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An Afghan woman finds her voice as a journalist

Posted: June 12, 2012 - 11:00pm

JALALABAD, Afghanistan —The first time Sanga Jabarkhil’s family heard her give a broadcast report on the radio, they were mortified.

“All my family members stopped talking to me,” she said. “This lasted for a whole year.” Even today, one of her older brothers remains firmly opposed to her career as a broadcast journalist.

“My brother didn’t talk to me, he didn’t look at me and even avoided coming face-to-face with me,” she said. “He told me, ‘Whenever I am sitting with friends and you appear on the TV screen, everyone looks at me and asks whether you are my sister. I feel ashamed; it’s like dying.’”

Like most young women in Nangarhar province, it hasn’t been easy overcoming long-held prejudices. Just being allowed to attend school was a struggle. She credits a teacher with helping her acquire an education.

“One day, my brother stopped me from going to school,” she said. When she finally arrived in class, her teacher asked why she was late.

“I told her my family wouldn’t let me attend school,” she said. “So the teacher came to our house and persuaded my family to allow me to complete school.” Jabarkhil, 21, now the head of the state-owned Radio Television of Afghanistan office in Namgarhar, has finally managed to win over the rest of her family. She acknowledges that her mother, Nuria, has always been quietly supportive of her career.

She said she first became interested in broadcast journalism after listening to BBC and Voice of America radio program as a youngster.

At 15, she began working for RTA, balancing her job with her studies. To avoid suspicion, she told her family she was working for a local women’s magazine.

So, hearing her first broadcast report, on arranged marriages, came as an unwelcomed shock to the entire family.

Their greatest concern was that their daughter was working alongside men at the radio station, something considered by many here to be immoral.

She went so far as to invite skeptical members of her family to the radio station’s office to demonstrate that men and women worked in separate offices. Still, they feared that her high-profile position in the province would make her an unattractive marriage prospect.

Despite the fact that she wears a headscarf when appearing on TV and conceals her face when out in public, Jabarkhil has become something of a provincial celebrity.

“I still get phone calls from strangers. Some express admiration for my voice and beauty, while others are angry with me because I’m working in television,” she said. “I answer them all by just saying ‘thank you’ and hanging up. It’s a way of saying, ‘Please don’t bother me.’”

Some wonder why any woman would choose such a prominent job.

While attending a wedding recently, Jabarkhil said one of the other guests approached her and asked, “Why are you so hard on yourself, my dear? You are such a beautiful girl, yet you’re still working in television.”

These days, however, it’s Jabarkhil’s mother who comes to her defense.

“I’m very proud of her,” her mother quickly declares.

• Ekhtyar is a reporter in Afghanistan who writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict.

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