The image is striking. Having cast their ballots, four women sit down to bask in the sun. One of them lifts her veil to look up. The brilliant smile that frames her face is for the world to see. After years of being confined to private spaces, this photograph by award-winning photographer Lana Slezic symbolizes the reclaiming of political and public spheres by Afghan women.
As journalists, politicians and human rights activists, many Afghan women are determinedly making positive moves to rebuild their beleaguered nation. Journalists Jane McElhone and Khorsheid Samad have attempted to highlight some of these endeavors through a photojournalism exhibition titled, 'Voices on the Rise: Afghan Women Making the News', held at Toronto Public Library's City Hall Branch.
In 2004, Humaira Habib was threatened by authorities, who told her
that she could never again work as a journalist in Afghanistan's western province of Herat. Today, Humaira is the station manager of Radio Sahar in the province's capital city,
and has covered the Constitutional Loya Jirga, voter registration, and the residential and parliamentary elections. In 2006, she also became a member of the first graduating class of Herat University 's Journalism Department.
On view are striking stills of women journalists, producers, managers, writers, photographers, filmmakers, human rights activists and parliamentarians. The images have been taken by several renowned award-winning international photographers such as Lana Slezic, Marija Dumancic, Elise Jacob and Katherine Kidiat.
The 42 photographs give visitors a peek into the lives of the subjects of the frames. Understandably, their lives are by no means easy as the women balance their traditional roles with the demands of a new-found, though uncertain, freedom. The accompanying caption with each photograph throw light on the challenges the women endure or were victims of.
Two prominent women journalists - Zakia Zaki and Shakiba Sangha Amash - did pay an enormous price for expressing their views. While Amash was reportedly killed for rebuffing a cousin's offer for marriage, Zaki was murdered in her sleep at home: She was shot at seven times.
In one photograph, Zaki - who was a school headmistress in addition to being the founder of Peace Radio - is seen standing in a room at Radio Sohl holding a pencil as her husband looks on. In the adjacent photograph, Zaki is reduced to a body covered in white. It is believed Zaki was targeted because of her liberal radio programming.
According to co-curator Samad, who has worked in Kabul as bureau chief of Fox News, "There is insecurity in the country due to infiltration of the Taliban and Al Qaeda along the borders. The conservative mindset that still exists is being strengthened by this insecurity. In certain parts, women are, once again, being forced into the secrecy and darkness of their homes. There is a medieval mindset at play that wants women to be marginalized. Zaki's brutal murder is a political act of terror."
Another exhibit is a photograph of Huma Safi, a poet, journalist and broadcaster, who fell in love with her friend, Zabih, and worked with him to set up a secret school for Afghan girls during the Taliban regime. Says Samad, "After the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, we had an incredibly exciting renaissance of women's involvement in society. Human rights and legal rights came back into force and women returned by the millions to work and go to school. They picked up, with a vengeance, their involvement in Afghan society to make up for all the lost time."
Rona Sherazi, station manager of Radio Quyaash, is an example. Forced to abandon her journalism studies at Kabul University, she was married off and bore four children in as many years. Three of them have cerebral palsy, but that has not deterred her from returning to the workforce. Reflecting her multiple roles are two juxtaposed photographs which are part of the exhibition. While one shows her at home with her children and husband, in the next a 'burqa'-clad (veiled) Sherazi is shown interviewing the provincial agriculture director.
From being news gatherers, some women have gone on to become newsmakers by stepping into the world of politics and trying to bring change from "within" such as Shafia Zurmati Wardak, whose picture is up just a few meters away from Zaki's. "Not only was she revolutionary, using the media to tell women's stories, she is now a tremendous role model," McElhone, said in an interview.
However, Samad's personal favorite is the photograph of young Madina Hassan - a student of Setara Girls School in Maimana, who aspires to be a journalist. For Samad, young Hassan "represents hope and future". Also, a shot that Samad finds particularly striking and aesthetic is that of the four women at the polling booth, taken by Lana Slezic.
Samad and McElhone, a journalist and international media development specialist, took nearly 14 months to put the exhibition together, entirely through volunteer efforts. Having worked in Afghanistan, both women had developed contacts with many local and international photographers. It is from those contacts that they sourced the pictures. The criteria for selection, says Samad, was that, "all women would have to be involved in Afghan society in a pro-active way to promote and empower other Afghan women with their work - meaning they were involved in journalism and could be broadcasters, managers and filmmakers. There was also a crossover with politics, as several MPs were former journalists. It was a natural extension from the world of media to the world of politics and the exhibition explores that relationship. We included tragedies not because of choice but because they occurred and we thought it was important to tell those stories."
The traveling exhibition had initially opened at the University of Ottawa, from where it moved to Toronto. It will make an appearance in other cities, such as Hamilton and Calgary, as well. The show has received an amazing response. Says Anne Mcdonald, a visitor, "These are such brave women. The exhibition has acquainted us with a facet of Afghanistan that we did not even know existed." Even Canada's Governor General, Michelle Jean, was reportedly "moved to tears" during a private viewing.
Though the show started out as a way to familiarize Canadians about women's rights in Afghanistan, it has had a direct positive spin off. "We are assisting women journalists in Afghanistan in their efforts to find scholarships abroad. Humaira Habib, who runs a private radio station, Radio Sahar, in Afghanistan, has been awarded a Sauve Scholars Fellowship at McGill University, Canada. We are also assisting the University of Ottawa with its efforts to establish an exchange scholarship programme for Afghan women journalism students," informs Samad.