Web general

Berkeley Talks transcript: International journalists on women’s rights in Iran and Afghanistan

four portraits of women journalists
(Photos courtesy of Berkeley Journalism)

Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #165: “International journalists on women’s rights in Iran and Afghanistan.”

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can follow Berkeley Talks wherever you listen to your podcasts. New episodes come out every other Friday. Also, we have another podcast, Berkeley Voices, that shares stories of people at UC Berkeley and the work that they do on and off campus.

[Music fades out]

Geeta Anand: Hello everyone. Welcome to this really important panel discussion entitled, “Fighting for Women’s Rights Afghanistan and Iran.” As you all know, we are living in a time where more restrictions are being placed on the lives of women and girls in many countries and cultures. Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August of 2021, the group has placed limitations on employment, education, public interactions, and other fundamental rights such as access to justice. Iran’s morality police carry out brutality for breach of the country’s strict dress code. And of course, in the U.S. abortion bans as we all know are increasing. Welcome, welcome, welcome.

This event is being presented in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. I want to thank Anne Peters for making this happen. I want to thank Deidre English, and Leah Swindle and our amazing events team at the journalism school. This is the type of conversation that could not happen in many other places. And I just want to for a moment, just value the fact that we are here and able to have this conversation with some women doing the most important work in covering these areas. So, I also want to recognize some of our students and some of our guests here who are from Iran and from Afghanistan. And they have lived some of the challenges that we are going to talk about here today. So, thank you for being here and for supporting this event. I’m going to introduce our panelists, but before, let me just tell you how we’ll organize ourselves.

We’ll have about 40 minutes of dialogue, our guests and me, and then we’ll open it up to about 25 minutes of questions from all of you. So, we’ve already discussed how we want to just dive in and have an active, engaged, lively conversation. We are going to just jump in if we have ideas and thoughts, and we’re going to cut each other off if we have something more important to say. Men have been trained to do that and we women are learning very fast how to do the same. I want to say I come from India, a country where women also suffer a lot of discrimination. And where, as we’ll all be discussing, it’s really challenging as a reporter trying to cover difficult stories in countries where there’s so much discrimination. Of course in dictatorships it’s even more challenging, but I just could not be more excited to talk to you about just how you have lived these challenges in trying to do your stories and what the stories are that you’ve covered.

So, we have Arezou Rezvani, who’s a reporter and senior editor for NPR News. She’s also founding editor of Up First, NPR’s daily news podcast. Much of her work centers on people experiencing some of the most difficult days of their lives in places that are often in the throes of radical change. Her reporting has brought her face-to-face with child coal miners in Afghanistan, resistant fighters in Ukraine, radical clerics in Pakistan and abandoned newborns in Lebanon’s collapsing hospitals. Welcome. Thank you for being here.

Jane Ferguson, a PBS NewsHour correspondent, contributor to the New Yorker and multiple Pulitzer Center grantee. The 2020 Princeton University McGraw professor of journalism. Ferguson has more than 13 years of experience living in the Middle East and reporting from the Arab world, Africa and South Asia. Her work focuses on U.S. foreign policy and defense, conflict diplomacy and human rights, with honors including the Alfred duPont-Columbia University, George Polk and Emmy Awards. Welcome, Jane.

And Zahra Joya, founder of Rukshana Media. She founded it in December 2020. It’s Afghanistan’s first feminist news agency, created with the aim of becoming the first national news source where Afghan women could see their own lives reflected in the stories published every day. Joya was named as one of Times Women of the Year in 2020 for her reporting on women’s lives in Afghanistan. She continues to run Rukshana Media from exile in the UK, publishing reporting from her team of female journalists across Afghanistan on life for women under Taliban rule. Welcome, Zahra. So, I want you all to dive in to these questions, but I’m going to begin addressing this question to Zahra first but I want everyone to join in afterwards. But talk about the challenges that women face as journalists trying to report in Afghanistan.

Zahra Joya: Hello. Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me here. It’s a great honor to be with you all. Afghanistan is a patriarchy and traditional country. It’s a very difficult to being a woman in this country, especially this moment. But being a journalist now it’s far reach, but before it was almost difficult. And this country is a dangerous country for journalists. So, after the collapse of Afghanistan, more than 80 person of female journalists, they disappearing from Afghan media landscape. And so, the brave number of female journalists is still working, but they are facing to the fourth hijab. So, even the female presenters in the TV, they have to cover their face with mask, which is very, very difficult for them. I interviewed with one of them and she told me that, “When I am reading the news, so I couldn’t breathe.”

So, it was very, very difficult for her. So, there is lots of pressure and restrictions. So, unfortunately after the Taliban took power again, so there is no independent media and journalists exist inside of the country. But a number of media and journalists who are working in exile, it’s a kind of light. I can say light because the people inside the countries, they say we are hearing about what is happening in our country from the exile media, which I think it’s very important to the exile media can keep on going on. Yeah, thank you.

Geeta Anand: Just building on what you just said, can we just talk about the challenges covering a country from the outside as exiled media or as journalists as you … Can you talk a little bit, Jane, about just the challenges of doing that, of covering what’s happening from the outside and your experience trying to do that, if you have?

Jane Ferguson: Yeah, absolutely. I was last in Afghanistan in November of 2021, so the Taliban had been in control for several months. And so when I was there, obviously you’re there you’re able to make connections with the women, you can talk to them on encrypted services, you can go and meet with them in places. But since then, I’ve been reporting from afar and you have to make connection with young women. And then you have to try to do it as responsibly as you can. So, we’ll be like interviewing them, hiding their faces, in some cases warping their voices, and you can really just take testimony from them on what life is like. It’s hugely challenging. One thing that I keep trying to remind people of is that before the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan had this enormous community. Moreso than any country that I’m often reporting from, of brilliant local journalists like Zahra and her community of reporters.

There was a huge amount of them and just so many of them have gone. It used to be a place where you could get information and video and pictures from incredibly easily. And that has completely vanished now. So, you’re relying on networks of brave young women who are there, who are organizing themselves, who are still even to this day protesting in the street, which is unbelievably risky. So, they’re very, very media savvy. Afghans are incredibly well-connected to the internet, so they’re very well aware of social media and the need to keep this story out there. So, they do want to talk to the press. One other thing that is helpful with regards to this as opposed to in Iran, where in Iran the regime is so organized.

There’s such a multi-layered security apparatus that they can repress the internet, they can survey people. They’re much more technologically advanced at effectively repressing insurgencies or any kind of social insurgency. And in Afghanistan that doesn’t necessarily exist. So, you are able to make connections with young women, which is incredibly helpful. It’s much, much more challenging trying to do that kind of reporting with the Iranian protestors from afar.

Arezou Rezvani: Yeah, I agree with everything that Jane just said. The surveillance state in Iran is very, very sophisticated. I mean everything down to facial recognition technology to stopping you on the streets to take a look at what’s on your phone. And it makes it very challenging for people to muster the courage to speak up. There was an interesting conversation going on in the fall where there was pressure on news agencies to cover Iran, but it was hard to find people who would talk. And even if you granted them anonymity, even if you altered voices, the surveillance state is so great there. The intimidation tactics are so strong there that people have a really hard time understandably speaking up and speaking out. So, you just have to continue reaching out to people. And in Iran, the internet is not always stable. They have a very strong ability to shut down the internet.

So, at a certain point we were reaching out to people via WhatsApp voice memos. So, we’d send questions on recordings and they’d send back answers on recordings, which is not the greatest way to conduct journalism. You want to kind of be in the moment and have live conversations with people. But you do what you can in order to gather people’s accounts. That might mean that you have to corroborate a bit more and really check your sources and think to yourself, well, does this make sense or does this sound like an exaggeration? It poses huge, huge challenges but it can be done. I think in Afghanistan it’s a little bit easier to talk to people, but also in the last year I think it’s become increasingly difficult for women especially to speak up. I was there in August and again in November, and in a span of just a few months I got the impression that people were a lot more tense on the streets.

People felt like they were constantly being watched, and I think that’s always a fear of ours. We can do the interviews, put down the phone, or do the interviews live, walk away. You never quite know what’s going to happen to people who talk to you, who is being filmed. For example in Iran, there are a lot of cameras that are just watching at every single moment and they know exactly where you are. Your translator is someone who is assigned to you by the government. And that person both does the translation for you and is also a government minder. So, covering these two countries at this moment in time is hugely challenging, and I think it’s so important that we’re having this conversation for that reason.

Geeta Anand: Can you talk about and NPRs decision to go back into Iran, and just the challenges of when to go back and how to think about it?

Arezou Rezvani: Sure. So, the protests really started in mid-September, and it was the death of Mahsa Jina Amini in mid-September in the custody of the morality police that sparked that latest protest. There have been protests over the years, but this really galvanized people in a really extreme way. I think every news organization under the sun wanted to be there at the height of these protests. But it’s very difficult to go in. You depend on getting a visa and a visa is something that’s issued from the state. And if they don’t want you there, you’re not going to be able to go. They will deny you at the airport, you’ll have to turn around and that’s that. And so, people had to get very creative about how they covered those protests, the WhatsApp messages being an example of that. You can only count on Twitter feeds and social media for so much.

At a certain point it gets very, very difficult to verify accounts. At a certain point though, we did apply for visas. We waited many, many months to get in. And finally in January, a team of ours at NPR got an email out of the blue one morning that they had been granted a visa. And the protests had kind of died down at that point. And we were coming up on the anniversary events of the 1979 revolution, which is traditionally a time when the state likes to kind of put its best foot forward and really celebrate the revolution. And they bring a lot of supporters of the government out. And so, they had a show to put on. And so, a team of ours did go and it’s an interesting place. It’s the kind of place where if you don’t know the culture very well, if you don’t speak the language, if you don’t know how to ask the right questions, things may look fine.

The cafes are bustling, people are pushing the limits of the dress code. There’s a veneer that things are going OK, people seem OK. You don’t have to pull that veneer back too much to see that things are actually quite shaky. And people kind of when they answer your questions, you read between the lines. They won’t always be ready to answer you directly. We got a lot of heat for sending a team back. The idea being that why would you send a team of journalists there and legitimize this government? Why speak to officials? I would argue that these are the exact moments where you have to go and cover a new story. It’s in the moment of chaos where it’s not quite clear what’s going on.

There might be a dominant narrative and you want to go and you want to check it out to see if that matches reality. So, I think all in all, it was a trip that revealed that although the protests have kind of died down, that there is still a lot of frustration, a lot of anger. And that this might just be the first phase of a much longer kind of protest and movement.

Jane Ferguson: I think also, sort of jumping off what you’re saying there with regards to the criticism that sometimes journalists get leveled at them for going to places like that, where there’s a government that is granting access to some but not to everybody. And you know that they’re going to be subject to attempts to push propaganda. I do think that ultimately it really comes down to how journalists and journalistic teams handle it. Like an NPR team going in who are highly experienced, who are very, very well aware of what’s going on. If we go down the track of being too wary of criticism people, we get dangerously close to the similar argument, which is why are you giving a platform to this particular terror group? Or why are you giving a platform to that person? And it’s really not journalists’ job to pick and choose. It’s our job to get in any way we can, but when there, do quality work.

Knowing the context, knowing the people, giving as broader perspective as possible and avoiding the worst accesses of access journalism. And so, just because you have the access doesn’t mean you’re doing access journalism. You can still go into these places and still do quality reporting. In the early days of the uprising in Syria, there were journalists who were able to get into Damascus and do good journalism as well. So, long as you know that what you’re putting forward to your audience or the public, is still a fair assessment of what’s happening on the ground.

Arezou Rezvani: I’ll only add this, I think if you do want to go down this argument of why do you appear in countries where the government isn’t legitimate, all of a sudden the world’s going to start looking quite small. You’re not going to go to Yemen, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Iraq. There are so many countries where all of a sudden you’re just not going to visit. So, I think it’s a very kind of simplified, narrow-minded kind of way to look at what journalists do. I think a journalist’s job is to capture the world as it is, not as it ought to be. The world as it ought to be that’s the important work of advocates and lawyers and activists. In order to do that work though, you have to kind of capture what’s happening on the ground.

Who are the main players? What’s at stake? What are the agendas? What are the kind of hidden forces at play? Those are the things that you can only see if you go to a place and you talk to people and you see things for yourself. And you kind of see the discrepancies between what people are saying, but then what you’re seeing. So, it’s hugely important that we go to places exactly when they’re in the throes of that transition or instability or protest.

Geeta Anand: Zahra, I was wondering … Thank you. I was wondering how you, and I’ll ask you to speak for some of the women who collaborate with you for Rukshana Media, but how do you and the women in Afghanistan who you work with as journalists view foreign correspondents who come in to cover … I’m generalizing hugely, but come in to cover the important stories happening in Afghanistan? I guess what differentiates in your mind the good journalism from the bad journalism that foreign correspondents do? And we all want to be doing the good journalism. But what can you offer us that would be instructive? We have journalism students here. How can we be the responsible international foreign correspondents?

Zahra Joya: I think in countries like Afghanistan has a lot of conflict. And I think at this moment it is very important to amplify the voice of people who are voiceless. So, for foreign journalists and the big media organizations in the world, I think for them it’s not a matter of every single stories, but they want to do a big story from a country like Afghanistan that has almost 40 million population. And the next things that I’m thinking, because the foreign journalists are in the international medias. They are based in capital and big cities like Herat, Kabul or Balkh. And Afghanistan has 34 provinces. So, there is lots of stories that are still untold. I think it is very good if the media can focus on every …

In Helmand, there was war for 20 years between international forces and national forces of Afghanistan and the Taliban. So, I know there was lots of risks, so the journalists they weren’t allowed to go there. But there was lots of stories about the women and the other marginalized group, that they didn’t access to the media or the social media or the internet. And in this moment, I think that especially for me, it’s very important that I’m focusing with my colleagues on other provinces. Not like in Kabul, Afghanistan is not in Kabul or Herat or something like that. In Badakhshan, we have a group of Afghan nationals that they called … I don’t remember their name, but they are living for a long time in the mountain. So, they don’t know even about the car, the street, the cities.

They’re just living in the Palmir area. So, they are just staying with … And they have animals. So, they are just a group of them they are living there. So, which international media and foreign journalist vendor in this 20 years? None. I think it is very good if the journalists when they think about countries like Afghanistan, so they have to recognize which area is important and has lots of stories.

Geeta Anand: So, let’s think about our editors as foreign correspondents. And what are the obstacles to getting out to the rural areas of countries with difficult terrain like Afghanistan?

Jane Ferguson: I would say first and foremost, for a lot of the news organizations, certainly U.S. news organizations and television, security. And the truth is the ugly reality is security translates into money because many of the broadcasters, they dictate the need for private security firms and they’re incredibly expensive. And that’s a big challenge. I’ve been very lucky to be able just to rely more on the security strategy of just having very good quality local contacts and working with great Afghan colleagues. But security is a big issue. Also timing. I used to work in Kabul for Al Jazeera English as the Afghanistan correspondent, and part of it was its cable TV. I can’t be away from a live shot for too long. It’s terrific that any time I can get permission to go up to Wardak Province or to go to anywhere outside of Kabul for several days with the team, but then if news breaks, they expect you to be there.

So, a lot of it is the type of media that you’re reporting on. Being able to go to an editor and say, “Hey, can I just have four or five days to dive off into Kunduz to spend time there. And when I come back you can have one really good story.” And they’re usually asking you for more than that.

Arezou Rezvani: I think recently I was there in November, I think one of the big challenges now is just getting permission to go beyond the big cities like Kabul, like Herat. So, nowadays the Taliban have to grant you permission to leave the province. Once you enter the new province, then you have to get permission from the governor. And that takes sometimes a very long time, many, many tees. And then once you get permission, then you still have to go through checkpoints that are manned by Taliban guards who don’t always get the memo. Or take a look at your letter and don’t really agree that you should be there and you kind of have to negotiate with them. It takes a lot of push and pull to just get to a place that normally takes you maybe five or six hours. It’s all of a sudden like a 10-hour trip and it’s nighttime and you kind of got to wrap it up, get to your hotel and not be out past dark for security reasons.

But it is so worth it. It is so worth it to get out of the big cities because I think you encounter inevitably some very surprising attitudes and perspectives. The 20 years that the United States was in Afghanistan looked very different for women in big cities versus women in rural areas. For women in rural areas, life under the Taliban has been a big respite. Gone are the days of overnight raids, gone are the days of random drone strikes for community gatherings, whether that’s a funeral or a wedding. Life was pretty scary for women in rural areas, for families in rural areas. The women’s empowerment projects that were held up and embraced in the big cities that so many women did benefit from, I don’t want to say that that wasn’t good for a lot of people, but that didn’t always reach women in rural areas.

And so, that’s kind of just one narrow view of why it’s so important to kind of break out of the big cities, whether that’s in the United States, which we learned in 2016 with our election. And the huge support that I think surprised a lot of people when Donald Trump was elected. Or that’s breaking out of the big cities in a country like Iran or Afghanistan.

Jane Ferguson: Also, I think when it came to the fall of Kabul it was the same. Just June of 2021, getting out of the Kabul bubble and driving up … I remember taking a drive up to the Arghandab Valley, which was less than two hours away from Kabul heading north. We were with the Afghan military, had already fallen back and asked the local militias to try to hold the line against the Taliban. The Taliban were literally advancing in front of our eyes towards the city. So, when people were so shocked that they showed up on the city’s outskirts, they hadn’t really left. Head south an hour or two hours and you’re in Wardak province with the Taliban, who are literally just waiting to drive into the city. So, leaving the city also from just a pure war reporting standpoint is absolutely vital. To see with your own eyes what we all now know was happening.

Geeta Anand: Zahra, what stories surprised you that some of the reporters for Rukshana Media have been covering? What stories did they tell you or have they told that you just would not have expected?

Zahra Joya: Well, it’s not a long time that I’m working as a founder of Rukshana Media, because I created Rukshana Media in 2020 in Afghanistan with a hope that we can create a conversation among the Afghan Women. Because in Afghanistan most of women unfortunately, they don’t have enough time or platform to talk with each other. So, very soon we lost this hope because of the Kabul Afghanistan clubs. During this two years, most of the stories that we are publishing in our website and social media platforms are very sad and heartbreaking, especially in this moment that the families want to sell young girls or children. It’s very, very heartbreaking and devastating for me. But in the meantime, from September of 2021, a group of brave women just stand against aggressive policy Taliban. And they’re just raising their voice and they said no to the Taliban as a group that they’re … To be honest, they are terrorists.

But it is very positive. Sometimes it gives me hope to be honest, because when I’m seeing a young generation of African women who grew up during the 20 years and they went to school, they went to universities and they’re educated. And during this 18 or 19 months that we are focusing on Afghan to amplify their voices, we are covering every single protest because it is very important for us. We are publishing video, audio, text, because it’s a kind of light and that it will encourage the other people who are voiceless. And it’s very true that the Taliban there scare the people and traumatize them. But in the meantime, when I’m seeing that this young woman just trying to fight and struggle for their rights, it is very …

Sometimes I can’t find the word to describe my feeling because I came from this generation who know about their rights. And the generation that they recognize the value of freedom of speech, they know about the value of the education because in Western and your country, I think you are so lucky. So, you have a free country. From the beginning of your age you can go to nursery, to school, to university. But from my country and in my life, it was very difficult at the beginning that I go to school. And during this 20 years I see how the African women they changed. In 1990s, there was no women to protest against the Taliban or to raise their voice because most of them they were illiterate, they were uneducated. But in this moment they have lots of young women from different provinces struggling young and raising their voice.

Geeta Anand: Thank you. I’ve just wondered if you could tell us about a particular challenge when you were out reporting in Afghanistan or Iran, that you faced particular to your gender as you went about trying to cover a story in a dictatorship, in a country that so severely discriminates against women.

Jane Ferguson: In my experience of covering issues pertaining to women, whether or not it’s rape as a weapon of war inside Sudan or the female protestors that Zahra has described, the truth is that what they’re going through is so extraordinarily repressive that as a reporter I haven’t felt anything that intense, where I’ve felt, well, my gender is an issue. Sometimes, back in the day in Afghanistan before the fall of Kabul, there would be times where the only time I ever felt that gender was a slight hindrance was when it came to networking with powerful men, because there are certain parties you don’t get invited to. There are certain casual socializing events where either it’s considered inappropriate or it would just be a little awkward. In which case I know that male colleagues have been invited to drinks at this minister’s house or whatever.

But beyond that, honestly I often feel like the biggest pressure at least in TV careers for women is usually back home. It’s in the industry. It’s the stuff we never talk about. The unspoken pressure to look a certain way and sound a certain way. And all the pressures that women who work on camera face, I think is way more at the forefront of our mind than when we’re in the field. Sometimes when we’re in the field we just feel genderless. We’re like often we’re a third sex in many of these countries. We’re kind of like women, but we dress like men and we just occupy this incredibly privileged space as international journalists and we just sort of get on with our jobs. But I think about my gender a lot more in studios than I do when I’m in the field, unfortunately.

Arezou Rezvani: I could not agree more. I am always surprised while I’m out in the field in a country like Afghanistan, I always kind of think that my gender is going to be a bigger deal than it actually is. And I am very aware that it is an exception. If Zahra goes to the same group of people that I go to, they’re going to treat me very different because I hold an American passport. And they have a certain image that needs to be projected. And they need to accommodate me in ways that they don’t need to with a local journalist. And I’m hypersensitive to that. I haven’t quite figured out what to do with that, but it is something that is never lost on me whenever I’m in an audience talking to a minister or getting permissions. Checkpoints are always really interesting. These are former Taliban fighters who are in some cases coming in contact with an American for the first time in their lives.

Some of them are quite young and it’s the first time they’re coming in contact with an American and a woman, and you get two different reactions. There’s an intense sense of curiosity and they kind of want to get to know you, and try to figure out who are you and why are you here? Or they just don’t know what to do with you and they just kind of move you on because it’s just too uncomfortable. So, I am always surprised that it doesn’t turn into a bigger deal than it has for me.

Geeta Anand: Also, do you usually go in a group or are you out on your own in the countryside of Afghanistan or Iran?

Arezou Rezvani: I always have a local colleague who is there to help translate if I need some help translating, although Farsi and Dari are pretty much the same, and a photographer. And sometimes we go as a bigger group if we’re sending a show host and will also go with them as well. But no, I tend to travel in a team and it’s a team that consists of photographer, an interpreter, a driver. We all kind of know each other and we have each other’s backs. And everyone kind of has an expertise in a different way. Our driver who tends to be a little bit older and dresses more conservatively kind of knows how to play the system in a way that I can’t or a younger fixer can’t. And he knows the kinds of interactions and words to use to kind of get us out of sticky situations. So, it ends up being a good team that we travel with.

Geeta Anand: I guess I was wondering because I was thinking of myself, I spent 10 years in India where I’m from as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal for most of the time and the New York Times for a little bit. And I was often traveling on my own and I was 50 years old. And I thought the younger female identifying reporters I would never send off on their own to the countryside. But I just thought, I’m from India and I can just go. And I’m 50 and I can head off into the countryside and then I would end up in really scary situations because people were not used to a woman … I should have known this, it just didn’t occur to me that people weren’t used to a woman on her own going to gather land records in some dusty office in the desert of Afghanistan.

And I found myself in situations where the driver … Because I was on my own in a car with a chief of staff to the local politician, the driver pulling up at a hotel and saying, “What alcohol do you want?” And I would start texting my editor saying, “Whoa.” And I would think, “Hello, in case you’re wondering where I am, I’m here.” And I just realized it is something that we should all know, but just how important just cultural context and not losing sight of it as a bi-cultural person that I am. And how then difficult it was as an independent journalist who wanted to be able to be sent anywhere to then have to call my editor saying, “Can you send the 20-year-old guy reporter down in an overnight train to join me because I can’t continue reporting on my own.” So, I guess for me it was being both from there and not there.

Arezou Rezvani: Yeah, there are limits to what your gender can grant you in terms of access, that might be in a group of men. There are limits, but then it also gets you access. Especially now that we’re back in this age of gendered separation, there are places that my male colleagues could never go and access. You want to talk to war widows in rural Afghanistan, there’s just no way. And it’s interesting that you bring up kind of your bi-culture background because that can help you in some ways. You can slip into the skin, blend in, catch things that … I, for example, would stick out like a sore thumb and people would try to put on more of a show. So, it’s a strange existence being a journalist when you’re traveling alone as a woman or a man, it just depends on context.

Jane Ferguson: I think also like you say, sometimes when you get more access, sometimes in the most patriarchal places it really pays off to be deeply decidedly underestimated. There are times where I’m slipping through borders pretending to be a tourist. And the guy there at the checkpoint or at the passport office is like, “Of course you are. On you go.” They don’t think that you could possibly be the reporter that they’re looking at for, or you could be alone, self shooting, filming by yourself. So, being underestimated it can be an incredibly powerful thing. And female journalists are often underestimated in the most patriarchal kind of countries that they’re going to, or certainly the most patriarchal political systems.

Geeta Anand: Zahra, what about you when you were working in Afghanistan as a woman reporter, how did you go about reporting? Was it an advantage? Was it a disadvantage? How did you protect yourself?

Zahra Joya: So, I started working as a journalist in 2011. So, that time the office that I worked most of the time I can say I was the only female journalist, but in the meantime we had lots of female journalists around the country. So, we had 10 TV, radio stations and online news agency. But it was a little bit difficult for me. So, for example, when some explosion or suicide attack happened in office, I wasn’t allowed to go there because they said, “You are a girl and you can’t do that.”

Jane Ferguson: Who said that?

Zahra Joya: My men colleagues.

Jane Ferguson: Your bosses?

Zahra Joya: Yeah, most of the time. So, they said, “It is very dangerous for you. It is our responsibility to protect you.” Something like that. So, in Kabul I think after 2014, lots of a huge demonstrations happened many times. So, most of the time I went there for courage. But my male colleagues, they just told me that you have to be careful, don’t go among the people. So, it was lots of restrictions. But one day in 2015, I went to the Logar province, which I think it’s east of Kabul. So, there were more than 100 people. There was an event in a school. So, at that time I was the only female among the huge number of students. So, just one local human rights activist was a female. So, she covered herself, she wore a hijab.

For me it was my normal clothes. So, when I was there, the students they just look at me and say, “Wow, you don’t have your hijab.” And they asked each other, “Why is she here?” Going to the provinces it was difficult. But from my family, not my parents, actually my other relatives they are very conservative and have a traditional mind. So, they were the opposite of my career as a journalist. So, it was quite difficult.

Jane Ferguson: And Zahra, you were one of the first pioneering Afghan female journalists to work for an international news organization. A lot of Afghan men were working within the broadcasting bureaus and all the newspapers, but you were the first to work at the Wall Street Journal?

Zahra Joya: No, actually I’m not the only one …

Jane Ferguson: But you’re part of that generation that really just started.

Zahra Joya: So, my news agency it’s the first organization, news agency that has collaboration and partnership with the foreign big media like the Guardian. So, we had a very good story, “Far From Home” with the Time magazine, and we have partnership with the Fuller Project. So, I think it shows the result of our struggling.

Geeta Anand: Let’s talk about the news cycle and the challenge of covering women’s rights in these countries with a changing news cycle. Can you talk about how that has impacted your ability to cover important stories like the struggle of women? Could you give us an example?

Jane Ferguson: I think we all experience this where part of the biggest challenge is that awful phrase, moving the story forward. The problem with the news is that people … Its very nature is that it is preoccupied with newness. And so, the difficulty that us journalists face is when a story is not necessarily changing, it is more of the same. And that’s up to us to be innovative, to pitch interesting ideas, to get out of the cities as you say, to talk to all different types of people. But I think certainly in television where there’s limited resources, right now we have a massive war in Ukraine which is very expensive to cover and that’s a huge drain on budgets. We are constantly having to fight to keep covering these stories. And part of that fight, part of the pitch is, well, what can I tell you that you haven’t heard already? And unfortunately that is one of the biggest challenges in TV at least.

Arezou Rezvani: Yeah, I think another challenge is that we live in an age where there’s now so much data. So, people know how many eyeballs are looking at a story, and how many listeners have tuned in and how long did they tune into that story. And so news editors sometimes make editorial judgements just based off of, oh well, our audience has started to like, their interest is starting to wane so we need to move on. It’s always really hard to get past that. And I haven’t quite figured out what the solution is there. But if you do hear a good story, tune in for all of it. And it’s really important, I think when stories like Afghanistan fade from the headlines, that’s when really scary things start happening on the ground. That’s when the laws start being pulled back.

That’s when women start losing a lot of rights. It’s done quietly. It’s not done in this really big noisy way where they’re sending out press releases and they want the world to know, no. It’s great that these stories fade from the headlines. I think Iran and the government, it was really hard for them when every single day there were headlines about people being detained, and the brutal conditions inside prisons and people getting death penalties on bogus charges. When you keep talking about it, when you keep listening to those stories and it’s on the tip of your tongue, you keep talking about it with your friends or your family, that’s accountability. It’s not just the stuff we do, it’s the readers, it’s how much of it you watch on television, that is also part of the accountability project. So, it’s tough to keep stories in the headlines.

Geeta Anand: I want to open us have questions from the audience now. Who would like to raise their hand? Yes, I see a question there. Raise your hand and a microphone will head your way because we have people watching online too.

Audience 1: Sure. I’m curious if you’ve done any stories about Afghan women and what their expectations are either of America or Americans who are in Afghanistan and have ways of helping them.

Zahra Joya: Actually the women they’re criticizing U.S. government because … I know there is many challenges in Afghanistan. But in the meantime U.S. government they made a decision without any alternative strategic plan. So, at the beginning of 2001, the women rights was the top of U.S. topic. But in 2021 they left Afghan women alone. So, now they ask all the time, if you’re listening to their message, they ask solarity and support. So, it is unbelievable that they were deprived from very basic and fundamental rights, the right to education, to work. So, they’re staying at home. Even they are not allowed to go 72 kilometers without any male, which is a very, very difficult moment for them.

Audience 2: Hi, my question is what is your realistic hope given all the things you said?

Jane Ferguson: I think Iran and Afghanistan very much so separate. With Afghanistan it’s very, very hard for women in particular, unless we see a point where the Taliban decide this is costing them too much. The biggest focus is getting girls back into school. I think right now that’s the biggest challenge. There’s a big debate over how to do that, whether or not more targeted travel sanctions on specific Taliban leaders might help or whether more carrot might help. But right now it’s just really not clear what the Taliban actually want. That’s the biggest problem trying to negotiate with the Taliban, because it’s very, very unclear what it is they’re actually willing to negotiate for. But if there is a way to try to negotiate that, it likely will involve other countries. It’s not just going to be America talking at the Taliban. It needs to involve countries that have a slightly better relationship, like whether it’s the UAE or Qatar or Pakistan. Trying to get those countries on board that that’s probably the most likely way forward, at least from an Afghanistan perspective.

Audience 3: Are the Taliban totally unified or are there different sections of Taliban that are less or more developing some sort of a country?

Arezou Rezvani: Yeah, it’s a really good question. They will always deny that there are divisions. There have been a lot of reports over the last 18, 19 months that there’s infighting and physical fights between leaders and it’s always a denial. But it does seem that there is a division in terms of people who really want to go back to the way of the ’90s, a very strict form of Sharia law imposed on all of society. And then there’s another faction that recognizes that we just can’t be like that anymore. And I’ll give you an example, we went to go visit a school. I had to get permission from the Ministry of Education and we got the permission to go. And on our way out, the gentleman who gave us permission said that, “Please don’t take photographs of some of the older girls in this school.”

Which tells me that there is an acknowledgement, there is an awareness that there are girls who are going to school. But they have to present this image that, no, we’re not allowing it because there’s a constituency that they have to please. And as they kind of consolidate power and try to figure out how to govern this country after 20 years of not being in power, they have to be unified. They have to consolidate power, otherwise it all comes falling apart. So, my sense is that there are cracks, I don’t know how deep they are. I don’t know how extensive they are, but there are cracks. And I think that to your point, might be an opportunity to what degree outside powers can kind of exploit that and leverage that. Well, we shall see. But it does seem that girls’ education might be the space where you can apply some pressure because the economy is in shambles.

At a certain point, you can’t just dismiss half of your population and prevent them from working. Pretty soon it’s going to become a public health crisis. In Paktika province which is south of Kabul, population, 1.5 million, two female doctors for a population of 1.5 million. And this comes at a time when there are rules against women seeing male doctors. This comes at a time when women cannot work for NGOs anymore. That was just a couple of months ago that they introduced that law. This comes at a time when they have prevented girls ages 11 and up from going to school. So, now that you’ve removed girls from a system in which you are training doctors, if this continues for too long, there are going to be no female doctors left. So, I think at a certain point they might be confronted with a practicality problem. The country just can’t operate without its women. So, I’m going to be very interested to see kind of how that shakes out in the years to come.

Zahra Joya: Yeah, in almost two years according to one investigative reports, the Taliban they arrested and imprisoned 1,115 women. And they also declared 30 orders to put restriction and limitation from the women’s social life. I think the Taliban didn’t change. They said a lie during the peace negotiation in Qatar, in Doha. So, a number of the Taliban leaders like Haqqani Network they said … I think it’s like a propaganda in media, they said, “Yeah, we are not against the women education, but almost two years we have lost our time. It’s not the Taliban promotions.” And the Taliban promised. It’s two years that the girls are just counting days and days when they’ll announce that school and university will open for them. Which is very, very difficult to believe that Taliban have changed. They didn’t change. They’re the same.

Jane Ferguson: One small glimmer of hope though is the fact that you can’t uneducate those girls that have been educated. They read, they are on social media, you can never take that away. And the Taliban may have rolled into Kabul, but they’ve rolled into a city where they found a very, very different generation of young women. It’s absolutely criminal that many of them are now watching their hopes and aspirations of college and careers just vanish.

But I hope these young women might be able to wait this out. The Taliban will last in power for four years. If that was the case again, then we’d be halfway there. We don’t have any indicator that in two years they’ll be gone, of course. But I do think for those young women who at least know how to read and write, who some have access to the internet, certainly not all, some of them are being secretly educated at home. If they can read and write and you can get them books, there is a slightly more hopeful chance for that generation than there was in 1996.

Zahra Joya: Yeah, absolutely. That’s 100% true. But in the meantime when the women are not able to go outside of their house, it is unfortunate that domestic violence increase in almost two years. So, the women lost their income. So, if a woman doesn’t have the income, you are not accepted. And the majority of Afghan feminists, the women are the breadwinners. So, imagine that now according to the UN special reporters, 98% of people, they don’t have enough food to eat. So, that’s very heartbreaking.

Audience 4: So, the Taliban takeover obviously led to a lot of people leaving the country as well. And sorry, you mentioned your “Far from Home” project, but I was wondering if maybe you could all also talk about your approach to reporting on refugee communities or the greater diaspora. And how that’s been impacted by kind of your reporting skills from being in that country. And then how you apply that to reporting on Afghans or Iranians who have been forced to leave their home country.

Zahra Joya: Well, “Far from Home,” it was a very good example for how the refugees are facing challenges when they left their homes. For me, I first left my country. So, starting your life from scratch, it is very, very difficult and it takes a lot of your time. So, I think if the Taliban didn’t come to Kabul and they didn’t take power in Afghanistan, today I assure you that I would’ve graduated from university for my master degree. So, it’s almost two years that I am deprived from seeing my parents and my friends and that’s very, very difficult. But African refugees, a huge number of them are living in region countries like Iran, Pakistan, and it’s very, very bad conditions. So, they are facing lots of restriction from this two governments. So, in Italy, a devastating accident happened in the sea. It was 72 people from Afghanistan and Iran and Syria, they just lost their lives. So, it’s very difficult.

Jane Ferguson: I think it’s also worth always pointing out at a moment when immigration is such a politically charged topic, it’s such a politically exploited topic in politics. It’s important to remind people of the nuances of an entire generation of people who didn’t want to leave their country. Of the difference between immigration, and refugees, and people fleeing war that I think a lot of members of the public and it’s our job to sort of try to really bring more nuance to their experiences of the other world, I think everybody just desperately wants to live in the United States or desperately wants to live in Western Europe. And that’s not necessarily the case in Afghanistan. There’s this whole generation of young people who were massively invested in their country, who built careers and lives in journalism and human rights law and development. They got into the government, they got into the military, they really did not picture their lives in the West.

And then whenever Kabul fell, watching 100s and 100s of people line up to get on those C-17 flights. And then on the C-17 flights, they were allowed to bring nothing but a purse, a tiny, tiny handbag. They had nothing with them. So, when they arrive, they are dealing with all sorts of traumas and fears. And I think that context is super important for our readership and viewers to understand.

Audience 5: A couple of things, there is an organization that’s working with Afghan women and lawyers in exile that I volunteer with. And certainly there’s a difference between those refugees and for example, those from Ukraine who expect and plan to go back to their country. It’s very different for the women I work with, all of whom have backgrounds in human rights and women’s rights and would be in danger if they were at home. That’s not my question. A concern I think is that the American public and the government’s attention is very fickle. In the beginning there was awareness of an interest in the exodus from Afghanistan, and the big airplanes and the big hullabaloo about whether it was done right and all that. And people cared about that for a while, largely because it had to do with American military people coming out and then attention shifted to Ukraine.

And now that’s kind of interest and except for now it’s all about the presidential election. That’s really what everyone’s talking about, that’s what all the news is about. So, my question is this, do you see a role for journalists like yourselves in getting attention from the American public and the government on the continuing plight in Afghanistan? It’s hard to think of a crisis as chronic because by definition a crisis is short-lived. But Afghanistan and of course Iran, are really in a state of chronic crisis. So, what can journalists do if you think they can, to keep up interest in that, to make people care about it again or still?

Arezou Rezvani: I don’t know that this is the perfect answer. I think some of it falls to us to really capture the stakes for people. When it comes to Afghanistan for example, I think in the last 18 to 19 months that the Taliban has been in power, the Islamic state has really stepped up attacks. It has a huge foothold in Afghanistan and that’s a huge problem for the United States. The entire war that was fought for 20 years was fought because of the presence of another extremist group that waged an attack from those grounds. And so, we’re starting to see that another group may be materializing here and could pose a huge threat. It’s not in our nature to worry about things until it’s become a crisis, until there’s a 9/11 or another attack. I don’t know how you can fight human nature, but I do think that maybe as journalists we ought to do better to capture the stakes. And to highlight how things are starting to become problems before they actually become more problems. I don’t know.

Jane Ferguson: It’s ultimately one of our biggest dilemmas as journalists, because I think there’s always going to be … And in the forefront of my mind right now is the 20-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Every story eventually gets somewhat abandoned and Iraq is still reeling from the repercussions of the invasion. I think one thing I do not have the answer to, but which is a constant sort of conflict, a tension that’s always in the air around journalism is the conflict between whether or not what we do is a product that is for sale or a service. NPR, PBS, we’re very lucky to not have to be constantly relying on ratings. I’m very lucky my bosses aren’t looking at, well, that Justin Bieber’s story did much better than your piece from Bamyan.

But there is still the vast majority of people still getting to some extent their news from private media. And private media needs to attract advertising. And to do that, they need to have ratings. And to do that, they need to have people interested in the story. And if people are now interested in whatever’s happening in Ukraine more than they’re interested in what’s happening in Afghanistan, that’s always going to be the tension. How do you get news to pay for itself? How much of what we’re telling people is what we think they really should know as opposed to what they are telling us they want to know? And I think this goes often above the heads of the field reporters like myself to the editors and the corporate bosses who are trying to figure out media strategy. But that’s always going to be part of the tension of what we do. And it just is a one little plug for the Pulitzer Center, that’s also what they do. They help us pay for the reporting that’s important, slightly expensive and perhaps less bombastic than the latest big story that everybody’s covering.

Zahra Joya: Yeah, just one thing that I’m very glad that you don’t have this experience as a refugee. So, being a refugee is a very, very painful experience. For me if the Kabul fall didn’t happen, and my life as a female journalist and as a minority group in Afghanistan wasn’t in danger, not only me but many other Afghans, they would not live their country. So, for me I’m 30 years old, I never imagined before that one day I will leave my country and I will be a refugee. It’s very, very heartbreaking. But in the meantime, let me share this personal experience. So, at the beginning of Kabul fall, I just had stayed for three or four days at home. So, then I went outside without any long hijab. I went and interviewed with some women they unbelievably displayed disappeared from the streets.

So, I wrote as a story for the Guardian on that time. So, I met some of my provost colleague and journalist, and asked what should we do? So, they said, “We made this decision, we have to stay in the country because this is our country and it depends on us. We should work with the Taliban. But very quickly and soon, the Taliban started arresting the journalists and torture them. So, two of my provost colleagues, the Taliban tortured them. So, it was very, very painful for us to see our colleagues in front of your eyes beaten and tortured, so we were forced to flee from our country which is very, very… I think it’s good if the people just recognize our situation. It is very good and it gives us a little bit of hope. But let’s remember that the today’s refugee, our asylum seekers, they will be the tomorrow doctors, teachers, or journalists.

Geeta Anand: Your description of just what you went through and what people are going through is such a reminder to all of us of just the importance of telling these stories. And I guess an answer to your question, it’s relatively easy to do a story when it’s the big news story. And that’s just the least ambitious kind of journalism. The most challenging and important journalism is continuing to cover the story. And that takes creativity. That takes going out of Kabul into the villages. That takes figuring out a new angle, spending a lot of time with people so that you can understand the challenges that they’re going through. That takes thinking many months ahead of an anniversary and planning. That’s the kind of work that we should be doing as journalists.

And that is what separates journalism that is of service and is the really important journalism in our times. And we won’t forget, and let us just remember to do the stories that aren’t the obvious biggest story of that moment. And it’s absolutely possible. It just is a lot harder and takes a lot more creativity and time, because you can’t just run past something and take a few notes.

Audience 6: I was a freelance foreign correspondent in Greece and Turkey in 2015 during the big refugee crisis. And just to this ongoing challenge that you’ve all expressed so well about with an ongoing story, how do you make it stand out? But every once in a while you get a chance. So, I’m writing a book about a shipwreck that occurred in 2015 between Turkey and Greece. And just in your career every once in a while these opportunities come up because it’s not really financially lucrative, but sometimes you become obsessed. And so, here it is, nine years later and I’m still writing about this one day. And I’m actually one of the main people that I’m writing about is an incredible now 30 year old, so around your age, Afghan man from Kabul who lost his entire family in this shipwreck.

But I’m sharing this not really to talk about the book, but just sometimes there are these opportunities. And for me, I’ve done mostly daily journalism and so this was just so unnerving for me to spend so much time on one story and I thought maybe this is a waste of time. Nobody will care. But then as the news cycles progress and progress, I realize, you start telling a universal story that will hopefully resonate. And that’s kind of the best we can do, is just keep trying.

Geeta Anand: So, just building on what you said, it’s finding that universal element in the story that is what keeps it alive. Last question. Yes.

Audience 7: I’m just wondering what your call to journalism was, and especially going out and being a foreign correspondent or becoming a journalist in very difficult circumstances.

Arezou Rezvani: For me, it was 9/11 and then the case to go to war with Iraq that really kind of blew my 15-, 16-year-old mind. This idea that an administration could tell such a bald face lie to people and get away with it. And we entered into this war that lasted years, destroyed lives on both ends. Entire generations completely lives destroyed. I think that for me was the moment that I felt like, OK, journalism has a role to play here, that accountability is super important. Those were some pretty troubling years because shortly after that was also the recession, a completely avoidable recession. And it just kind of goes to show how important that fourth estate is and how important it is to keep it healthy, to keep it well funded. And we’re so lucky to live in a country where you get to ask questions. We can hold people accountable but we got to pay attention.

And you got to ask questions and you got to show up and you have to kind of work through the complexities of a story. Some of these stories are by their very nature, by design meant to be complicated so that average ordinary people just can’t wrap their heads around it. And so it takes a lot of cooperation from our end, from your end, all of us to kind of do our part, to kind of just pay attention to what’s going on. And I get it, life is really busy. Everyone’s kind of doing their own thing. You got kids to raise, you got the mortgage to pay. Life has its ways. But I think if I were to go back, that was a huge turning point for me, 9/11 in the Iraq war.

It’s kind of crazy that we’re talking on the week where we’re now reflecting on 20 years since that war. And what have we learned and are we asking the right questions? Now we have this banking turmoil and it makes you wonder again, are we asking the right questions or is there kind of a lot of hidden skeletons kind of beneath it all? So yeah, that’s it for me, Jane.

Jane Ferguson: Well, a couple of things. I wanted to be a journalist since I was a tiny kid. And I think looking back, I grew up in Northern Ireland during the conflict there. And I grew up in the very last Protestant village before you got to South Armagh, which was a really strong IRA heartland. And I was fascinated, in retrospect when I look back at that little girl, she was fascinated by the idea of violence. What would make an otherwise ordinary person, baker, driver, farmer, commit an act of violence and often put themselves at enormous risk. What was it that created insurgencies? What made people rebel against incredible power like the British government, the British military? I spent most of my career embedded with insurgencies, spending time with the Houthis, with the Hamas, with the Taliban, with Darfurian rebels. I was kind of a bit obsessed with what it was that created insurgent groups.

And who were these people and why were they doing this? I also grew up in a really patriarchal society, Northern Ireland, Ulster Scot’s culture. It was pretty patriarchal. I didn’t have a lot of female professional role models. And yet when you turned on the TV in the evening and the voice of God that was the evening news, I was raised on the BBC. There were women on the TV and all of the men were quiet and watching and listening to what they were saying. And the BBC they had Kate Adie and Orla Guerin, and they had female anchors. But they had women out in the field all over the world telling these incredible stories, commanding people’s attention. And we come from a storytelling culture. So, I thought that was fascinating. I thought they were incredible. And that’s really all it takes when you’re young, is just to have that one little moment where you see a woman doing something and you think, huh, and then the rest of your life is history.

Zahra Joya: I didn’t study journalism, I studied law. So, for me, journalism is like a weapon and giving a voice to the voiceless. And I believe in the soft power of words. And the countries like Afghanistan that are engaging in lots of conflict, especially in society where we have diverse society, different ethnicity groups living there, they are facing the lack of awareness. For me it was and still is very important to do some awareness. So, it’s almost two years that I’m living in a beautiful city like London. That I’m very grateful for UK government people, they accept me as a free refugee. Here, I have lots of opportunities to go to do something fun for myself, with my sisters, with my friends in London. It has a lot of parties. But when I see what my country is going through hell, and the women, half of the population are deprived from very fundamental right, so I’m trying to stay home so that I spend the whole time of my life to do some awareness because it is very important.

Geeta Anand: With that, let me just thank our amazing panelists. Let me thank again Anne Peters and the Pulitzer Center for supporting the amazing work of journalists like these. We need to hear these stories. Thank you to our students who are from this part of the world, we love having you here and supporting you. To our event staff and to Deidre and Leah and Rick who helped put this on, and to all of you for being here. Thank you. Anand Geeta and I’m dean of the School of Journalism.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Outro: You’ve been listening to Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. Follow us wherever you listen to your podcasts. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.