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Nekzad Defies Warlords to Tell Women's Stories

Friday, December 5, 2008

Farida Nekzad says she defies the warlords who have turned her native Afghanistan into a killing field of female journalists. She faces death threats to tell the stories of Afghan women; if she didn't, she wonders, "Who would?"

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Farida Nekzad says she defies the warlords who have turned her native Afghanistan into a killing field of female journalists. She faces death threats to tell the stories of Afghan women; if she didn't, she wonders, "Who would?"
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Farida Nekzad

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Farida Nekzad let the secret slip.

The vice president of the South Asia Media Commission and the managing editor of Afghanistan's sole independent news agency is pregnant and wants a baby girl.

During a visit to New York in November to accept two prestigious media awards--the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation and the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists--Nekzad told Women's eNews that she would want her daughter to be graced with a rare blessing for a woman in Afghanistan: freedom of speech.

"I want to break the silence," says Nekzad. "Whether I am dead or alive, the struggle should continue. Afghan women's voices should be heard."

Nekzad has been trying to break the silence over Afghan women's repression. Her stories speak of how Afghan women's human rights are subjected to discriminatory norms under warlords--local and regional military commanders--who have carved out their own fiefdoms and see themselves above the law in a country where corruption is the norm and a formal legal system is beyond the reach of locals.

"Warlords call themselves 'mujahedeen,'" says Nekzad, referring to their self-assumed role of a holy warrior, or mujahid. "They are not mujahedeen; they are criminals with ministerial positions" in the government of President Hamid Karzai.

Amid the continuing instability of the nation, Nekzad has written about what is happening to women under the reign of warlords, with a special focus on domestic violence against women and forced marriages.

Causing an International Stir

Nekzad's news reports about the warlords have generated a stir locally as well as internationally.

Nekzad started her career in journalism as a freelancer for the Hague-based Institute of War and Peace Reporting and Effat, a women's magazine put out by a network of Afghan female journalists after the Taliban era with support from the United Nations.

Nekzad has also freelanced for the New York Times, BBC and Voice of America. In 2003, she started working on a part-time basis at the Institute of War and Peace Reporting as an editor and trainer.

Today, Nekzad, 31, takes great pride in being the managing editor and deputy director of Pajhwok Afghan News, Afghanistan's sole independent news agency, which reaches Afghans through more than 50 radio and television stations.

The agency was formed in April 2004 with the support of the Internews Network, a nonprofit media development group based in Arcata, Calif., and the Open Society Institute, a New York-based foundation.

Pajhwok produces daily news and features in English, Pashto and Dari. It has eight provincial bureaus and a network of local and international reporters.

In 2003, she wrote about a warlord who escaped punishment under Afghan law for crimes such as murder, rape and torture. After the story was published, she survived a kidnapping attempt by jumping out of a moving car.

Fingering the Warlords

Four years later her story on the assassination of Zakia Zaki, her close friend and the director of a Kabul radio station, attracted nationwide attention when Nekzad fingered the warlords as culprits.

"Zakia had been receiving death threats by the warlords," says Nekzad. "They sent letters to her in which they warned her against appearing on radio shows because she was a woman."

There's been a heightened security risk for Nekzad since.

"I have received several death threats via phone calls and e-mail messages," she says. "Every day I leave home, I am not sure if I will return."

In Kabul female members of the Afghan parliament--including Surya Subhrang, Fawzia Kofi and Shukria Barakzai--came to her rescue, she says. They insisted she talk to the head of police.

"I spoke with him, but he refused to provide me with any security," says Nekzad. "He simply gave me his visiting card and asked me to call him when I sense danger."

Nekzad says many international organizations have also offered support and protection to her if she leaves Afghanistan. "But I have declined those offers because my country is my dream," says Nekzad.

Navigating Around Threats

To survive threats, she takes whatever precautions she can.

She drives different cars to work each day and often changes her daily schedule. She also sleeps in different rooms of her home--where she lives with her husband--to protect herself against potential attackers.

By taking these risks, Nekzad says she is trying to facilitate Afghan women's role in the field of journalism and encourage reports on women's issues.

That is "double jeopardy; swimming uphill," says Robert Dietz, Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, the New York-based nonprofit that promotes press freedom worldwide.

Dietz praises Farida's work but thinks she could be more influential if she went beyond a focus on women.

"If women like Nekzad are solely focused on women's issues then we lose their perspective on other issues in Afghanistan, such as economic development, corruption and infrastructural flaws," Dietz says.

But Nekzad defends her approach. "Due to segregation in the Afghan society, men do not have access to women suffering in hospitals, homes, schools and workplaces," Nekzad says. "So, if women do not write about them, who would? As it is, there aren't many women in the field."

Sharmeen Gangat is a freelance writer based in New York. She received her master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in New York City. Prior to Columbia, she was a radio producer with United Nations Radio in New York.