Navigating the journalistic siege as a woman in Kashmir
Aliya Bashir, International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists grantee — WNN Soapbox
Participants during an interactive discussion on planning and pre assignment preparedness and the importance of risk assessments.
(WNN) Nairobi, Kenya, EAST AFRICA — I often wonder when people outside the Kashmir ask me strange questions such as: “Are there really journalists — women who are allowed to work?”; “Don’t you get married at quite an early age?”; “Do you cover your head and face in the field?”; “Do you travel alone or you are accompanied by your immediate male family members?”; “Can you write in English?”; or “What about the harassment, intimidation and abuse in the course of your work?”
My answer to all those inquisitive minds — I don’t know which Kashmir you are talking about!
Yet, it has everything: ugly olive-colored, tattered checkpoints of occupation, undeclared curfews, manipulated cross-firings, killing the dead, grim encounters, hailstorms of stone-pelting, uncertain disappearances, newly-wed half-widows, death fields of landmines, heroic sacrifices of martyrs, mothers singing death lullabies of teen aged sons, dark stories of rape and torture, infuriating midnight raids, nail-biting rippling backs of pellet injured young boys, extortion under the nozzle of guns, selective-arrests, chasing ghosts, suffocating tear-smoke and pepper-sprays, depressing webs of concertina wires and impunity … the ugly side of Kasheer’s breathtaking postcard image.
I believe journalism in Kashmir is under the same siege.
Detainment, kidnapping and hostage survival seem to be very exciting features for any news gatherer.
We want to chase this adventurous profession and fantasize about our dream assignment and to risk our lives to tell the ‘big story.’
But how often do we gauge the type of risks that we take to go into no-go zones or hostile environments? At least, I am one of those freaks who often see journalists like the former Los Angeles Times correspondent Megan Stack in her dreams reporting the raw pain of bombings and killings, dodging gunmen and probing warlords for information in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel, Libya and Lebanon.
Last month I was lucky enough to win a grant by International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists that sponsored security training. I traveled to Nairobi, Kenya to attend the Hostile Environment and First Aid Training (HEFAT) event in consultation with TYR solutions, a UK-based risk mitigation company.
I was thrilled to be part of an incredible team of 17 women journalists from across the world. These young journalists have been working with big international organizations and have won various prestigious awards and fellowships in their journalistic careers.
We had a first-hand training experience on the journalistic activities that included planning and risk assessment, emergency first aid, personal security and self defense, IT communications security, primary survey, fractures theory, road traffic incidents, personal space awareness/CQP techniques and vehicle and travel safety.
I would always dream of possessing these skills.
And there in the ‘green city in the sun’, complete with historical art museums and safaris, I was practicing the most expensive Hostile Environment and Emergency First Aid Training (HEFAT) training for a small female freelancer like myself coming from a small pocket of the world known as Kashmir.
It was noting less than a reverie; a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Aliya standing in the second row (third from left) after finishing the hostile environment security training.
I finally could undergo a series of scenarios and exercises that included a real-time experience of how to stay alive in captivity, navigating considerations and holistically, effectively responding to crisis situations under active threat. Along with other participants we made fun of these circumstances and promised ourselves that we were going to avoid these situations in the first place.
I have grown up in a place where journalism is mainly male-dominated.
We, as women, often lack certain liberties to speak out about the specific difficulties, challenges and dangers in connection with our work. There is no gender-sensitive approach for our safety, especially if we want to tell the under-reported subjects that are off-limits in our society.
Kashmir, as a beautiful paradise, is always in international headlines under war, poverty, unemployment, natural calamities or tourism. It is quite a lucrative news-rich place for people, especially the mad lovers of writing, who are young and want to risk their lives telling stories.
Kashmiris are on the frontlines of war by default. You have access to the local sources; you know the language and the demography; and you are the trusted resource.
Yet it is no different of a place for female journalists. Female journalists are often seen as colored butterflies that flutter around for a short life cycle and are subdued by parasites. Their professional drive is seen as a temporary temptation, which could go away shortly after a girl is married off. She is also vulnerable to become a target of character assassination.
Unfortunately a woman journalist doesn’t have a strong argument in the form of local facts and figures to challenge local Kashmiri ‘visionaries’ who are eagles on the prowl and always on the hunt to tighten the noose on a woman’s ability to work.
It is quite heart rendering to see that there are a handful of female journalists in Kashmir who can represent the voiceless voices of the most affected groups — women and children caught in Kashmir’s more than two decades of simmering conflict.
Women journalists in Kashmir often experience more job burnouts and tend to leave their fields, especially in broadcast journalism, quite early due to the unsupportive environment of newsroom cultures, in addition to gender-based discrimination in the form of story beats and low pay scales.
Getting knocked down by people who would always treat to you as a female, rather than as a colleague, is another consistent irritant that discourages budding female journalists to practice journalism as a full-time profession. They are often made to believe that working from home, mostly as a freelancer, can be the safest and best bet if they really are passionate in pursueing their dream of storytelling.
We, the female journalists in Kashmir, are no different than the entire herd of female colleagues all around the world who suffer silently.
With this result it’s not us alone who suffers. With us all the craving voices of women suffering in Kashmir who are never comfortable to share their stories with the “male folk”. Sometimes we are also barred by males who feel reluctant to speak their heart out with the opposite gender.
In Nairobi, we learned from our super-talented instructor, Alison Baskerville, a freelance documentary photographer who is specialized in the impact of conflict on women’s lives in war zones around the world. At the event she shared her vivid frontline accounts of horror and humor.
Aliya (fifth from right) with participants in the first row during a medical course activity in Nairobi.
While attending extra interactive classes with Baskerville, she taught us that those world-over women journalists often suffer as they don’t realize the power of speaking up. Too often women journalists prefer silence, blaming themselves for choosing the ‘wrong profession’. They might say to themselves they were born in the ‘wrong place’ rather than remaining true to themselves, on the tide of any possible reprisals.
At the HEFAT event in Nairobi I realized Baskerville was right. At least, in our case, she was a big reality-check!
During the comprehensive safety training we had discussions on self-care and sexual harassment. We were told that it is a serious responsibility to speak freely about the muzzled voices inherent in the practice of women journalism and to support each other in our dissent. Yes as seasoned women journalists we need a healthy working environment for ourselves. This is the same for all new women journalists.
We also consistently need to receive a number of security and first aid trainings, to inspire us and make us less vulnerable on the ground.
To inspire us we should remember BBC Radio 4’s Kate Adie or Christiane Amanpour, the global affairs anchor for ABC News who is also chief international correspondent for CNN and Caixin Media’s Hu Shuli, among others.
There is no doubt that the world is becoming a more dangerous place for all journalists, especially for freelancers who thoroughly chronicle wars, civil unrest, natural disasters, and healthcare emergencies.
Kashmir is no different than the other hostile places in the world where journalists put themselves at risk without assessing the situation beforehand, hoping that things would fall in place on their own, which unfortunately never happens.
Freelancers are on assignments with a specific budget, putting them at greater potential risk. When working in our own country we take the risk in being unsafe. At home in Kashmir we can’t leave when it becomes too dangerous, or when our reporting is exposed. This has also been documented by the Rory Peck Trust, which gives support to freelancers.
In any conflict zone like Kashmir, if you are a freelancer who wants the work to make a name for yourself and to earn a living, there are maximum chances that you will be hired as a fixer, translator, stringer or a compiler by the big media houses.
If you possess high journalistic ambitions to report murky situations of injustice, political upheavals and primarily the pain of victims and the survivors of the ongoing conflict, then you are 100 percent fit for the job.
However, there is always a vulnerability that we will become a ‘structural stooge’ to shape and control public opinion through misinformation and propaganda.
On the flip side we have so many examples of Kashmiri journalists, mostly male, upholding the highest journalistic standards during the most tiring times of violence. These journalists have worked from the ’90s and into the new wave of Kashmir’s uprisings from 2012 into the present. These long-time journalists do have unmatched understanding of the subject, in addition to hard-earned connections with a profound storytelling ability and a craving for justice.
If you fall as a journalist in the latter category you are bound to suffer. You are also bound to get intimated, harassed, or crushed in such a bad way. Despite all these unremitting attacks on truth and justice, these proud news-gatherers continue to inspire people like me with their profound unsettling and factual approach to storytelling.
I am not saying all these things with an assumption or a mere probability of sorts. Perhaps I am lucky to be in this profession for more than six years now. I have closely witnessed these crests and troughs in the wave of the ‘political economy’ of the Kashmir conflict. As freelance journalists we have a common problem to overlook the risks of working in a hostile environment.
Unfortunately we hope for the best, but often we don’t prepare for the worst.
Baskerville gave us the most precious everlasting gift with her words: “We have tried our best to teach you in the best possible ways. But, stay safe and avoid risk in the first place. No story is worth life!”
At the end of my recent training in Nairobi I not only feel empowered but now do understand the important difference of pre-emptive measures. These are measures worthy of knowing in a hostile field environment like Kashmir.