I recently interviewed “New York Times” journalist Carlotta Gall, a veteran foreign correspondent who has covered Afghanistan and Pakistan, about her new book, “Fighting the Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2004,” which sheds light on the involvement of Pakistani elements in ongoing militancy in Afghanistan.
I found Gall incredibly brave to report from Pakistan, where according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 54 journalists have been killed
since 1992. While reporting from Quetta in 2006, Gall was attacked in her hotel room by four men she believes were plainclothes ISI agents, an incident that resembles charges by others of ISI involvement in bombings and high-profile assassinations and kidnappings of officials, journalists, and activists.
Despite this experience, Gall remains optimistic about working as a journalist in religiously and culturally conservative countries. I asked her how being a woman affected her perspective as a war correspondent, and she answered, “Women are better listeners and have the potential to tell stories in a very interesting way.”
Gall’s response about women’s gift of storytelling made me think of villages in Afghanistan where girls are not allowed to read or write, eat with men, or even venture outside without permission. It also reminded me of a conversation my father and I had after he first heard me on the radio, at a time when I couldn’t have imagined that women have the potential to make the kind of unique contribution to journalism that Gall described.
I was born in Kabul when my parents were very young. My mother was only 17 years old and had never been to school. For most of my childhood I hid my sense of curiosity and desire to converse and engage with others. At that time, a girl in my country was admired for being submissive and quiet, and a confident demeanor often brought mockery, disrespect, and even abuse.
My parents’ greatest wish was for me to become a doctor, and I began studying medicine to please them. Still, my suppressed inquisitiveness would become a source of artistic inspiration--for journalism, which I believe is a type of art. I began freelancing for Radio Free Afghanistan to earn pocket money, and my work in assisting senior reporters convinced me to change my major to journalism. It was uncommon for women to work in media, as most Afghans believed a female voice shouldn’t be broadcast to strange men.
My family had mixed reactions to my decision. My mother cried for days at the thought of me abandoning medicine to become someone who spoke to the public. It was even more difficult to share this news with my father, even though we shared a very close bond. He was living abroad at the time, and when he called home one day, I attempted to apologize for my choice. But before I could say anything, my father’s voice boomed across the line.
He had already heard me on the radio reciting a poem, and I could tell he was beaming with pride. It was then that he reminded me that when I was born, my parents had nothing to wrap me in to take me home from the hospital except for newspaper. He joked that this was an early sign that I was “born” to be a journalist.
When I think about the agony of many women’s lives, not only in Afghanistan, but in the whole region--from Iran to India--I remind myself how lucky I am to have my father’s support. And when I encounter successful women journalists like Carlotta Gall, I admire her while also paying silent tribute to the women of Afghanistan. Their dreams are thwarted, not because they are incapable, but because they are prevented from pursuing them by society.
Who is going to tell their stories?