Shafiqa Habibi

New York (WOMENSENEWS)–Shafiqa Habibi is one of Afghanistan’s most prominent journalists with more than 30 years of experience. Known in her home country as the laureate of news, she was a reporter, public speaker and reader of poetry–an art popular on Afghanistan radio and television. She won four prizes and two medals for her work before the Taliban came to power in 1996.

Habibi graduated in the 1966 from Kabul University with a degree in journalism and immediately went to work for Radio Afghanistan. She was reporting when the veil for women was made voluntary 1959 and when women gained the right to vote in the 1964 constitution; she was reporting when women became members of Parliament and cabinet ministers.

Habibi Encouraged Women in Journalism

As Radio Afghanistan became paired with TV Afghanistan, and joined by major radio and TV stations in all the major cities, Habibi was responsible for the flow of information throughout the country, through relentless years of civil war.

Throughout, Habibi made a point of encouraging and promoting women in broadcast journalism, and founded the Women’s Radio and Television Broadcast Organization in 1994 to protect women’s rights by holding conferences and cultural meetings. At its height, just before the Taliban came to power, the group had 190 members, 100 of whom were reporters and producers, and the rest, engineers and administrators. During the brutal civil wars and the rape campaigns of the rival militias, she says, it was impossible to do any reporting about crimes against women.

“Those who were responsible for abuses of women were the ones with the guns,” she explains.

Taliban Stilled Habibi’s Voice

When the Taliban seized power in 1996, Habibi’s voice was stilled for five years and the nation’s radio network was used to broadcast the Taliban’s order for women to return to their homes, cease all employment immediately and wear the burqa, the head-to-toe version of traditional Pashtun desert clothing.

During the Taliban’s reign, Habibi started an underground women’s organization, which she translates as the Feminine Association, and ran crafts schools throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan, where women could manufacture items that they could sell.

When the U.S. bombing of Kabul began, Habibi escaped to Peshawar, Pakistan, the heart of the Afghan refugee community in that country, where her association now maintains an office. She soon began to take part in the international conversation on the future of her homeland. She attended the December Afghan Women’s Summit in Brussels and traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress, a number of whom promised assistance in restoring nationwide broadcasting. Afghanistan now has one radio station and one television station functioning.

Most of the others in the country have lost their transmitters from the bombing. After technical difficulties, she says, her primary challenge is staff and personnel because virtually all educated people fled the country. Of the 190 women journalists in her organization, there are 15 to 20 remaining in the country, though many of them are in Peshawar and may consider returning if the peace is real. Habibi is quietly hopeful about the future, given the international attention that Afghanistan is currently receiving. The challenge now, she says, for journalists inside and outside of Afghanistan, “to ensure that the violations of women during the Taliban–the rapes, the injustice–are not repeated.”

Shafiqa was not present at the award ceremony because of travel delays. However, Aliza Nadi, an journalism student at New York University who was born in Afghanistan, accepted on her behalf.

Wells a Crusading Journalist

Women’s Enews board member Carolyn Butts, publisher of African Voices magazine, first told the audience of more than 100 about Ida B. Wells. She was a crusader for civil rights for women and African Americans.

Wells was a publisher, journalist and orator who fought against the brutal lynchings in the South during the Reconstruction era. She was also a wife and teacher. She was like many of the women named by Women’s Enews as a Leader for the 21st Century.

Born in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862, Ida was the oldest of eight children. After her parents died of Yellow Fever in 1880, Wells became a teacher in Holly Springs to support the family. She completed her studies at Rust University and moved to Memphis, Tennessee where she attended Fisk University while teaching.

Wells soon began writing and campaigning against racism and sexism and in 1891 she was barred from teaching after writing several articles criticizing the educational system. She then invested her savings in co-founding the Memphis Free Speech newspaper. As a journalist she wrote scathing articles against lynching including a series of editorials following the lynching of three prominent African American businessmen.

On May 21, 1892, the Memphis Free Speech was ransacked and burned to the ground. Wells was even more determined to pursue justice, she continued speaking out against lynching and later moved to Chicago. In 1895, she published “The Red Record,” a lengthy article documenting the history of lynching in America.

In honor of Wells’ courage and spirit, the first Ida B. Wells Award is being presented to Shafiqa Habibi on the 110th Anniversary of the tragic burning of the Memphis Free Speech and at the first event honoring the Women’s Enews 21 Leaders for the 21st Century. Habibi, a woman of distinction, is carrying on Wells’ tradition.

Nadi is a senior honor student at New York University studying journalism. She fled her homeland Afghanistan at the age of 3 during the peak of the Soviet-Afghan war in 1984. She was appointed to accept this award on Shafiqa Habibi’s behalf and she is an appropriate person to do so simply because Habibi serves as a role model for Nadi. Her dreams of becoming a journalist took root at age of 10 and they have only grown stronger since last year when the world discovered the problem known as Afghanistan. Nadi believes it is not only her dream, but also her duty and responsibility,to represent the unseen face and the unheard voice of the Afghan people.

Nadi Read Aloud Shafiqa Habibi’s Words, Sent via E-mail.

“I am very proud to be awarded the Ida B. Wells Bravery in Journalism award. I am thinking now about a situation during my career. It was a really difficult time. I will never forget that terrible night in 1979. Just as I finished doing the TV news at 7 p.m. there were bombings and many rockets being fired. After a while the U.S.S.R. army arrived and entered the TV broadcasting studio. They started to kill. They killed our watchman; they killed our studio engineer; they ordered us to put up our hands and we were asked to turn our faces to the wall. An armed man was standing right behind me and I was waiting for that bullet to be fired at me. After a while, I along with other technical engineers and TV people were taken to a room. We crossed over dead bodies. We were there for a second day and I was a prisoner. That was the worst night and my husband and children were waiting for me all night. There was no way to get in contact with them; there was no telephone contact. After that incident, all of my friends left the country; however I stayed in my motherland. I continued my duty bravely with strong perseverance. For a journalist, nothing is more of an award than one received for work during times of occupation.”

Habibi’s flight from Karachi landed in New York on May 21 after the celebration was ended New York and she was the guest of honor at a special luncheon given the next day in her honor. She was given the award, a certificate and the deep love and appreciation of the board and staff of Women’s Enews. She also received a substantial contribution from a private donor for her organization. The following Monday, she was interviewed for the Afghan program broadcast by the by Voice of America, reaching million of listeners with her message of hope for women of Afghanistan.