Women struggle to fully exercise their rights in male-dominated society despite fall of Taliban rule
Farida Nekzad has faced threats of kidnapping, acid attacks and a plot to blow up her apartment since she founded her first news agency in Afghanistan seven years ago.
Members of the Taliban e-mailed some of the warnings; others arrived over the phone. One caller warned she would be murdered and disfigured so horrendously that her family would not be able to recognise her body.
But the mother-of-one, whose most recent project is a news agency that spearheads coverage of the problems that Afghan women face, is undeterred. Wakht, or 'Time' in Nekzad's native Dari, is one of a handful of majority female media outlets springing up across a country where women's voices often go unheard.
It has seven female reporters and three male journalists and operates across 10 provinces.
Nekzad, who has start-up funding from private donors and hopes to become self-supporting through advertising within 18 months, aims to expand from text reports to multimedia ones.
"In 30 years of war, women and children are the ones to suffer the most ... but they are not given any attention and have no media coverage," Nekzad said, referring to decades-long violence sparked by the Soviet invasion in 1979.
A long-time journalist with international media awards under her belt, Nekzad first received threats when she co-founded privately-owned news agency Pajhwok, in 2004 in Kabul.
Her husband has also received written warnings saying he would be killed as punishment for his wife's work. Nekzad's new project increased the threat to the safety of both. The only news agency of its kind, Wakht joins five women-owned radio stations spread across Afghanistan, that have also been the target of violence and intimidation.
They face constant opposition from the Taliban, challenges from more conservative sectors of a devoutly Muslim society, and staffing and management issues related to employing women in a country where only a minority work outside the home.
One in Kabul was torched, taking it temporarily off the air. Female journalists at Radio Sahar, set up in the western city of Herat, say they have received death threats. A female-run television channel, called Shiberghan TV after the capital of northern Jowzjan province, will air from mid-September, but finding women willing and able to work on camera is a constant struggle.
Since the austere Taliban government was toppled by US-backed Afghan forces in 2001, women in Afghanistan have won back basic rights in education, voting and work, which the militant group considered un-Islamic. But they face an uncertain future as Afghan and foreign leaders have embraced the idea of seeking a negotiated end to ten years of war, through talks with the Taliban.
Female Afghan lawmakers and analysts warn the talks could result in women losing the rights they have regained, but still struggle to exercise in a male-dominated society.
"It is not easy being a female leader in Afghanistan. I suffer from it constantly," said Nekzad, speaking in fluent English and dressed in a velvet black headscarf, long blouse and flowing ebony floor-length skirt. The 34-year-old was educated in Afghanistan and India, a country she has visited regularly since registering Wakht a year ago, to keep a low profile after the barrage of Taliban threats.
Until March, she turned down invitations to appear on talk shows and at conferences, fearing for her safety.
She leads Wakht's coverage on domestic violence, the bartering of girls and women between families and the widespread but illegal practice of forced marriages.
Though common across the country, such stories rarely make the mainstream media, despite funding for many outlets coming from Western donors who are keen to promote women's rights.
And even dedicated outlets struggle. Wakht's reporters have in the past been lured away by rivals with big cash offers, in what Nekzad sees as an attempt by more conservative factions of society to silence the agency.
"We are also ignored," Nekzad said, adding that Wakht employees are often not invited to events, and must ask journalists from other outlets about what is taking place.