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.