Voices on the Rise: Afghan Women Making the News provides a look into the lives of Afghan women journalists, producers, managers, writers, photographers, filmmakers, human rights activists and parliamentarians. The photographs were first exhibited in Canada in October 2006; since that time, Afghan women have been battling increasing uncertainty, juggling newly-found freedoms with traditional responsibilities at home, and struggling with the ghosts of their country’s harrowing past and its on-going conflicts.

Hundreds of Afghan women currently work in journalism and communications. All of them are protected by Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution, which defines women as equal citizens and ensures they are once again being seen, heard, and read about in the media. The significance of these achievements is best understood when contrasted against their recent status as non-citizens, void of all rights and power.

As a signatory of the U.N General Assembly’s 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Afghanistan is required to solicit and respect women’s views on the country’s laws, policies and practices. Yet due to the ongoing cultural restrictions against women’s participation in public life, the weak state of civil society, and the increasing conflict, it is still very difficult to obtain an accurate portrayal of the challenges they face. Afghan women journalists are challenging these societal barriers.

Dramatic efforts have been made to encourage women’s participation in civil society, media, and politics. Yet this does not accurately reflect the lives of the vast majority of women, especially in the rural areas. They still suffer one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, epidemic levels of illiteracy and unemployment, and human rights violations, including domestic violence, underage marriage, and rape.

It is difficult to predict the future of a nation scarred by on-going conflict. It is equally difficult to predict the future of women who face countless daily battles to survive. It is said that media remains the strongest part of Afghan civil society and that it is playing a progressive role in the shaping of modern Afghanistan. Yet its future is also unpredictable, as conservative factions vie to curtail and control it, in a political environment wrestling with insecurity.

Radio, and more recently television, have contributed to the advent of stronger roles for Afghan women. Yet there is a long way to go to ensure women’s rights and civic participation are fully supported. It is only by respecting the rights of all Afghan citizens that Afghanistan can become a legitimate, sovereign nation. It is only by giving voice to all of its citizens, without fear, that it can have long-lasting peace. The role of media is crucial to this development.

At Pajhwok Afghan News, women reporters head out into the street, day after day, to cover politics, business, sports, security and health. In Herat, young Afghan women are among the first-ever graduates from Herat University’s Journalism Department. In the Parliament, the Meshrano Jirga, and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, former journalists help govern the country and strengthen civil society.

All of these women serve as models, playing public roles that demand great personal courage. What they show us, day by day, is that whatever their challenges, Afghan women’s voices are, more than ever, on the rise.

The Current State of Afghan Media

Despite unprecedented gains in Afghanistan's media independence over the past seven years, the war-torn country remains a battleground with an uncertain future for journalists. They are threatened by warlords, drug traffickers and increasing levels of interference from anti-democratic forces. Twelve of them have been killed over the past four years, including two women journalists. Although it is not always easy to determine the exact cause of their deaths, the attacks deal a consistent and chilling blow to the media and freedom of expression. Other journalists have been detained, beaten and forced to leave the country to save their lives.

In 2008, for example, a young journalist was sentenced to 20 years in jail, downgraded from a death sentence, for what is alleged to have been a religiously provocative article about women’s rights. Free speech groups from around the world have been unified in their condemnation of this unfair verdict which, according to the Afghan Independent Journalists Association, violates the very concepts of freedom of expression and freedom of the media upheld by the Afghan Constitution.

Ever since the Taliban regime was driven from power in 2001, there has been dynamic growth in Afghan media. There are now an estimated 600 print publications, at least 100 radio stations, and 16 TV stations, as well as a concerted effort to promote media independence. A recently passed media law has helped, at least in principle, to promote Afghan women’s rights, and the development of a healthy civil society.

But these strides forward are under increasing threat from anti-democratic elements who have once again claimed a foothold in the Afghan parliament and government, and from the growing insecurity linked to Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents. This was illustrated when a suicide bomber fought his way into Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Culture in late October 2008 and blew himself up. The Taliban claimed responsibility for this attack on rule of law and information.

The increasing politicization of the media sector is another growing threat, as politicians and parliamentarians with little understanding of freedom of the press, not to mention warlords and the Taliban, wield ownership and control over an increasing number of media operations, and disseminate blatant propaganda.

Yet regardless of the current environment and challenges, the power of media remains strong and is a vital part of the young Afghan democracy, struggling to take hold and flourish. And it plays an integral role in helping to empower Afghan women by providing a much needed platform for the expression of their views, hopes and concerns. This was the finding of the first UNDP Afghanistan Human Development Report. Published in 2004, it signaled greater access to media, including radio stations run by women, as one of the positive aspects of development for Afghan women and children.

Voices on the Rise co-curators Jane McElhone and Khorshied Samad

Photo by Farzana Wahidy/Ainaphoto

Photo by Leslie Knott