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Sabeha Sheikh: the sole woman journalist in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan

The conservative city of Dera Ismail Khan in north-western Pakistan might have stopped other woman journalists – but not Sabeha Sheikh, freelance journalist co-founder of Burqa Journalists Facebook page. Throughout her career, she has resisted restrictive traditions and barriers as one of the few woman journalists in the region, writes Lubna Jerar Naqvi.

Sabeha Sheikh is pursuing her career in media as one of the few women journalists in north-western Pakistan. Credit: Sabeha Sheikh.

If you can’t find a way, create one – and that is exactly what woman journalist Sabeha Sheikh did. Sabeha comes from Dera Ismail Khan (DI Khan), a mostly Pashtun-populated, conservative city in Pakistan’s north-western province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, about five and a half hours drive from Peshawar. Here, women rarely work outside their homes, and if they do, they usually have government jobs.

Digital media has changed many aspects of journalism, not least of all empowering women to follow their dreams. Sabeha is one of these women. She has been able to continue her career in journalism, despite living in a region where women must adhere to conservative traditions, without hurting any social sensitivities. Now, she is well-known for her work in the region.

As she studies for her Masters in Philosophy, Sabeha is also working as a journalist. She began reporting when she was still a media student at Gomal University, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. As woman journalists are a rare sight, Sabeha has faced many barriers throughout her career, not only from other journalists in the field, but also from her family. But her mother always supported her dreams.

Searching for something different and interesting in her career, Sabeha chose to pursue journalism. Although there were no women journalists working in DI Khan, the budding journalist was inspired by Farzana Ali, the renowned journalist and Bureau Chief for Aaj TV in Peshawar, known for her work covering terrorism.

But Sabeha knew it wasn’t going to be an easy journey, especially in the conservative city of DI Khan. So, how did she become a reporter?

“I had a teacher, a mentor, who helped me to make an important decision when I sought admission to Gomal University,” she said.

When Sabeha asked her mentor what she should do, he asked her what her strengths were.

“I said ‘I talked well’, and he replied, ‘You should become a journalist.’”

“I was surprised, but I took his advice and opted for journalism. While studying I also wanted to do some practical journalism because I thought it is important to get experience in the field as well. I didn’t just want to get a degree and then leave the profession – I wnted to carry on after I left university.”

But Sabeha was aware of the problems in the real world, where there were no woman journalists and no real job offers at media organizations in DI Khan. Just before her final exams, she and her three friends discussed what their future would look like after they graduated.

“At the time social media was a new thing and we saw a lot of people creating channels and pages online,” she said.

“We thought that we could also make a page, but we didn’t want to fade away in an ocean of so many other similar pages and channels – we wanted to stand out.

“When women go outdoors in DI Khan, they wear burqas. It is a common attire in our society. All of us wear burqas and that was what we would be wearing if we did journalism.

“And so since we would be wearing burqas we decided to call ourselves ‘Burqa Journalists’ and that is what we named our Facebook page.”

Sabeha also worked for the university TV and radio broadcast channels, but her reporting was restricted to only university events. At the time she wasn’t sure what kind of journalism she wanted to do – until she attended a training program on campus.

“The trainers had come to our university and one of them told me that I had the confidence, was competent, and talented – but since I wore a burqa, it will be very difficult to work in a burqa and veil,” she said.

“I felt bad as I was living in an Islamic country, so why couldn’t I work in a veil?

“I was disappointed because I thought then I couldn’t work in the media…. We are Pathan, we can’t even think of going out without a burqa.”

Despite her disappointment, she wasn’t going to let this stop her. She didn’t think clothes defined anyone if they did the work professionally – and she would prove it. So Sabeha and her friends began reporting off-campus.

“In the beginning, people didn’t take us seriously but slowly they began to accept that we were journalists,” she said.

“We began by covering events in our (university) department like sports day etc. Then other departments approached us to cover their events – it was overwhelming.

“But after we left uni… people didn’t accept us as journalists and used to look at us as if we were aliens wearing burqas walking on the street holding our equipment – like tripods, cameras, and later, our phones.

“All four of us covered everything with our mobiles, and as we couldn’t go out all the time we covered anything and everything that we thought was newsworthy when we got the chance.

“We didn’t have any specific place to do voiceovers; I have done editing and voice-overs while traveling in rickshaws. Even when I was at home, I would ask my mother to keep quiet while I did my voice-overs.”

As her friends moved on in life, Sabeha kept the page active, even after she was married and became a mother of two children. She didn’t want to stop working and wanted to continue working as a journalist. It was important to her, especially since there is no one to highlight the work of women in her city and the area around her.

“I am the only woman journalist in my area when we began,” she said.

“We were four, but then things didn’t turn out, and with time my friends got married or busy in their lives – but I kept the page going. When I was busy with my children, I asked my husband and some friends to keep posting news on the page. I was so passionate that I once did a voice-over right before my delivery.

“Later some female journalists joined from other areas but only temporarily and now I am the only journalist in the area.”

Being the sole woman journalist, Sabeha covers all beats, especially those related to women.

“I cover whatever I think is newsworthy, but mostly I cover women’s stories as they can speak openly with me as compared to male journalists. As this is my own channel and page, I can cover any story I think is important.”

Despite being the only woman journalist and one of the few who work on digital platforms, the local press club has not made her a member.

“I am an honorary member of the press club because I do not work for a mainstream media outlet. But they gave me an honorary membership because I am DI Khan’s first social media journalist and only woman journalist.”

Speaking about her colleagues, Sabeha said she got support from many in the field who not only supported her but also trained her. She added that she faced a lot of issues while reporting.

“I have to mention my mentor, Qais bhai (brother. This is used to show reverence to someone you respect) who is not with us anymore, who taught me how to survive in the field.

“Qais Bhai taught me how to move while reporting in a male-dominated area; he would tell me to extend my elbows so that no one could come near me or push me, he used to say you should not let anyone push or stop you from moving ahead to get a story – don’t be afraid. He would say don’t let your gender stop you – he said don’t think you are a female.”

She also met many people who tried to dissuade her from working and she said even some of her classmates tried to make her feel bad, insinuating it was easier for her because she was a woman.

“They think our gender gives us an edge and things are easy. They don’t understand that apart from our work we have to deal with different things including people like them who are trying to discredit us for our success, despite our hard work.”

Sabeha finds working for social or digital media a bit easier as compared to mainstream media. She said it has given journalists in smaller cities and towns a chance to tell their stories, as the mainstream media outlets located in large cities don’t give enough coverage. Digital media has given everyone a chance to tell their stories and give their voices a platform.

She added: “Social media has given women like me a lot of opportunities. In places where women are not given jobs or opportunities in mainstream media, digital media gives us an opportunity to do work like we want to and on our conditions.”

Speaking about sexual harassment in the workplace, she said every woman faces this especially, if she is working in the field like a journalist. She added that she never shares these problems with her family because they might ask her to stop working. She faced many issues before she got married but now not so much, and she thinks it is because her husband is a lawyer and her brother-in-law a policeman.

“My husband has always been supportive of my work but initially my in-laws not so much. But now when my brother-in-law or mother-in-law tell me people ask about Burqa Journalists and me, it makes me feel so good that my passion and hard work have managed to change their opinion and now they support me.”