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In Pakistan tribal belt, female reporters get a voice

Radio Khyber's female journalists defy a Pashtun tenet barring women from being heard by strangers. Even so, the Taliban-wary trailblazers avoid issues such as women's rights and tribal politics.

August 18, 2009|Alex Rodriguez

PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN — Radio Khyber airs in the heart of Pakistan's wild and volatile tribal areas, where women are bound by strict centuries-old codes of conduct handed down by generations of Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in northwestern Pakistan.

The code's tenets are oppressive and nonnegotiable. Women should confine themselves to their homes and the sole task of raising children. When they go to markets and other public places, a male relative should accompany them. And their voices should never be heard by strangers.

Asma Nawar, a 25-year-old Pashtun with wide brown eyes and a crisp, resonant voice, repeatedly breaks that last rule as a reporter for Radio Khyber.

"I feel good about that," she says, peering out from the maroon-and-yellow veil that covers the rest of her face. "I can't say that our cultural values are wrong, but I think women should come out and work, and get the jobs they want."

Nawar and two other women hired in the last year as reporters for the radio station see themselves as trailblazers in a part of Pakistan that mires its women in old world thinking.

The Taliban, which believes in keeping women away from college and work, still controls large swaths of Pakistan's tribal belt along the Afghan border. In the poverty-ravaged Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the dismal 3% literacy rate for women is far lower than the already low overall rate of 17% for the region.

Additionally, the Taliban does not hesitate to demonstrate its views on education for women. This year, Taliban militants burned down scores of girls' schools throughout the Swat Valley.

Nawar narrows her gaze when the subject of the Taliban comes up.

"We know they are listening to us," she says in a studio at the University of Peshawar, where she and Radio Khyber's other two female journalists prepare and edit their radio pieces. "Am I worried? No, because I'm doing the right job."

Based in the village of Jamrud, 28 miles from the border with Afghanistan, Radio Khyber is able to employ women as journalists because its editors and producers know just how far to push the boundaries.

They minimize the risks for the women by barring them from doing stories in the tribal areas. And they have Nawar and her female colleagues focus primarily on children, education and healthcare, considered here as women's issues. Subjects such as tribal politics and regional military operations are off-limits. Their editors ask them to not conduct interviews in the homes of women, a practice that Pashtun society frowns on.

Radio Khyber director Taib Afridi also discourages his female journalists from delving into issues of women's rights. Stories interpreted by tribal elders as calls for women in the tribal areas to rise up could trigger a strong backlash against the station, Afridi says.

"The dilemma for women in [the tribal areas] is that they can go to the village water tank to get water, but to go to a hospital or a school, a wedding or a funeral, they need to be accompanied by a male," he says.

"These journalists must be very careful to not give advice that could be viewed as promoting women's rights or empowerment," he says. In the tribal areas, "if you give voice to the voiceless, this could be dangerous."

Pashtun women outside the tribal areas enjoy a bit more freedom. Nawar, who grew up in the town of Nowshera just outside Peshawar, took the job at the FM radio station eight months ago after graduating from the University of Peshawar with a journalism degree. Her parents supported the idea, though her younger sister, Sumaira, told Nawar that a recent spate of suicide bombings in Peshawar had made working in the city too dangerous.

"She said, 'One day there could be a bomb blast, and we'd be searching for you at the local hospital.' I told her, 'Everybody has to die.' "

Nawar says she sought out work at Radio Khyber because she thinks the constraints Pashtun society puts on women are outdated.

"It's wrong that Pashtun women are held back like this," she says, taking a break from editing a piece on children's healthcare. "It's unfair, and that's what inspired me to work here."

Her pieces have focused on a wide range of topics, from the availability of wheelchairs in the tribal areas to a segment about curfew restrictions placed on tribespeople fleeing violence in their area. Because it's too dangerous for her to report in the tribal areas, she interviews the region's residents in neighboring Peshawar and gets much of her information from Peshawar-based organizations that work in the tribal areas.

Much of the feedback on the segments produced by the women has been positive, Afridi says. No one from the tribal areas has called in to decry the sound of women's voices on the air, and so far the Taliban hasn't issued any threats.

"Even the militants have women in their families, and the problems of those women are being covered by our reporters," Afridi says. "So maybe the Taliban appreciates what we're doing."

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alex.rodriguez@latimes.com

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