DERA ISMAIL KHAN: Sabeha Sheikh was not thinking about her headscarf or burqa as she sat through a journalism workshop at Gomal University in the northwestern Pakistani town of Dera Ismail Khan in April last year.
But a remark from the teacher, that girls in burqas could not be good journalists, led her to question how she could use her veil — considered by many in the West as a sign of oppression — to her advantage in the deeply conservative society to which she belonged.
“It was at that moment I decided that not only will I be a good journalist, I will set up a platform for those girls who wear the burqa and also want to become professional journalists,” Sheikh, 24, told Arab News.
In May 2018, she formed Burka Journalists with her friend and fellow journalism graduate Sameera Latif. The idea was to provide women who wore conservative Muslim dress, from black chadors to bright silk scarves, a space where they could be both free to follow their religious and cultural norms, and their dreams of being journalists.
Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, bordering Afghanistan, is a socially conservative region whose women have suffered repression for decades. Women of the area mostly leave their homes in full-length shrouds covering the face. Rights groups say hundreds of women and girls are killed in the province each year by family members angered at perceived damage to their “honor,” which involves anything from “fraternizing” with men to eloping.
Over the years, the Pakistani Taliban and allied Islamist militants, who regard female education as anti-Islamic, have destroyed hundreds of schools for young women. It was also in this region that in 2012 the Taliban shot and critically wounded Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.
Now, Sheikh and Latif want to highlight the problems faced by the women of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — both from behind their cameras and their burqas, which they say give them the “confidence and sense of ease” to take up a male-dominated profession in a very tough region.
“We feel comfortable working in burqas — that’s why we decided to promote this trend in the media,” Latif, 22, said. “A lot of girls here wear burqas, but that should not stop them from coming forward and becoming reporters.”
On its Facebook page, the Burka Journalists group has covered issues as diverse as protests by women against power outages and sanitation problems to the case of a 16-year-old girl who was paraded, half-naked, through her village to redeem family honor. Though it only has around 5,000 followers, the page is gaining popularity.
“Burka Journalists is becoming a good source of news, especially on social problems,” Maryum Akbar, a university student, said. She added that the group was important for covering women’s issues because they found it easier to talk to other women, rather than male reporters.
But Wasim Akbar Sheikh, chairman of the department of journalism and mass communication at Gomal University, believes that unless government funding is forthcoming, endeavors such as this will not last. “The tragic thing is that these journalists have neither revenue nor any government support,” he said.
Latif, too, said that in order to expand the project, attract more women, gain further training and be able to cover a wider range of stories, the group needed financial support.
“Right now, we are spending money from our own pocket to provide this launchpad for newcomers. We invite all burqa-clad women to come to us for training and work, but we also need some government support.”