to see the Western media go deeper, because I think people want to know more. We know too well by now that our worlds are closely linked." Discussing the coverage of the corruption around the opium trade and the acts of violence against women, Rowan Rockefeller said, "Any of these horrendous attacks on women and the vulnerable are tragic. The media coverage of acid attacks or shootings might have mobilized Western support [for Afghan women]. But now the press should go broader, to cover the very strong work being done at the grassroots level by courageous women who are reaching tens of thousands of women - one woman at a time, one family at a time."

Afghan Women Connect promotes a firm belief in adhering to the strategy of taking the lead from Afghan women. Rowan Rockefeller told me, "When Connect began in 2001, our questions to the Afghan women were, 'What do you need? How can we support and empower you to do your work setting up schools, clinics, legal aid centers.' Now it includes, 'How can we help you tell your story?'"

To this end, Rowan Rockefeller will be taking part in an upcoming speakers series organized by the U.S. - Afghan Women's Council. The goal is to have American women in journalism support Afghan reporters and broadcasters by sharing their expertise, advice, and experiences. Ching Eikenberry, a communication coordinator for USAID in Kabul, and the wife of Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, has taken a leadership role in this initiative.

Over Mother's Day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) led a Congressional Delegation of four Congresswomen to Afghanistan to visit with service men and women, and to observe on the ground developments. In addition, they met with President Karzai, who told them that 417 women had qualified to be on the ballot for the September parliamentary elections (out of 2600 candidates). The post-war Afghan Constitution mandates that every province must have at least two women elected to ensure that women's representation in the government comprises 26 percent. In a press conference to discuss their findings, there was a consensus among the Congresswomen that "security for Afghan women is the key." A guarantee of personal safety will lead the way for women to participate in governance, education, and economic development.

I contacted Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-MD), who was on the trip, to get her insights on if American media was getting the story straight, or even at all. She told me, "The story of women's participation in politics has not been told, and it's a really important part of the story." Addressing the lack of insightful coverage she offered, "There are so many nuances that we haven't begun to scratch in our media. Our concerns are American and western concerns." Edwards articulated, "Afghan women want to be certain that their voices are heard. They want to be engaged in their own future." Recounting one of her experiences during the trip she said, "We met women in Zabul province. They were working in agriculture, education, and health. They were all gathered in one room. Some in burqas, some in traditional dress, but it didn't matter how they were dressed. They all had their own voices."

As expressed throughout the Paley Center meeting, securing women's rights in any negotiations with the Taliban is paramount. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 requires parties in a conflict to respect women's rights, and to support their participation in peace negotiations and in post conflict reconstruction.

When I asked Rep. Edwards what she considers to be a primary news story to watch about women's issues in Afghanistan, she also stressed, "It's really important to make sure that women are not thrown under the bus, and that the Taliban will have to adhere to the Afghan Constitution which protects the rights of women." She paused and added, "This is absolutely a priority."

Diligence on the part of those in media to recognize the narrative as crucial - and exposing the American people to the topic - is the strongest option for keeping the pressure on.

This article originally appeared on the website mgyerman.com