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Women Voices Hit The Airwaves: Radical Changes for Pakistan's Tribal Belt

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Armed with a mini-recorder and enveloped from head to toe in a 'chadar' (outer garment women in some Islamic societies wear as part of their adherence to 'purdah') with just her eyes showing, Asma Nawar's day begins on a different note every day.

If it is not reporting the price hike during Ramadan (the holy month of fasting for Muslims), then it is informing her listeners about the quality of education or the transport problems as she combs through the city of Peshawar, capital of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Working for Radio Khyber, a Jamrud-based FM radio station, in the Khyber Agency, Nawar, 25, says, "I want to tell the rest of the women that 'purdah' should not deter them from pursuing their dreams."

Radio Khyber is among the four radio stations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) started by the federal government in 2006 to counter the militant's propaganda and stem their growing influence in the region. While Khyber Radio is an FM channel, the other two - Radio Razmak and Miran Shah Radio Station - are broadcast on medium wave (MW) frequency from Miran Shah and Razmak, in North Waziristan. There was a third MW radio station, Wana Radio Station, in South Waziristan but the militants destroyed it in April. The broadcast is a mix of music, news reports and religious programmes.

FATA, located between the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and the settled areas of the NWFP, include six other principalities, namely, Bajaur, Mohmand, Orakzai, Kurram, North Waziristan and South Waziristan. Strict adherence to the 'purdah', an integral part of Pashtun society, has kept women here almost invisible.

Rabia Akram Khan, 21, who has only recently been employed by Khyber Radio, also wears a 'chadar', but does not cover her face. "In our culture, the most a woman can work is at a school or college as a teacher. But it is still preferred that they stay home," she says. Had it not been for the support of her father and her brother, Khan says that she wouldn't be working today.

Once a peaceful area, one only hears of drones, militant hideouts, poverty and death ever since the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda entered FATA in 2001. No good news ever seems to emerge out of the area. But now that the women's voices have hit the airwaves this is bound to change.

However, for Nawar, the struggle has just begun. She wants to shed the myths attached to the Pashtun culture. "For instance, it is believed that women are not allowed to step out of the homes, except to get education. I am a Pashtun and I have the full support of my family," she says. She has big plans, too. "I want to be heard all over Pakistan, not just in the tribal belt."

Nawar may not know this, but she and two of her colleagues have not only broken age-old Pashtun stereotypes but they have actually begun a women's movement, which may well have far reaching and radical changes for Pakistan's tribal belt.

While they may just be conduits for information for now, Jehanzeb Latif, director of the FATA Media Centre Secretariat says that a giant step has been taken. "When women of the area hear female voices, it is bound to have a positive impact on them and they, too, will be encouraged to seek an occupation other than leading the nondescript life of a housewife. But more than that, it will change the perception of the men folk - that there is more to woman than just being home-makers and that they need not be treated like mere livestock!"

However, all the three women work from Peshawar and are not physically operating from FATA. For now their superiors are content that their voices have not only been accepted but appreciated.

According to Aurangzaib Khan, who trains radio reporters in Peshawar University's Journalism Department, "People are avid radio listeners in the tribal belt and they are used to BBC and Voice of America where they may hear women's voices." But, he added, Khyber Radio "is novel in the sense that it's a local channel using local female voices."

Continued Aurangzaib, "To get women to report from Peshawar and then broadcast their programmes seemed the only solution. In addition, Peshawar is the closest town from Khyber Agency (also the least conservative among the seven principalities) and news reports from Peshawar have their relevance there too."

Tayyab Khan, a producer at Khyber Radio, who has been with the organisation since it started, and who works from Jamrud in the Khyber Agency, says, "It would be very difficult for women to work here. Women's mobility is very restricted. It's just not acceptable here." Agreed Aurangzaib, "It would have made the locals very unhappy."

Kulsum Kakar, 22, knows that all too well. She is working with Sachal Radio, in Quetta, the capital of neighbouring Balcohistan province. "My mother has still not reconciled herself to the idea."

Once in Khyber Radio, it took her nearly two months to convince her father to allow her to move to Peshawar. She quit after four months and went back to Quetta but sorely misses her short stint in journalism. "It is addictive and, once in it, it is hard to give up," she says. For now doing entertainment is all she can do as "there is no platform to work as a radio journalist."

But Aurangzaib believes that for many women journalists in other cities, these are just baby steps. But they are significant given the tribal perspective. "I'd say these young ladies are breaking the stereotype. They've actually had to defy traditions and that is not easy!" he says.

According to him, these women are paving the way for others and have cleverly surpassed multiple disadvantages - of being women, belonging to the Pashtun society and coming from the less developed part of the country. "I, for one, am pleasantly surprised," says Aurangzaib, adding that these women had even delved into stories around conflict. "They have become fairly confident and even go out and interview, say, the police head," he remarks.

However, having trained over a dozen women, Aurangzaib finds it unfortunate that many leave once they get married, "All the potential that I see comes crumbling down."

Kakar agrees, "While I was working with Khyber Radio, three or four women joined, but left shortly afterwards to get married. They never returned and are also not continuing with other radio channels. While we somehow manage to convince our parents to allow us to work, getting the same kind of encouragement after marriage is far more difficult."

Aurangzaib hopes that women continue to come into this field despite the challenges. "Women journalists add value to a story. They look at a story from interesting angles. And in the extremely segregated Pashtun society, it is an asset to have women in the field. For instance, only women would be able to do stories on women's reproductive health. For a man it would tantamount to infringing on the female space."

He also points out that being a woman has its advantages, too, "It's probably easier for them to access these important people, compared to their male counterparts. People cooperate more. And they do all this behind the veil!"

However he also believes that there is the danger of female reporters falling into the trap of doing only gender-related stories, "That should not happen because it would undermine their capabilities. These women are as capable as their male colleagues to tackle any subject under the sun."

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.

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