Peshawar: What makes Mahrukh Jabeen, a journalist based in the Kurram Agency, distinct from others working in the tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is her gender. She is the only woman journalist of the hundreds reporting on the troubled region.
Jabeen, from Parachinar in the Kurram Agency, works as a correspondent for the Tribal News Network (TNN), a Peshawar based online and radio newswire service. She is the only female journalist in her town and agency. None of the other six of the seven agencies in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), stretched over 2500 kms along the Durand Line, has any.
“Journalism is a difficult job for men in FATA but for women it is way tougher due to zero tolerance among tribesmen for working women,” Jabeen told Truth Tracker. Her hometown of Parachinar has been in the news since the 1980s for some of the worst outbreaks of sectarian conflict.
More recently, Parachinar was cut-off from the rest of the country for more than four years when in 2007 the Taliban closed down the Thall-Parchinar Road, blocking travel and supplies to the town.
According to the ‘Profile of Press Clubs in FATA’, an MA thesis by Rehan Muhammad, a former student of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Peshawar, there are more than 324 journalists in FATA. They work with different national and international news organisations, as registered members of 12 different press clubs in the seven agencies and six frontier regions of FATA. The research, published in 2013, said not one of them was a female.
Jabeen took up journalism recently after TNN approached her to report on issues faced by the women population of her agency. FATA remains a deeply conservative region, where women rarely venture out of home, much less to work. Centuries old customs like Swara, Vulvar and Tor that put women at disadvantage are still practiced. Over the last 15 years, mobility and safety has become a major concern in the region due to militancy and military operations, further setting back the lot of women about whom there is little by way of news or information in mainstream media.
Naila Aman Khan, a Lecturer of Sociology at the Institute of Social Work, Sociology and Gender Studies, University of Peshawar, says in her thesis report “Tigah”:
“The tribeswomen do not have any say in any affairs that regulate, rather govern, their lives, let alone in general matters. Women in FATA do not inherit or own any property.” Khan mentions the threat to social workers like Farida from Khyber Agency, who while working to create economic rights awareness among women of her area, was killed in her village in 2012.
“For women in the tribal areas hurdles, not charity, begin at home,” Jabeen told Truth Tracker.
She says everyone in her family tells her to abandon journalism as they feel ashamed of her voice on the radio, because it is heard by men outside her family.
“It is my passion and spirit that keeps me motivated every day for this challenging job in a hostile region,” Jabeen remarked, pride and confidence evident in her eyes, the only visible part of her veiled face.
Had it not been for her uncle who persisted in his support for her despite resistance from the rest of the family, Jabeen would have long given up her career.
Shafaq Saba, a TNN correspondent who also belongs to FATA but is based in Peshawar, says that a grown-up woman could never imagine stepping outside home while living in FATA.
“Tribesmen do not like their women to be exposed to the outer world visually or verbally. If a woman must go out for reasons of emergency or otherwise, she must be accompanied by another or a male relative” he told Truth Tracker.
Saba says tribal men are strict, conservative and excessively possessive of the women of their families.
“In tribal culture where the joint family system endures, every man of the family is like a ‘guardian’ to all women of the family and dictate their will and decisions about them, “ she told Truth Tracker.
“How can a woman imagine taking up a profession like journalism without rebelling against such a stern and authoritarian environment?” .
While absence of opportunities for women and the socio-cultural odds stacked against them is a grave problem, say women rights’ activists, the fact that women take up journalism means women-specific problems in the tribal areas remain hidden from the rest of the world.
Sana Ejaz, a Peshawar based social activist, says a multitude of issues related to health, education, employment and women’s rights violations go unreported in media. As a result, they have gone unattended and unaddressed for decades in FATA.
“The main reason for this is lack of women journalists, with male journalists having no access to the female population in FATA due to socio-cultural reasons,” Ejaz told Truth Tracker. “Even if women-specific issues arise, media in FATA cannot approach victims or women officials or experts to get their comments. Media ends up having comments from men which leaves out the gender perspective from their reporting.”
Women in FATA don’t let men of the family know their problems because they are not open enough with each other, Ejaz believes.
“This is especially true of taboo topics that always remain undiscussed among both genders,” she said.
“How can men explain such women issues to media, then?” she says. “Men let their women endure their problems alone without exposing them to media to address them.”
However, not everybody thinks that not having women journalists in FATA puts the women population in the region at a disadvantage. Akmal Khan Qadri, a journalist and ex-president of Landi Kotal Press Club in Khyber Agency, says: “Lack of female journalists in FATA is not an issue at all. Women have a lot of other immediate problems to take care of [then take up journalism.]”
Qadri, who has been a journalist for more than a decade now, claims that male journalists could do their job more effectively than a women would be able to. “If we (males) can do our job perfectly, why should women be out of homes for the same reason, putting their tribe’s honour at stake?”
Qadri says the tribal people keep their women confined to homes because they respect them according to their centuries-old tribal culture.
Tayyab Afridi, Director TNN, says since its inception, TNN has trained more than 25 women from FATA as reporters, news editors and newscasters, several of them now working with different news organisations in Khyber Pakhtunkwa and other provinces. “This indicates their (tribal women) potential for journalism but none of them could dare continue in the profession, upon returning to their hometowns, due to the extremely unfriendly and unwelcoming environment there.”
Women in FATA, Tayyab says, continue to suffer because their voices are suppressed instead of being amplified. “In a milieu where male journalists can hardly approach women, female journalists could serve as whistle blowers to bring their issues to the fore.”