Because FPI is all about amplifying female foreign policy voices, we’ve rolled out a regular brain-picking Q&A feature with awesome interruptors.
This week, we want to make sure journopreneur Amie Ferris-Rotman is on your radar.
Amie is a John S. Knight fellow at Stanford, where she is developing a much-needed training, mentoring and publishing program for female Afghan journalists.
She began her career in journalism in her native London in 2005 as a business reporter. In 2006, she joined Reuters where she spent five years in the Moscow bureau as an energy reporter and political correspondent, and more recently, in Afghanistan as a senior correspondent.
She has a B.A. and M.A. in Russian Studies (she’s also fluent) from University College London. She has reported from 10 countries, from over 30 datelines.
Also, fun-fact: Amie presides over an ever-growing rock and mineral collection that has been expanded since she was seven years old (which makes Lauren’s and Elmira’s childhood collection of erasers and stickers, respectively, all the more lame).
FPI: Tell us about your awesome project.
It now has a name: “Sahar speaks.” Sahar is one of the most common names for women in Afghanistan, meaning dawn. It’s a three-stage initiative, beginning with a selection of Afghan female correspondents – both those who are already experienced and those who are just beginning their careers. We’re looking at a group of 10 or 20 who will apply to be a part of the program. They will receive intensive, international-level training in Kabul for a week. Hopefully this will happen in 2014, while the troops are winding down their mission, because I think that’s symbolically important.
Stage two includes mentoring and coaching. Each Afghan correspondent will be paired with international female correspondents around the world. The first round of the project will be in English, but then we can move to Dari and Pashto at a later cycle.
The mentors will get them ready for their stories, which is part three. Their stories will focus on what the last thirteen years of war have meant for Afghan women. The good and the bad. Their hopes, their future. Their work will be featured in an outlet with global reach.
FPI: How did you become interested in Afghanistan?
I was living in Moscow as a reporter, and was looking for new opportunities, for something exciting. Of course, Russia had its own, decade long and rather disastrous war in Afghanistan, which hovers in the background. As a Russophile, I liked the idea of exploring this comparison. I also wanted to see America’s longest war face to face. Once I arrived in Afghanistan, however, my interests soon shifted from covering the military day to day of the war, to reporting on the country’s women.
FPI: At which point did you realize this project was needed? And at which point did you want to explore it from more than a journalistic angle?
It was gradual, but it began in my bureau, in Kabul. I was staggered by the lack of local female reporters in our bureau, which is the world’s largest news company. We had 15 Afghan staff working for us. As a result, covering women’s stories, especially for multimedia, was incredibly difficult. Men can’t interview most ordinary women in Afghanistan, so we were missing a huge part of the story.
I eventually hired a female interpreter, and we were then able to do lots of stories. But even getting her was challenging, and met with antagonism by the local male staff. The more I spoke to other international news outlets, the more I realized this is a universal problem. In fact, today not a single international news outlet in Kabul has a female Afghan reporter. That’s absolutely appalling. It’s up to us – the international media – to encourage them and invest in them. This is not only about diversity, it’s also about getting a better, full story out to the world.
What I found especially absurd was that international media love to report on women’s rights – it’s a hot topic – yet none go the extra step to actually hire an Afghan female reporter. There’s a lot of opposition to hiring women by the local male staff, and it’s been allowed to continue. I would go to press conferences and meet tons of local female journalists. In fact, they make up over a quarter of Afghanistan’s large press corps. So they exist. And some are willing to work for foreign news outlets.
This all really came to a head when I went to an all-female rock concert in Kabul in the spring, which could only be covered by female press. I went and covered it for Reuters, but we weren’t able to get photos or video because I am a writer. And we couldn’t send anyone, because we didn’t have any. I was the only reporter to cover the rock concert. So essentially, this unique, all-female rock fest was wiped out of history because we didn’t have any photographic or video evidence of it. And really, that is a mirror of what has been happening in Afghanistan all along. Women haven’t had a voice. They’ve been erased and pushed aside.
It’s up to the international media to change this.
FPI: There’s been a lot of recent press on the downward trajectory for women in Afghanistan. How does this affect your project?
The situation for Afghan women has been deteriorating since 2011. All sorts of things have happened to derail the progress the international community has made. The Afghan government discretely erased a quota for women to be in parliament. The parliament didn’t pass the violence against women law, and make it into a proper law. Violence against senior Afghan female politicians and officials is on the rise. Women’s rights are on a gradual, downward slope. But this only adds urgency to the need for Sahar Speaks.
FPI: You’ve also spent so much time studying Russia and working there. In terms of coverage, where do you think the international community gets it wrong?
I think Russia is, in many ways, a misunderstood country. This especially shows in the Western media’s coverage of it. A lot of the coverage around Sochi has been gratuitously negative and particularly disappointing. Even the New York Times said the opening ceremony had “breezed past” Stalin’s purges. Is that really necessary? Did the ceremony in Atlanta highlight slavery, or racial segregation in the South? Did London’s? Just watching the Olympics coverage of the opening ceremony, you’d think the Cold War is still alive and well.
A lot of the press polarizes the issues: Pussy Riot and gay rights defenders are heroes; Putin is painted as a monster. Of course, the situation surrounding gay rights has reached appalling new heights, but that is not what any of this is about. I believe what Russia wants from the world is to be taken seriously, as a major power and the formidable player it once was. That’s what the media, and a lot of Westerners, are missing in their conversations about Russia. Moscow just wants a seat at the big kid’s table.
Syria was a perfect example of Russia’s nous [Amie taught Lauren and Elmira a new word] and experience in an area of global concern. They have a long history of dealing with Assad’s government, and his father’s. Yet the US and Europe were blindly trying to pursue a certain agenda without even consulting Russia. Russian diplomats complained to me, when I lived in Kabul, that the United States did not take up their offer to consult them prior to overthrowing the Taliban and invading. I think this in itself says a lot about the emotions that are running between Moscow and Washington.
FPI: Do you have book recs for people interested in learning more about Afghanistan or Russia?
Afgantsy is a great read. It’s written by a former British Ambassador [Rodric Braithwaite] to Russia and Afghanistan and it’s all about the Soviet War in Afghanistan. And if people want to get into how dreadful the situation is for women in Afghanistan, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a poignant and good read. The Favored Daughter” is also interesting. The Sewing Circles of Herat is brilliant – she embeds with the Mujahideen in the 1980s, but the book is also very much about Afghan women.
FPI: And any advice for young and fellow interruptors?
Don’t let the bastards get you down!