It’s not easy being a Pashtun woman in the media

Published: February 21, 2013
Email

Women are accused of having affairs with their male colleagues. To the Pashtuns, this is the only rational explanation of her success. PHOTO: REUTERS

Women are accused of having affairs with their male colleagues. To the Pashtuns, this is the only rational explanation of her success. PHOTO: REUTERS PHOTO: REUTERS

“Working as a Pashtun female is not easy in any field,” said one of my Pashtun journalist friends, Sana Safi.

The more I thought about what she said, the more I realised how true her statement was.

Pashtun women who have decided to break all social and cultural barriers to work in the media feel this the most.

However, it is important to understand the context of why Pashtun women working in the media are seen as unacceptable by some Pashtuns who are not only living back home – within Afghanistan and Pakistan – but also abroad.

These Pashtuns believe that the media ‘exploits’ women.

How so?

Well, purdah is quite prevalent in the Pashtun culture; so, to see a woman, appearing on television without being ‘covered’, is more than often viewed with utter deprecation. Some go as far as to label her as ‘dama’ (a derogatory Pashto term for women who appear in the media).

The female Pashtun journalist I interviewed further informed me that women have to work twice as hard to be accepted in the media field. And once they are accepted, instead of being praised, they are often regarded with cynicism, for there is a widely held view that if a woman is good at her job she must have been helped by a man.

And by ‘helped’ she meant that such women are accused of having affairs with their male colleagues. To the Pashtuns, this is the only rational explanation of her success.

Furthermore, the common perception is that a woman who chooses media as her profession is ready to be verbally and physically abused. This, as a result, discourages many women for fear that they will be negatively labeled.

In worst cases, some women are even physically attacked and given blatant death threats. Thus, the biggest problem that many Pashtun women face is that of personal safety.

“When I was in Afghanistan I had to change my route daily, had a male relative with me as a bodyguard, wore a burqa, and stopped communicating with the people in my neighbourhood so that they don’t find out that I was working for radio/TV,” said a prominent Pashtun journalist friend of mine.

She has been working in television and radio news broadcasting for the past eight years.

“As a Pashtun female journalist, when your face is seen by the public, (especially on screen), it is a huge challenge. The challenges start with the family, relatives, tribe and then the masses.”

Moreover, she adds that some women even go as far as changing their names, in order to ensure their safety and continue working in the media. And if name-changing isn’t enough, those who successfully make it in the media world often have to practice self-censorship.

The woman has to make sure she remains serious at all times, for laughing loudly (culturally and especially religiously) is perceived as inappropriate and ‘un-womanly’. She stops attending social gatherings in order to draw less attention to herself. She has to watch what she wears, ensuring that she complies with what is considered “modest” in the Pashtun culture, even if she doesn’t necessarily wear a paRuney (a cloth that Pashtun women wear to cover themselves).

Finally, she refrains from making jokes, especially with fellow male colleagues for fear that it may pave the way for sexual harassment, or worse.

Consequently, it does not come as a surprise why the number of Pashtun women’s presence in the media is exceedingly limited. This negativity around women’s appearance in the media is particularly evident on social networking sites, where some Pashtun men, in particular, verbally attack women who’ve appeared and have been interviewed on television about important social/cultural issues in Afghanistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Rather than being commended for their bravery for speaking up about pressing issues that no one bothers to talk about, these intrepid women are instead attacked either for the way they are dressed, i.e. wearing western attire, or for not being covered in a burqa/paRuney, or both. They are further castigated for blatantly speaking out against issues – bold, socially taboo issues – when it’s “not their place” to do so.

Can Pashtun women hope for change of any sort?

Well, I personally believe that change begins at home, and men’s perception about women’s sole place as being limited to the household arena needs to change.

The fact that many Pashtuns are accustomed to seeing the woman as the housewife and the man as the breadwinner makes it very difficult to break loose from such culturally instilled norms; it limits their capacity to look beyond the patriarchal box. Thus, to see a woman in the media is more than often perceived as alien and confounding, because it is something that they have never seen before.

Some Pashtun men are conditioned with the belief that a woman should be covered at all times; that no man should ever see her and that her only purpose in life is to cook, clean and bear kids.

Hence, the only way change can happen is through education and awareness. Those Pashtuns, who strongly oppose women working in the media, need to understand that just because a woman has chosen media as her field of work doesn’t mean that she is a dama. There are women who are genuinely passionate about working in the media and have achieved their positions based on merit.

“I do feel that my work has empowered me. It is an opportunity to raise issues and talk about topics that are considered taboo in our society. After becoming a journalist, I found the confidence to raise such topics and spark a debate which in itself is empowering,” said Safi.

Although I realise that negative perceptions around Pashtun women working in the media won’t change overnight, women shouldn’t have to be abstained from doing something that they’re passionate about.

With time, I am hoping that more Pashtun women will attain the courage to pursue their dreams, regardless of what others perceive of them.

Follow Samar on Twitter @sesapzai

samar.esapzai

Samar Esapzai

The author is a mommy, writer, visual artist and academic. Her areas of interest include gender relations, women's empowerment, maternal mental health, and anything and everything related to her people, the Pashtuns. She blogs at sesapzai.wordpress.com and tweets at @sesapzai (twitter.com/SesapZai)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.