Under Taliban rule, a writer for the iconic Afghan radio series New Home, New Life was approached by a minister in Kabul who felt the female characters were too loud. “Can’t you make them talk in a less excited manner, can’t they stay in the background?” he asked.
In my experience, Afghan women rarely stay in the background. I first visited Afghanistan in the 1980s as a student, which made a deep impression on me. I have now worked for the BBC for nearly 25 years and, in my current position as editor for BBC News Uzbek, I am trying to help us reach ethnic Uzbeks in Afghanistan, giving a platform to the unheard voices of this community, particularly female voices. I’m convinced we should do our best to show events through the eyes of women.
One of my all-time favourite female characters is the fierce and impressive Soyra Saddot, Afghanistan’s first female district governor. Saddot runs Fayzabad District in the volatile Jowzjan Province, which is on the frontline of the government’s battle with both Taliban and Islamic State extremists. As well as commanding respect, she is always smiling — a woman who takes the lead in a man’s world. We have shown her inspecting the troops, negotiating with field commanders, checking on school construction projects and encouraging youngsters to continue their studies.
Another of our heroines is Afghanistan’s only Uzbek female police officer, who works in the remote northern town of Darzab. Lateefa Yadgar told us how, despite threats, she has defied the Taliban and Islamic State by continuing to do her job. Women routinely face gender-based violence in Afghanistan, and Yadgar’s story clearly resonated with our local audience. “This woman’s courage is worth of 40 men,” commented one viewer.
Inside Afghanistan, ethnic Uzbeks make up about 10 percent of the population and they require a very different approach to our audience in neighbouring Uzbekistan
Reaching an Uzbek audience in Afghanistan is not as simple as you might think. Inside Afghanistan, ethnic Uzbeks make up about 10 percent of the population and they require a very different approach to our audience in neighbouring Uzbekistan. Most obviously, there are different alphabets. We deliver our content for Uzbekistan using the Cyrillic alphabet (preferred by the older generation) and the Latin alphabet, which has been the official choice since 1993. But you would lose Afghanistan’s Uzbek-speakers if you restricted yourself to Latin and Cyrillic — so we also produce content for them in Arabic script.
Then you have to factor in the considerable regional, political, cultural and historical differences between the two communities. Access is the best example. Despite some top-down calls for change, Uzbek officials almost never speak to BBC journalists and are tight-lipped when asked even the most basic questions. Inevitably, within Uzbekistan’s authoritarian system, this attitude trickles down to the rest of society. In contrast, people in Afghanistan are more easy to talk to: from field commanders and housewives to ministers and the homeless. In 2003, while interviewing in Mazar-i-Sharif ahead of elections, I came across a beggar, who, in answer to my question about what result he wanted to see, said: “We don’t want communism, we don’t want socialism, we don’t need capitalism, in fact we don’t need any ‘ism’; what we want is the restoration of Sharia in this country.” The smoothness of this unrehearsed tirade was deeply impressive — and he was far from being the first Afghan who sounded like he had graduated from a top oratory school.
It takes a lot of effort to keep an audience’s attention focused on a fully veiled female interviewee. But we broadcast many such reports, helping to counteract the stereotypes that veiled women are voiceless and oppressed
Every time we assign stories we aim for them to be relevant to women - but there are significant obstacles to achieving this. Not least of these is the Uzbek language in Afghanistan, which has been maintained through an oral tradition and has never been standardised, meaning people rarely hear their language used in the media. Illiteracy rates are high and it is a fact that women make up the majority of illiterate ethnic Uzbeks. Moreover, in our storytelling we frequently face the challenge of trying to find a constructive way of dealing with sensitive issues. For example, it takes a lot of effort to keep an audience’s attention focused on a fully veiled female interviewee. But we broadcast many such reports, helping to counteract the stereotypes that veiled women are voiceless and oppressed.
Sometimes, to protect the safety of women, their identities have to be hidden. Hadicha (not her real name) was one of the people we interviewed for our investigation into female drug addiction in Afghanistan (of the country’s two and half million adult drug users, one million are women). We talked to Hadicha in a special family clinic where women are treated alongside their children, and she told us how she was encouraged to take drugs by her in-laws and described her life as a drug addict who has been addicted to heroin for 20 years. We are on constant look-out for stories narrated by women themselves.
One particularly effective report like this was about a grieving mother from a village in Takhar Province where about 90 people have been hung in Iran for drug-related crimes. Suppressing her tears, Zahro Bibi told us about her two sons who were executed in Iran and her third son who was due to be hung for drug trafficking. The mother revealed that the villagers have had to buy back the bodies of their loved ones from the Iranian authorities.
Despite the tragedies, it’s not all war and heartbreak in Afghanistan and people continue to have social lives whatever the level of violence and destruction. We were very privileged when a group of friends from Mazar-i-Sharif told us about their bakery: without any state aid these middle-aged women succeeded in setting-up a thriving business. And we broadcasted about a school for girls in a remote village: with white scarves covering their heads, these young Uzbek women were eloquent about their determination to get an education.
Every time we tell our stories, we try to keep in mind all these faces: an uneducated housewife from a distant hamlet, a hopeful start-up businesswoman, teenage students and an aspirational girl fearing a forced marriage. Many of our stories are about them — and all of our stories are for them.