This is what happens when you ban male press from a female rock fest in Afghanistan

By Amie Ferris-Rotman

At the end of last month, the Lycee Esteqlal, the French school in central Kabul, hosted the country’s largest ever female rock festival in Afghan history. It took place on the first day of the four-day Sound Central fest, set up three years ago as an oasis of rock in the midst of war.

Organizer and Australian rocker Travis Beard was polite but firm in his ban of male press for the all-women day, a radical move in ultra-Muslim Afghanistan, where the public sphere is overbearingly male-dominated despite advances made in women’s rights over the last decade.

I covered the women’s day as a text journalist for Reuters. As I made my way through its entrance, shuffling past several armed checkpoints, I kept thinking: will there really be no men covering this?

The atmosphere inside the school was nothing short of electric. Over 400 Afghan girls and women were packed into the concert hall. Listening to rap and rock performances by Afghan and foreign bands, many of the teenage schoolgirls started to jump out of their fold-down chairs, shrieking with infectious delight.

Slowly, foreign women from the various agencies in Kabul – NATO, the U.N., a Canadian NGO – started to appear. I don’t think any of us had seen so many Afghan women in one room before, let alone in such frenzied excitement. The feeling was almost eerie in its rareness, as if we’d been let in on a secret.

I scoured the room to see which news outlets were there, and suddenly found myself very alone.

The ban on male press caused a ruckus. “It was my one rule, and ended up being the hardest part of putting on the whole event,” Beard told me over the din of wailing teenage girls. That is saying a lot considering the barrage of threats all-female events tend to receive from the Taliban, not to mention the lengths organizers went to painstakingly recruit attendees, dispatching teams of women to girls’ schools to convince them to go to the rock concert. Those who attended received permission from their teachers and parents.

None of Afghanistan’s many broadcasters, including Tolo TV, which airs Afghan Star, the enormously popular version of X-Factor, covered the event as none have female camera operators, organizers said.

“Everyone, absolutely everyone, kept calling and asking to have an exception to send a man,” Beard said of the news outlets based in Kabul.*

The event was also not covered by Reuters TV, the BBC, The Associated Press nor Agence France-Presse.

“It’s interesting that the foreign media like to highlight the plight of Afghan women in their reporting, yet none of them employ female Afghan journalists,” remarked American freelance TV correspondent Courtney Body, who covered the festival for CCTV English.

Only one text piece came out from the event (Reuters, which was mine), but it lacked pictures. Our Afghan male photographers claimed they could not find a female photographer in time, despite having over two weeks for their search. When I found a female freelance photographer on the day, another excuse appeared. They convinced senior management in Singapore that using her photographs would result in “the Taliban chopping the girls’ heads off” – a maliciously engineered statement which is simply untrue.

Why didn’t any of the major foreign news outlets recruit a female photographer or camera operator that day?

There are 11,000 local journalists in Afghanistan, which is around the same press saturation as the United States. Of these, about 2,500 are women. For a country like Afghanistan, that is considerable. Many work in radio, where their faces are largely concealed.  But there are also plenty who do not. It is time for Western media outlets operating in Afghanistan to step up and start employing local female reporters. If we don’t, then what sort of message are we sending out?

About the author:

Amie is senior correspondent at Reuters in Kabul, Afghanistan. She was previously in Moscow for five years with Reuters, first as an energy reporter and later covering political news, leading coverage of a resurgent Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus. From the autumn, she will be developing a platform to train and mentor Afghan female reporters as a 2013/14 Knight Fellow at Stanford. Amie has reported from 10 countries, including coverage of Greece’s Euro zone crisis, from over 30 datelines. She has a BA and MA in Russian Studies from University College London. Follow her on Twitter: @Amie_FR.

*Editor’s note: Two subsequent sentences, the contents of which were disputed, have been removed from this paragraph.

Week in Review: A look at the Middle East

Photo credited to BBC Persian, from the New York Times. Participants marched against the widespread public sexual harassment of women on the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan, last July.

As political and social change continues to sweep through Egypt, Libya, Yemen and several other parts of the Middle East and Africa, the Gender Report looked at the key role women are playing in these processes. We’ve written before about protests, participation in marches, and pushes for representative government in these areas. Here are a few updates in these cases we found in our News Feed, as well as their representation in the media:

  • Libya: Women continue to speak out against rapes committed during the country’s long civil war, asking the new government to provide financial, legal and counseling support to victims. Read more via the Associated Press (as syndicated by the Washington Post).
  • Afghanistan: Nicholas Kristof, an avid supporter of women’s rights, featured a guest post by Noorjahan Akbar on his New York Times blog on her experiences with women marching for awareness of sexual harassment concerns. The post also highlighted organizations and women that are continuing this fight.
  • Egypt: The safety of female journalists in Tahrir Square continues to make headlines as another women, this time a female broadcast journalist from France, was assaulted while covering the protests. The organization Reporters Sans Frontieres, recanted a recommendation to remove female journalists from Tahrir Square for their own safety, after many journalists criticized the statement. One opinion piece for the Guardian said “If women journalists are told it’s too dangerous for them to go there, those voices are likely to be silenced altogether.” The Gender Report earlier highlighted the sexual assault of a “60 Minutes” reporter in February.

Have you seen or read other coverage of women in the Middle East? Post a comment or tweet it to the Gender Report or our News Feed, @GRNewsFeed or @GenderReport.

Week in Review: Jan. 17 to 21

*Week in Review is a weekly post that highlights some of the major stories related to gender issues this week. Some of these stories may have already appeared in our News Feed or in the week’s Gender Checks. We’ll at times include a longer analysis of stories as well as bring attention to stories that may have slipped through the cracks of the week’s news cycle.

Women in Combat

A report released Tuesday by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission recommended women should be allowed to serve in front-line combats. The commission, composed of current and retired military officers, told the Associated Press it was time “to create a level playing field for all qualified service members.”

Currently women, who make up 14 percent of the armed forces, are usually restricted to combat support positions such as medics, transportation officers. However, many women stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan already serve in these front-line positions, but cannot be officially assigned there, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Defense policy prohibits women from being assigned to any unit smaller than a brigade whose primary mission is direct combat on the ground.

Women have sometimes been viewed as lacking the physical strength and stamina for the work these kinds of positions require. Other opponents to the full inclusion site dangers to cohesion within units, or the negative public perception of female military casualties. As of January 3 Pentagon data (as cited in the Washington Post) showed 134 women had been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (compared to the more than 5700 men) . Congress and the White house will hear the report in March.

Analysis

With the recent repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies that banned gay and lesbian women from open military service, this study’s timing, I think, is significant. While the debates about physical strength and capacity for service will continue as long as men can do more push ups in gym class, I think the bigger picture is the opportunities within the military that will be opened up if these changes occur. According to the Post’s coverage of the study, more than 10 percent of Marine Corps and Army occupational specialties positions are out of reach to women because of their lack of combat experience. These new opportunities could see more high-ranking positions filled by women.

Another potential impact is perception of what it means to be equal. Certain feminists would argue that any distinction between gender roles and strengths will default to discrimination and a lingering unbalance in society. I would disagree. A November feature in the New York Times highlighted the advantages female soldiers can have in access and communication with civilians, especially in areas such as Afghanistan where cultural gender expectations would exclude male soldiers from these interactions. This commission’s recommendation is a great step forward for a military that, unfortunately, has a history of stifling equality within its barracks. I just hope it doesn’t diminish the unique skill sets some women, and men, bring to the table outside of combat skills.