For our series on the Changing Lives of Women, we're asking NPR women about their careers — and inviting you to join the conversation. This question goes to NPR's Rachel Martin, the host of Weekend Edition Sunday, who was a longtime foreign correspondent in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Question: When did you stand up to speak out?
Rachel Martin: Journalism can be a tough business to stand out in; one of the most effective ways to do this is to go to the place that no one wants to go and cover the story that's not being covered. I went to Afghanistan as a freelance reporter in the summer of 2003. I went for two months, filed a few feature stories — nothing groundbreaking, but my intention was to just get the lay of the land and figure out if this was actually a place I could return to for a more extended period to report. After finishing graduate school the following year, I went back to Afghanistan for four months to cover the first presidential election that would bring Hamid Karzai into power.
It was a heady time to be a Western journalist in that country. The U.S. had invaded Iraq a few months earlier and the crush of foreign news outlets had moved their operations from Kabul to Baghdad. The people who stayed behind were a small, ragtag group of stringers for various international news outlets. Even though most of the media's attention was fixed on the war in Iraq, there was still plenty of news to go around in Afghanistan and not many people covering it.
And in those early years after the U.S. invasion, Afghanistan was a different kind of place. There was optimism. There was hope about a different kind of future for the country. This was before suicide bombs and IEDs became signature features of this long war. I wouldn't call it safe, but other Western reporters and I would often walk around Kabul's downtown neighborhoods, buy basic supplies at the corner stores, even do some shopping at the main bazaar. And we traveled. My Afghan colleague and I traveled whenever we could – Jalalabad, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif.
As a woman, and a Western woman at that, I obviously drew attention when I was out and about in Kabul, and I didn't linger in public spaces. But any tension I felt had less to do with the security situation after the U.S. invasion and more to do with being a woman in Afghanistan. I always covered my head with some kind of hijab when I was in public, or when interviewing Afghans, and I wore the kind of loose-fitting clothes that Afghan women usually wore under their burqas. But I did not wear a burqa — for several reasons. First, I truly did see it as a symbol of the profound oppression Afghan women had suffered under a brutal regime. I would cover my head out of respect for the culture I was working in, but that's where I drew the line.
Once in 2004, my translator Barry and I took a road trip to Mazar-e-Sharif in the north. We had heard of some Taliban activity along the Salang Pass, a mountain overpass that connects Kabul to the northern part of the country. Some kind of roadblock had been set up at the entrance to the pass. We couldn't tell if they were part of the newly formed Afghan national police or some rogue Taliban element. But they were stopping every car and checking IDs. We had a burqa in the car for an emergency, and I asked Barry if I should put it on and just stay mute. He said, "No. If you get caught, they will think you are a spy and it will end badly." Instead, I covered my head tightly with my scarf and averted my eyes when the man carrying the Kalashnikov rifle peered in the window and asked in Farsi for my nationality. "Canadian," my friend responded. He waved us past. It was one of several times in Afghanistan when, strangely enough, I felt like my gender was to my advantage. Because women in Afghanistan were second-class citizens, forbidden to go to school in Taliban times, unable to work outside the home — or even walk outside without a male relative — any woman, even a Western one, was also just kind of ... ignored. As a reporter, it worked to my benefit.
After years of oppressive Taliban rule Afghans wanted to talk. As a woman, I was able to go into Afghan homes and have long conversations with Afghan women — something my male counterparts just couldn't do. I was allowed to sit in on tribal shuras — gatherings of Afghan tribal leaders, mostly because they just didn't see me as a threat. Doors were open everywhere. I interviewed all the major presidential candidates, former mujahideen fighters, the notorious Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, and the former president of Afghanistan Burhanuddin Rabbani (who was killed in a suicide bomb attack on his home in 2011).
None of these men would shake my hand. Sometimes they wouldn't even look me in the eye. But I didn't need them to — I just needed them to talk.