Monday, June 13, 2011

Female Afghan journalist: 'I have no plans to stop'

Mina Habib is doing what would have been unthinkable during the Taliban era. She is one of the few working female Afghan journalists.
For Habib, journalism is a passion, but it also helps support her family. Her father is unemployed, and her mother is partially paralyzed by a stroke.
From Kabul, Habib talked to CNN's Asieh Namdar about the challenges for women in Afghanistan and the inspiration, fears and risks associated with being a female journalist.

Q: Why did you want to be a journalist? Weren't you scared by the obvious risks?
A: I was aware of all the risks involved. Being a female journalist is not socially accepted. But I wanted to highlight the problems of women and children in Afghanistan. I felt I had a responsibility to tell their stories. I knew it would be a huge challenge and there would be many obstacles along the way, but I felt I had to do it, because my country needs Afghan journalists to tell the stories of their own people, to convey the problems that still exist.

Q: Were you inspired by anyone in particular? What are your favorite stories to cover?
A: It was my childhood dream to be a journalist, but no one [person] really inspired me. I like covering politics, exposing corruption and doing stories that involve children. My proudest story was exposing people who use sick children as beggars. A government commission banned the practice after my story.
Q: Were you ever threatened while covering these types of stories?
A: Yes. One of my reports had to do with child labor/child smuggling and children being used for suicide attacks. It was a story that had to be told. I came home that evening and found a letter on my door. I don't know who wrote it. It said my life would be in danger if continued my work as a journalist. I continued! I was also wounded last year while covering a suicide bombing in Kabul. My family blamed all this on my work. But I have no plans to stop.
Q: What's been the reaction, in your family and otherwise, to you wanting to be a journalist?
A: Like many Afghan families, they were totally against it. They wanted me to be a teacher or doctor. My family was worried about how I would be viewed and my safety. They thought it would be a tough job for a woman. They never supported me in this area.
Others are skeptical as well. They consider journalism "immoral work." I can hear them asking, "What is a girl doing outside the home, being a journalist?"
Q: How has life changed for you since the fall of the Taliban?
A: During the Taliban era, women could not work or get an education. They lived in fear. I'm working now, doing something I love. In Kabul, things are better, but in provinces, women are still afraid to work or study. Women can't appear in the media, work or study outside the home.
Q: How do you want to see yourself 10 years from now?
A: I want to be a successful and respected journalist -- to do my job, with freedom, without being threatened or harassed.
Q: What is your biggest fear today?
A: People standing in the way of me doing my work. Those who want to stop me from being a journalist. ... I blame cultural and social barriers that don't see women as equal to men. Even Islam says men and women are equal. But many still don't want to believe that. These are the same people who think it is inappropriate for women to even appear in public. I also blame government officials for not doing enough to ensure laws are balanced and fair for women.
Q: What do you do on your day off?
A: I live with my family, so I try to spend time with them. I help my mother and sisters. Sometimes, I bring my work home, writing my reports. My family gets upset. They want me to help with things around house more, instead of on my work.
Q: Do you think you yourself face greater dangers than international journalists who come to Afghanistan to report?
A: I think all journalists who are here to report the truth face danger.
Q: What do you want the world to know about you?
A: I want them to know that despite the obstacles before me, I will continue to work hard and be the best journalist I can be. I'm doing this for the children of Afghanistan because they are the future of this country.
Mina Habib writes for the daily Chiragh newspaper and the Institute for War & Peace Reporting. She received her journalism degree at Kabul University.

Afghans stuck in Pakistan

Afghans stuck in Pakistan

Islamabad Suicide bomber kills 1 in rare attack

A suicide bomber blew himself up at a busy market in the Pakistani capital on Monday, killing at least one person in the first bombing in Islamabad in over a year and a half, police said.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing but the Pakistani Taliban have pledged to carry out attacks in retaliation for the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden last month in an army town not far from Islamabad.
The suicide bomber tried to enter the bank building at the market but was stopped by a security guard, said Islamabad police chief Wajid Durrani. The bomber then detonated his explosives, killing the guard and wounding four others, Durrani said.
The blast ripped through the ground floor of the bank, scattering body parts and pieces of broken glass on the pavement outside. Police worked to keep people from gathering at the scene for fear that there might be a second blast.

Bahrain tries ex-lawmakers, imprisons poet

At least two former Bahraini opposition lawmakers went on trial Sunday, as a military court sentenced a 20-year-old poet to a year in prison.
Matar Matar and Jawad Fairooz were charged with "spreading malicious lies in an attempt to overthrow the government," an official in the Information Affairs Authority told CNN.
Both men pleaded not guilty and will remain in custody until their next hearing, said the official, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Mubarak. He said their lawyers have been given more time to prepare their cases.
Both men were seized May 2, family members said.
The trials come after the small, strategically important Gulf kingdom was swept by protests earlier this year as part of the Arab Spring demonstrations.
The legal proceedings began Sunday without prior notice, according to a Matar family member who asked not to be named for security reasons.
Fairooz's lawyer only found out the charges once he appeared in court Sunday, the defendant's brother Jamsheer Fairooz said.
Jawad Fairooz said he was being treated well and looked to be in physically good condition but had "aged 10 years -- his beard and hair have both gone white," his brother said.
Matar, 35, was taken from his car by armed men in masks on May 2, according to a relative. He represented the biggest constituency in Bahrain, with approximately 16,000 people.
Elected to the lower house of Parliament in October 2010, Matar resigned along with other Wefaq lawmakers earlier this year to protest the government crackdown on demonstrators. Wefaq is a Shiite party, the predominant religion in the kingdom whose rulers are Sunni.
Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab said the trials are "not (of) an international standard," saying the defendants had "not only (had) no access to lawyer but even their families (were) not informed they were being taken court."
Meanwhile, poet Ayat al-Qormozi, 20, was found guilty of assembling at Pearl Roundabout, the epicenter of anti-government demonstrations in the kingdom earlier this year. Additional charges included speaking out against Bahrain and the king.
The Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights said she read a poem criticizing government policy at the Roundabout.
Mubarak, the government official, said Bahrain had freedom of speech, but that there were limits.
"Freedom of speech in this country has its boundaries and cannot touch on the leadership, and cannot call for the overthrow of the government," he said.
Her poem, he said, "caused incitement and hatred to his majesty the king and to the prime minister" with lines such as "we are people who kill humiliation" and "assassinate misery."
Amnesty International called the charges "unfair" in a statement after the sentence.
"By locking up a female poet merely for expressing her views in public, Bahrain's authorities are demonstrating how free speech and assembly are brutally denied to ordinary Bahrainis," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Al-Qormozi had been detained since March 30, after her father led security forces to her in the face of threats to his other children's lives, a family member said.
She alleges that she received electrical shocks to her face and was beaten with a hose while in detention, according to the relative, who asked not to be named for security reasons.
Her mother and father were the only family members allowed in court, the relative said, adding that a lawyer was present with her.
Bahraini security forces went to her house around midnight a few days before she was detained, but she was not home, the relative said.
The security forces broke things in the house and told the family they would return the following day for her. They returned the next night but she was still in hiding, the relative said.
The family member said security forces then took two of the poet's four brothers and threatened them with guns in their faces. The father, fearing for his family's lives, took the security forces to her. The family was assured that she would not be harmed, the family member said.
Bahrain's government declined to comment on the specifics of al-Qormozi's case, but said: "All detention centers conform to the conditions set down under international human rights regulations and the detainees are treated as innocent until proven guilty."
Thousands of Bahrainis protested their government Saturday in a rally organized by the Wefaq party.
Unafraid, pro-reform demonstrators hit the streets with their faces uncovered, said a journalist at the scene who was not identified for security reasons.
Rajab, the human rights activist, put the turnout at "no less than 10,000," while police put it at 4,000, the national news agency said.
Rajab said the march went off peacefully, with no security forces present.
It was the second such protest since the government last week lifted emergency laws that were imposed in mid-March, allowing a crackdown on political leaders and journalists.
Bahrain's ruling royal family -- Sunnis in a majority-Shiite nation -- accuses protesters of being motivated by sectarian differences and supported by Iran.
Ali Salman, the secretary general of al Wefaq, told the large crowds that he supports the government's offer of dialogue but said he could not endorse it fully until the conditions for such talks were clear.
Bahraini Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa pledged cooperation from the government "to reach national consensus so as to ensure a better future for the kingdom," the state-run Bahrain News Agency said.
Crown Prince Salman, who met with U.S. officials in Washington Wednesday, thanked President Barack Obama for his backing of a national dialogue in Bahrain.
Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, and the United States has been concerned about the instability in the Persian Gulf island state.
CNN's Jenifer Fenton contributed to this report.

Gaddafi plays chess while fighting gets closer

Afghan Police Recruits Impose ‘Islamic Tax’

Ghulam Hazrat should be a poster boy for the peaceful reintegration of insurgents who want to switch sides. Six months ago he was a Taliban commander in the troubled Imam Sahib district of northern Kunduz Province. Now he and 10 of his followers are in the process of becoming police officers, at which point the government will start paying them salaries.

In the meantime, however, Mr. Hazrat is raising money the same way he did as a Taliban commander, by imposing an “Islamic tax” on people in his district.

“The government is telling me to fight the Taliban and protect your area so we must ask people for help in order to take care of myself and my friends,” he said in an interview. He and other militiamen who have declared for the government and hope to join the local police, a group known as arbakai, insist that people give the money voluntarily.

Judging by the public outcry, however, the donors see things differently. They are often forced to hand over a tenth of their earnings, just as they were when the Taliban ran things. In Kunduz, where the police training program has been operating since late last year, radio talk shows have been flooded by angry callers complaining about the arbakai militias, meetings of elders have denounced their behavior, and even provincial government officials have expressed concern.

The American-financed program aims to convert insurgents into village self-defense forces called Afghan Local Police, distinct from the existing national police force. It is a favorite initiative of the NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who considers it a key part of his counterinsurgency strategy.

Afghan police officials see it as an inexpensive way to beef up their forces, particularly in remote areas. The Afghan Local Police are organized and trained by American Special Forces units in cooperation with the Afghan authorities and, working at the village level, are paid half of what national police officers earn.

So far the program has trained 6,200 officers in 41 districts, and aims to recruit 30,000 in 100 districts in 14 provinces by the end of the year.

But it has aroused concern among aid workers and United Nations officials, who say it risks empowering local warlords who have little regard for human rights or proper behavior.

Many Afghans fear a return to the warlord days of the civil war years, from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, even more than they fear the Taliban, who came to power in large measure because people were fed up with feuding local militias. A recent study by Oxfam and three other nongovernment groups concluded that the program had “in all cases failed to provide effective community policing,” and has instead produced forces that have “generally been feared by the communities they are supposed to protect.”

A United Nations report in March noted that while the program was still too new to render hard judgments, “Concerns have been raised regarding weak oversight, recruitment, vetting and command-and-control mechanisms.”

The controversy in Kunduz arose just as farmers began harvesting their crops, only to find that many of the new arbakai groups, armed and acting as a de facto police force before they had begun the training program, were demanding their tithe.

“We have many times said through local television that no one should give anything to anyone, and arbakai have no right to collect Islamic tax,” said Sarwar Hussaini, the spokesman for the Kunduz Province police chief.

But refusing to pay can have consequences.

The headmaster and assistant headmaster of the Haji Mir Alam girls’ school in the provincial capital, Kunduz city, refused. Two arbakai commanders with 30 armed men stormed the school on Wednesday, beating both men with rifle butts in front of the students until they fell unconscious, according to Muhammad Zahir Nazam, head of the provincial education department.

“The education department strongly condemns this attack, which was a clear attack on education,” he said. Both school officials were hospitalized and are in comas, he said, and the school has been closed.

A group of 100 tribal elders gathered afterward and denounced the attack. “The government should arrest and bring these people to justice,” said a spokesman for the group, Haji Nesar Ahmad. Mr. Hussaini, the police spokesman, said no official complaints had been filed over arbakai abuses.

But Mr. Nazam, the education official, said he reported the attack to security officials several times, and “no steps have been taken and no one arrested.”

A spokeswoman for the NATO-led military coalition referred questions about the episodes to Afghan officials. The Afghan Local Police “is an Afghan-led program where we’re in a supporting role,” said the spokeswoman, Lt. Cmdr. Kathleen D. Sweetser. She said it helped provide security in “contested areas that are important to the campaign but beyond the reach” of available coalition and Afghan forces.

Kunduz, where there are 1,500 arbakai militiamen and 1,200 slots authorized for Local Police officers, has one of the largest programs. So far, though, only 105 arbakai have graduated to become officers, Mr. Hussaini said. NATO officials say 220 Local Police officers have been trained in Kunduz.

The arbakai militias who have drawn so many complaints are in the early stages of the process. Many have not yet been accepted into the training program.

“If the government gave us food and paid us, then there would be no reason to collect tax from people,” said Mr. Hazrat, the arbakai commander.

Afghan and international officials acknowledge the program has flaws. An international official with knowledge of the program who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the training program had not geared up fast enough to accommodate the numbers of arbakai.

“There’s more demand than there is capacity,” the official said. “Whatever we are doing, we have to do it correctly.”

Mohammad Ayoub Haqyaar, governor of the Imam Sahib district, where Mr. Hazrat’s forces range, said, “The best way to prevent them from taking tax from people will be to hire them as Local Police and start paying them.”

But American rules do not allow the recruits to be paid until they have been trained and vetted by the Special Forces, as well as local elders and Afghan officials. And while the Americans also object to giving them guns and ID cards before then, local governments have handed them out anyway.

Yaar Mohammad, a 40-year-old farmer in the Imam Sahib district, has just harvested 4,600 pounds of wheat from his six acres of land, and the local arbakai asked for 460 pounds of that. “I refused, and they threatened me, and I finally had to give it to them,” he said. In the Khan Abad district, also in Kunduz Province, a farmer named Faizullah has not yet harvested his 12 acres of wheat, but plans to hand over a tenth after the local commander announced in the mosque that everyone had to do so.

“We must give it to them,” he said. “If we don’t then they’ll create problems.”

“People are complaining that arbakai are taking their money and their cellphones and sometimes beating them up,” said Col. Abdul Rahman Aqtash, the deputy police chief in Kunduz. “We’ve cleared Kunduz of the armed opposition, but if the situation continues like this then people will keep their distance from the government and it will prepare the ground for armed opposition.”

Saudi Arabia’s Freedom Riders

THE Arab Spring is inching its way into Saudi Arabia — in the cars of fully veiled drivers.
On the surface, when a group of Saudi women used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to organize a mass mobile protest defying the kingdom’s ban on women driving, it may have seemed less dramatic than demonstrators facing bullets and batons while demanding regime change in nearby countries. But underneath, the same core principles — self-determination and freedom of movement — have motivated both groups. The Saudi regime understands the gravity of the situation, and it is moving decisively to contain it by stopping the protest scheduled for June 17.

The driving ban stems from universal anxiety over women’s unrestrained mobility. In Saudi Arabia that anxiety is acute: the streets — and the right to enter and leave them at will — belong to men. A woman who trespasses is either regarded as a sinful “street-walker” or expected to cover herself in her abaya, a portable house. Should she need to get around town, she can do so in a taxi, with a chauffeur (there are 750,000 of them) or with a man related to her by marriage or blood behind the wheel.

Although the Islamic Republic of Iran could not implement similarly draconian driving laws after the 1979 revolution, given that women had driven cars there for decades, the theocratic regime did denounce women riding bikes or motorcycles as un-Islamic and sexually provocative. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, proclaimed in 1999 that “women must avoid anything that attracts strangers, so riding bicycles or motorcycles by women in public places involves corruption and is forbidden.”

The Saudi regime, like the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the military junta in Sudan and the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, ordains the exclusion of women from the public sphere. It expects women to remain in their “proper place.”

Indeed, the rulers in Saudi Arabia are the most gender-segregated in the world today. In official ceremonies, and in countless photographs, posters and billboards, the royal family seems to be composed solely of men.

This desire to deny women entrance into the public arena is inaccurately presented as a religious mandate. Yet there is no basis for such exclusion in the Koran. On the contrary, in the early years of Islam, women were a vital presence in Muslim communities. They attended mosques, engaged in public debates and got involved in decision-making processes. Aisha, one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad, commanded an army of men while riding on a camel. If Muslim women could ride camels 14 centuries ago, why shouldn’t they drive cars today? Which Koranic injunction prohibits them from driving?

Gender apartheid is not about piety. It is about dominating, excluding and subordinating women. It is about barring them from political activities, preventing their active participation in the public sector, and making it difficult for them to fully exercise the rights Islam grants them to own and manage their own property. It is about denying women the basic human right to move about freely.

That is why the women defying the ban on motorized mobility are in fact demanding an eventual overhaul of the entire Saudi political system. They want not just to drive but to remap the political geography of their country.

These women know the value of a car key. Like the man who faced down tanks in Tiananmen Square, like the unprecedented number of women participating in protests across the Middle East and North Africa, the Saudi women’s campaign for the right to drive is a harbinger of a new era in the region.

It may require decades to see an end to the Middle East’s gender apartheid and the political reconfigurations that would necessarily follow. One thing is certain though: the presence of women and men demonstrating side by side in the streets of Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria is a sign of more seismic upheavals ahead. Old categories have broken down and the traditional distribution of power and space is no longer viable.

The women demonstrating for the right to drive in Riyadh are seasoned negotiators of confined spaces and veteran trespassers of closed doors and iron gates. They are a moderating, modernizing force to be reckoned with — and an antidote to extremism.

Their refusal to remain silent and invisible or to relinquish their rights as citizens is an act of civil disobedience and moral courage. Their protest, and those of their sisters across the Middle East, represent a revolution within revolutions — and a turning point in the contemporary history of Islam.

Farzaneh Milani, chairwoman of the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia, is the author of “Words, Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement.”