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Women in Fata find a voice
By Huma Yusuf
Tuesday, 30 Jun, 2009 | 01:20 PM PST |

PESHAWAR: In a small recording studio in Peshawar, Asma rushes around with a minidisc recorder. She has to finish editing a news bulletin and make it back to her home in Nowshera before it gets dark. ‘If I don’t get the bulletin done in time for this evening’s show, the station won’t let me continue as a radio journalist,’ she says. ‘But if I don’t get home on time, then my parents won’t let me continue working either.’

Asma is one of 15 reporters for Radio Khyber, a Jamrud-based FM radio station, and one of the few legal media outlets in Pakistan’s tribal belt. The station, which is supported by the Fata Secretariat, aims to counter the extremist, pro-jihad and anti-West programming that is typical of dozens of illegal radio stations run by hard-line clerics throughout the tribal agencies.

The station’s programming is notable – listeners enjoy a mix of infotainment shows, call-in talk shows, development-oriented programmes that touch on social taboos and health care, and music, particularly hits in Pashto by Fata-based artists. Broadcasting for a total of six hours a day – three hours in the morning, and then again in the evening – the station also airs religious programming, but sermons or religious discussions are kept short and are sandwiched between music shows and humorous chat shows.

What is particularly remarkable about Radio Khyber, though, is that it employs three women as radio journalists. Given that women in the tribal belt do not have as many job opportunities as their counterparts in settled areas or major cities, the option to work for Radio Khyber is invaluable. But the symbolic value of these women’s participation in the station is even more important.

According to Aurangzaib Khan, the manager of Media Development at Internews Pakistan – a non-profit organisation that trains radio journalists – it is highly unusual to have women’s voices on the airwaves in Fata. ‘People in the tribal areas don’t like it if their women call in to radio shows. They think it is shameful if their voices are broadcast on air because the radio goes to the public,’ adds Tayyab, Radio Khyber’s news editor. In fact, when women call the station to request songs or ask questions during a talk show, their queries are broadcast on air under men’s names. 

In this context, Asma and her female colleagues’ determination to be radio journalists is admirable. But it also means that they have had to defy their families to pursue the career of their choice. For example, Kulsoom, a radio journalist from Quetta who is temporarily based in Peshawar to work with Radio Khyber, says that her parents and brother strongly disapprove of strange men hearing her voice on air. ‘But I wanted to do something unique,’ she says. ‘I’m the first Pathan girl from Balochistan who has come into the media.’

In addition to their families, the women had to overcome their own reservations about entering the public sphere. Andaleeb, a young reporter from Landi Kotal, admits that she wanted to work behind the scenes. ‘I was scared of reporting and had heard that women face problems when they come into the field,’ she says. ‘But once I started I realised we get more respect than the men and everyone is more cooperative.’

Now, Radio Khyber’s female reporters know that their struggle to be on air is worth it. For example, Andaleeb is proud of her involvement with Radio Khyber. ‘It’s good that we’re the voice of the people,’ she says, ‘but it’s even better that we’re the voice of the women. If you only run men’s voices on the station then how can anything change? If women get on air then maybe other women will be encouraged to call and maybe even come into this field one day.’

That said, none of the female reporters are willing to be confined to covering women’s issues alone. ‘Sometimes my inner woman says that I should focus on women’s issues,’ says Kulsoom, ‘but then I think that if men can do something, then why not me too?’ Asma also complains that female journalists ‘get dumped with women’s issues, but we should be able to do anything – we should be able to touch all issues.’

Between them, Asma, Andaleeb and Kulsoom have submitted news bulletins on traffic, health issues, imprisoned children, taxation, strikes, the plight of internally displaced persons, military operations against militants in Khyber Agency and more. As such, they comprise an integral part of Radio Khyber’s reporting team, the most vital wing of the station.

Under the Fata Secretariat’s direction, Radio Khyber was meant to restrict its programming to music and entertainment shows. ‘Once the military operations and Talibanisation began, we felt that in our position as journalists, we had to do something more,’ explains the news editor Tayyab. ‘The mood in the tribal belt was not for fun programmes, so we opted to do news bulletins. In a crisis, people want to hear what’s happening down the road, they want the facts so they can make up their mind.’

For that reason, Radio Khyber now offers regular news bulletins on happenings in Fata by local journalists, including the female reporters. The station’s news offerings have secured its popularity among listeners in the tribal areas, who are slowly gravitating away from the illegal FM broadcasts of clerics to hear locally relevant news and information. And hearing a woman’s voice deliver the latest news or conduct an interview with a government official is the beginning of an important paradigm shift. ‘When a woman does reporting, it reminds the listeners that she exists, that she is also participating in society, that she also has information and skills to offer,’ says Asma.

Luckily, now that Radio Khyber’s female reporters have been bitten by the reporting bug, residents of Fata can expect to hear from them regularly. ‘I want to do on-the-spot reporting,’ says Asma. ‘Women aren’t usually allowed to do this, but I want to cover the military operations underway in the agencies.’ Having entered the public sphere, these women are here to stay.
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