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Afghan women are finding a voice in world of journalism
Ottawa, October 29, 2007 (Ottawa Citizen): For one year, Humaira Habib lived in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. By law, she could not show her face nor attend school. At any time, she could have been whipped with wires for a sin as minor as wearing nail polish or having shoes that clicked too loudly in the street.
Immediately after the Taliban fell, Ms. Habib enrolled at Herat University and in 2004, was part of its first graduating journalism class.
"At first when we started working as journalists, it was hard because it was new. Female journalism was new in all of Afghanistan," said the 25-year-old, who is on an eight-month scholarship to study at McGill University in Montreal.
"It was strange for people, something unusual, but now it's getting better because all women worked hard and they tried a lot to tell people to tell men that this is our life and we have to do this."
Today in Afghanistan, more than six years after the Taliban's regime fell, almost 1,000 voices that were silenced for years are being heard and the faces that were unwillingly covered are being broadcast into people's homes.
"They were like birds that were not allowed to fly and kept in cages that were not allowed to sing," Khorshied Samad said Monday. "When the Taliban were driven from power, they were set free and were able to sing and to soar."
Mrs. Samad was born and raised in San Francisco's Bay Area, but was sent to Afghanistan - where her father is from - in 2002 by ABC News. She ended up staying and working there for three years, for a while as the head of Fox News in Kabul.
Mrs. Samad has lived in Canada since her husband, Omar Samad, was posted here as Afghanistan's ambassador three years ago. Since then, she has been a passionate advocate for Afghanistan's women, recently curating a photo exhibit entitled Voices on the Rise: Afghan Women Making the News.
Tuesday night she will give a speech of the same name to the National Press Club that touches on the role of Afghanistan's women in developing both its media and its politics.
"Oftentimes, Afghan women today - in the Parliament and in the ministries and in the media - are the ones who have the courage to bring up uncomfortable topics and challenge the men around them," she said.
However, while Mrs. Samad says the majority of Afghan men are supportive of women's role in a post-Taliban society, there are those left with a "medieval" attitude who can be extremely dangerous.
Within six days earlier this year, two female journalists were murdered. Shakiba Sanga Amaj, a local television newsreader, was shot by her family in an honour killing on May 31. On June 5, Zakia Zaki, a 35-year-old radio presenter, was shot while lying in bed, holding one of her young children.
"She was killed because she was a strong female voice who was shining light on various issues and she was representing the strength of Afghan women," Mrs. Samad said.
FranÃ§ois Bugingo, the international vice-president of Reporters Without Borders, pointed to these two assassinations as examples of the extreme challenges faced by Afghanistan's female journalists.
"They're getting many threats, either to them, or they're getting pressured indirectly through their families," he said.
After the Taliban fell, he said, 350 news organizations were formed in the country. Today, in the face of rising insurgency and increased religious pressures, there are only an estimated 75. In its 2007 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders placed Afghanistan 142 out of 169 countries.
Mrs. Samad said she knows everything in Afghanistan isn't rosy, and is honest about the challenges the country faces. However, while she acknowledges Afghanistan's remaining challenges, she said, she tries to also speak about the amazing progress that has been achieved, since many Canadians she has spoken to are unaware of it.
"Those who have lived and worked in Afghanistan can bring a certain knowledge to the table that Canadians are really hungry to listen to."