About the author: Alia Rajai is a Star alumnus. She graduated from Ibn e Sina University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and communication. She is currently working as a freelance journalist.
The Sahar Speaks program was created by Amie Ferris-Rotman who worked in Kabul for two years as a senior correspondent for Reuters, an international news agency. During her time in Kabul, she noticed that there were no female Afghan journalists working for the foreign news outlets that were reporting from Afghanistan. She created Sahar Speaks to support women in finding jobs with news outlets like BBC, the New York Times, AP, AFP and so on.
I remembered how unsure I was when I first applied for the program. At first glance, I thought it would be a really great opportunity for me so that I could further my dreams of becoming an efficient female journalist in Afghanistan. Fortunately, not too long after I applied, I received an email saying that I was accepted. I was very happy and excited. As with every success, we crave sharing it with someone else, so I rushed to tell one of my best friends. I was grateful to find out that she, too, was accepted.
The first day was a cold and rainy morning. I was really excited for the program so I left my house a little earlier than usual. I arrived at around 8 o’clock and met Ms. Amie Ferris Rotman, the organizer of the Sahar Speaks program. She smiled at me and welcomed me by giving me a warm hug. I was surprised that she recognized me because we had never met in person but had exchanged a few emails in the past.
People started shuffling in one by one. It was clear that each and every one of us were happy and excited to be there. The group consisted of twelve young women who held jobs ranging from journalists to freelance photographers to filmmakers. In Afghanistan, female journalists face many challenges. Our biggest concerns are for our safety and the safety of our families. For example, women cannot report from the most critical and challenging places because a majority of women have responsibilities in the home. Even if they can manage to do both, most of their families do not approve of them becoming journalists or photographers. Most young women in Afghanistan are told, “Girls are not to become journalists or photographers,” as if it is a shame. There are dozens of other traditional issues that cause the withdrawal of women journalists. In Kabul, many women pursuing journalism as a career face sexual harassment and shaming when trying to conduct interviews.
One of the speakers in our program was Sahar Lewal, a female Afghan journalist on Radio Azadi. I truly felt like I had a personal connection with Sahar because she was one of the few female journalists that had a difficult time becoming as successful as she is. She told us her inspiring story and all the stereotypes and hardships she had to overcome with her family and community in order to become a successful journalist. She also described the difficulties she faced in her journey, for example, she often went home late because she needed to finish work at the office or people didn’t treat her with respect.
Lisa Anne Essex is a British journalist and trainer and a former employee at Reuters, the international news agency, and was one of the speakers on our first day. Essex explained that on her way to the program that morning, she actually had an accident with someone riding a bicycle. Although she was hurt, she stayed strong and encouraged us to be brave in every situation. She really inspired me by staying strong and continuing to be energetic and positive despite being hurt. Unfortunately, she needed to leave the country before planned for medical treatment.
May Jeong, an award-winning freelance writer based in Kabul is one of the best pitch writers. She made an appearance at the program. A pitch is a writer’s description of a potential story. She taught us that a strong pitch was the first step to writing a good story. By writing a strong pitch, foreign outlets would be less likely to reject our stories. Mr. Joel Vanhoudt is an independent photojournalist. Not only did he take beautiful and amazing pictures of the program and the participants, he also conducted the training section on photography.
We learned many things during the program. We learned how to introduce ourselves, manage our time, and collect materials to report on. This was an especially valuable experience for every journalist because it is important to stay professional. We focused on writing leads, headlines, golden quotes and courses, the essentials of being an accomplished journalist. When the training was successfully completed, the guest speakers became our mentors and helped us with writing and getting our stories out to the Huffington Post. None of us were expecting to make such a wonderful team with such strong communication skills. and as time went on, our team became stronger and closer.
Danielle Moylan, an Australian journalist in Afghanistan, became my mentor and helped me with my story immensely by showing me ways to improve my writing. I decided to write about strong business women, women who were the breadwinners of their families, women who started small businesses to help support their families. With my story, “Female breadwinners in Afghanistan, from dried fruit-makers to businesswomen,” I was trying to show the world that Afghan women can succeed in the face of gender discrimination, insecurity and a dominant patriarchal society.
Because there is freedom of expression, to some extent, and support for women journalists such as the Sahar Speaks program, women reporters can move forward and be successful in this area. I know that I am a lucky girl, I know that I will always have the support of my family, especially my father. He has been my biggest supporter since the day I decided to start studying journalism. However, I recognize that others are not as fortunate as I am. My friends who dream of pursuing a career in journalism never have enough support or confidence to continue. As a female journalist, myself, I always advise them to be brave and courageous and to not be afraid of anything. Afghan women are the ones at the forefront of creating a better, unified Afghanistan. Like Afghan businesswomen, we can do our best to not be treated as victims anymore. We will progress, move forward and create equality for all.