Srinagar, Indian Administered Kashmir — In a place like conservative Kashmir, many are reluctant to speak to male journalists, which means that more female journalists are now becoming prominent in the ‘valley of unease,‘ gaining access to stories that would otherwise go unreported or under-reported.
Women reporters are reporting not only conflict, but the experiences of ordinary women living through extraordinary times in the continuous two decades of turmoil in Kashmir, painting a picture of how a militarised society can become affected by military conflict.
A few years ago, challenging male reporters in the field of journalism would have been unthinkable, but a debate remains today as to how much progress has actually been made.
“Women living in communities in the disputed border region between India and Pakistan have been suffering for decades, though their stories often go unheard amid the clatter of diplomacy and the ongoing militancy in the region,” said The Epoch Times (U.S.) in a recent April 2012 story.
Braving all odds
Shahana Butt, Press TV’s only female journalist in Kashmir, records and reports events in an environment which is increasingly hostile to press freedom.
She has several years of experience and has covered issues in northern Kashmir villages such as the growing number of widows in India, Kashmir’s unsustainable population growth and regional corruption.
She’s also reported on how relationships have suffered amid the political conflict, such as the film she made about a Pakistani girl who wasn’t able to call her family after marrying a Kashmiri boy because they were living on the other side of the border.
“We managed a video conference between the two families and filmed it… It was the first time that lady faced the camera but she was so comfortable, as if I was a part of her family. The kind of happiness that I saw on their faces was worth watching,” she said in an interview with the Doha Centre for Media Freedom. “I am not sure to what extent I had been able to benefit them, but that day I realised how a divide creates distances and suffering.”
Shahana Butt is pleased with what she has achieved battling through a male dominated profession amid traumatising and often dangerous conflict.
Taking the lead amid conflict
The nature of a zone like Kashmir, which is heavily militarised, has eroded media freedom. In the last three summers most journalists were confined to their homes and had to observe a curfew. Some were not allowed to move out of their offices, if they ever managed to reach them in the first place. Curfew passes were not given out, even to top veteran journalists, let alone female journalists.
For Bismah Malik becoming a reporter was natural. She grew up in a family of journalists. She’s a correspondent, with a journalism degree from Delhi, for the English-language daily Kashmir Times who has also also with CNBC TV 18. While she recognises the important work of others like herself, Malik thinks there is a need for more women to take up the profession in the media.
“I always wanted to work for my people, especially women who face many challenges in conflict zones, especially due to their gender. There is a dire need for more women journalists to tell stories about their families, about women, which are downplayed,” says the young journalist.
Women should devise new ways to minimise their risk too, she outlined. “We shouldn’t be afraid of speaking out,” Malik said.
‘We weren’t taken seriously’
For a long time women reporters’ male counterparts didn’t take them seriously, despite them working on the front line. But that trend is changing.
Afsana Rashid, a journalist with 10 years experience, has worked for several English-language papers including the Kashmir Images, Kashmir Times, the Tribune and Milli Gazette.
“In my experience, I have found issues related to women are not given enough space, which is still a big challenge for media plurality. But now, this negative trend is changing with more and more women joining the field and changing the mindset,” she says.
“Working as a female journalist is considered to be a male job in Kashmir,” shares Rashid. “But I choose to be a journalist above anything else. As a female journalist it was not easy. Some made fun of us, ignored us and we are not generally invited to press conferences,” she continued.
One of the main benefits more female reporters can bring is providing a deeper, more personal, picture of how the conflict affects society. Women journalists have a greater level of access to women who have been victimised in the ongoing conflict in Kashmir.
But for Monisa Qadri, Professor of Journalism at the Islamic University of Science and Technology in Srinagar, there are still too few female journalists around to tell these stories.
“I see that the inclination towards this field is positive but that does not seem to transform into practicality… …the sustainable number of women active in the field is not so pleasing,” Qadri says. “Nevertheless, I do see few of my girls making… We should encourage all the aspiring minds to create a niche for themselves and create some space in this otherwise male dominated area.”
Originally appeared in Women News Network