Afghanistan has been on the public eye for decades for the worst reasons. Widely considered to be one of the most dangerous countries to be a woman, the threat of the Taliban is now growing again, threatening the already precarious stability of the country. How many of us are familiar with the traditional media image of the Afghan woman, secluded behind the burqa, victimized by religious fanatics? How many of us have heard stories about stoning, honor killings, rape and domestic abuse being rampant in Afghanistan? And how many times have those stories been told to us, a Western audience, by a Western journalist with probably only a few weeks’ experience of living in the country?
If we were to go solely by the stories prominent in Western media outlets, Afghanistan is simply an inferno where women do not have a voice, nor do they seem to battle in order to gain it. And yet, despite the many hardships facing Afghan women, they are still out there fighting to have a voice, composing around 2,000 of the 9,000 journalists employed by domestic media in the country. However, there always seemed to be a lingering absence of Afghan women in foreign news agencies based there.
The Sahar Speaks project was launched in 2015 precisely to bridge this gap. It aims to provide training, mentoring and publishing opportunities for young Afghan women, allowing them to engage directly with Western media and give a new, deeper perspective on Afghanistan.
Founded by American journalist Amis Ferris-Rotman, the project so far has been acclaimed by media outlets and the news stories written by their alumni have been featured in the Huffington Post, Al-Jazeera, The New York Times as well as German and Norwegian newspapers. It is the first time ever Afghan women will be writing for the international press, despite the long-time interest such outlets always had in women’s rights in the country.
Now in its second round of training, the project has attracted a variety of women, from all ages and backgrounds, eager to become media ambassadors of their own issues. The program consists of a two-week course in Kabul taught in English, during which women have the chance to research and write stories that will after be published internationally. The first program was launched in March with 12 participants and their stories were subsequently given ample coverage in the Huffington Post, a partnership that allowed Sahar Speaks to grow exponentially.
The Sahar Speaks project is innovative and necessary for three major reasons:
Firstly, from a gender issues perspective, it empowers women to tell their own stories first-hand and allows them to pursue careers and, hopefully, financial independence (often the necessary step for women’s emancipation).
Second, because it provides a glimpse into a closed off society by people who are an actual part of it, which makes subjects more willing to share certains things they would normally withhold from foreigners. Due to the segregated character of Afghan society, in which many women are not allowed to speak directly to men, through the project, female journalists can catch a glimpse of what goes on behind closed doors, the feminine dimension of Afghan society which often fails to be depicted appropriately. Since they are locals embedded in the culture, communication is easier and more direct.
Thirdly, because it challenges the dominance of Western voices in the media narrative about women’s rights in Afghanistan. These three factors are important to shape an identity of Afghan women recognized in the West that goes beyond the “woman behind the burqa”.
Furthermore, going beyond gender issues, Sahar Speaks can also be seen as challenging the prevalent view that foreign correspondents should still be privileged when covering certain countries and conflicts. In an interview with The Future of News, Amis Ferris-Rotman stated the following: “I think the old method of parachuting in, usually white people, usually white men, but also women, from abroad into developing countries and having them report, I just think that’s getting a bit faded. It’s getting a bit old-fashioned in its approach. I think it’s a really bad message to not utilize local press, who are extremely good at their jobs and deserve to be promoted, and deserve to be telling stories about their own countries.”.
Despite its success, the danger to the continuity of this project (and many others aimed at improving the country’s human rights record) still lingers. Initially kept slightly secretive, the international attention it received might be prejudicial to the security of everyone involved, with terrorists still targeting organizations that fight for the advancement of women. Not just that, but Human Rights Watch has detailed repeatedly over the years the many dangers faced by Afghan journalists, which are doubled when that journalist happens to be female. The country’s media freedom has been celebrated but remains threatened by both the Taliban and government forces.
The need to support projects like these and encourage their growth has lead Sahar Speak to seek crowdfunding mechanisms. You are welcome to donate to their project or share it with your friends, giving Afghan women a chance to have an internationally recognized voice.