On June 11, the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) named Kashmiri Photojournalist Masrat Zahra as the winner of this year’s Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award. The jury panel praised her work for “humanity” and the focus on the stories of women. Masrat’s work provides an in-depth view of life in Kashmir. She has covered women’s resistance, human rights, and daily life in the conflict hit region.
The award honors the memory of German photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus, who was killed in 2014 in Afghanistan. The $20,000 (€17,500) prize is awarded annually by the IWMF, which since 1990 has been fighting for press freedom and supporting courageous women journalists.
Masrat’s pictures range from a woman protestor using salt to avoid the burning from tear gas smoke and a defiant expression on her face, to your men challenging the armed forces.
Free Press Kashmir’s Muntaha Amin talks to Zahra, and the challenges her identities of being a Journalist, being a woman, and being a Kashmiri, throw at her.
MA: First of all many many heartfelt Congratulations to you dear. You have been an inspiration, especially for women journalists. How does it feel getting this award, after being targeted for your work and identity.
MZ: Thank you so much. Well, interestingly the UAPA charges that the police has filed against me, don’t even acknowledge me as a journalist. Their press release has mentioned me as a “Facebook user”.
This award is an acknowledgment of my journalistic credentials, that too at a time when there is little to no press freedom in Kashmir, and our voices are being censored. In that context, it means a lot, not just for me, but for the whole journalistic community in Kashmir. It is our collective achievement.
MA: Why were you charged? What do you think is the message?
MZ: I was specifically targeted. I am a freelancer, a woman, and a newcomer without any institutional backing. Through me, they (the state) wanted to send a message and threaten the entire media community of Kashmir.
They are trying to muzzle the voices of journalists in Kashmir, but Alhumdulilah everyone supported me. Even the press club did, despite me not being an accredited member.
They target voices that have an impact, the voices people are listening to and hence, the state tries its best to not let the truth go out of Kashmir.
The fact that they did all of this during a pandemic proves that they feared massive backlash and protests.
MA: This is the world’s most militarised zone. As a journalist, how does this overarching structure of military control affect your work?
MZ: From being stopped at check posts, being asked for identity proofs, to our photographs and videos being deleted by the armed forces, this is our everyday life. I feel unsafe traveling outside Srinagar.
There is a fear of needless questioning and interrogation.
People are also wary of journalists because the amount of misreporting on Kashmir by the Indian Media. Their reporting endangers us.
MA: For our readers, please give an insight into how you approach people who are closely impacted by the conflict. What do you keep in mind when you ask uncomfortable questions?
MZ: It is not easy to ask questions to a person who has suffered losses, whose family members have died. I go, make them comfortable, and create a rapport with them. I familiarise them with myself, and tell them how these voices are important to come out. I try to build trust.
I don’t take out my camera on the first day and let a relationship build organically. Later, I start clicking photos when they have become comfortable in my camera’s presence.
MA: When you first came out with a camera, how friendly or hostile were the streets?
MZ: I was a different person before coming to this field. I was very shy. The streets changed me. Now I am everything but a shy woman. Everyday there would be protests and clashes outside my home. How could one overlook these activities?
On the streets, I have been catcalled and verbally harassed by men. People would stare, a lot. But I ignore all these comments, sometimes even ignoring their presence. I continue my work undeterred. I have clicked clashes, daily life, restrictions, funerals, everything. There are spaces where a woman is not allowed due to cultural restrictions and hence, I am unable to take those shots. For example, I am not allowed inside many masjids, shrines, or burial sites. On funerals I have not been allowed on stage to click that aerial shot, only men are allowed on that podium. That is quite a powerful shot.
The society is biased against women. They blame women for even natural calamities and a microcosm of that narrative, I receive as comments. But I never paid any heed to these, I ignored all these jibes completely. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be working today.
MA: Being a woman journalist, have you struggled more in this ‘unconventional profession’? Was it easy convincing your parents that this is going to be your full-time profession? And do these attacks scare you?
MZ: It was hard for me to convince my parents as there were only a few women journalists and visual storytellers in Kashmir. They did not understand the role of a woman in this field. Therefore, for them, it was a very rebellious decision.
Sometimes, my parents would even hide my camera. But I would still go out, sometimes asking my friends for their cameras, sometimes clicking with a phone. But I never stopped clicking.
They are extremely scared for me of course. I was hit by a pellet fired by the armed forces once, that time the fear increased manifold.
Then there is societal pressure as well. People talk and blame my parents for a ‘bad’ upbringing. I go through a lot of moral policing. Whenever I come home late after a day of shoot, the neighbours raise their eyebrows and talk amongst themselves.
I am scared, yes. When I was charged with UAPA, I was more concerned about the safety of my family. Getting into this profession was solely my decision and they should not be the ones to suffer.
MA: How is it like, to exist in a male-dominated space, as we see in Kashmir, most of the journalists are men.
MZ: When men try to tell stories of women and interview them for that, many times, the latter get uncomfortable under that gaze. We had only seen Kashmir through a male journalist’s perspective. I feel that a woman should be in these spaces and bring forth the stories of women. That is what drove me into this profession where there were only a few of us.
There have been times when I was pushed over by male journalists while shooting protests. Once I was called a Mukhbir (state informer) on social media, the male-dominated press associations did not support me at that time. I stopped my work for a month, but I came back to it again.
In one instance, I was clicking pictures and a male journalists was behind me. He pushed me because I had come in front of his camera. He discredited me and shouted, ‘take her out of here’.
I confronted him that he could have asked me to step aside rather than pushing. I wrote about it on social media. People started saying it is a publicity stunt on my part to earn fame.
I strongly believe if I had not talked and raised my voice then, I would have been pushed around. Someone might have said, hay disi zeer, yin na waniye ni kihin (Go tease her, she wouldn’t react).
If I wouldn’t have stood up for myself that time, I wouldn’t be working now. Such things have happened with other women who were made uncomfortable and stopped working I have seen women leaving mid-way.
MA: A minority within a minority, have you faced multiple discriminations being a Shia-Muslim woman?
MZ: I have in-fact become a role model for my community. It was wrongly made to believe that Shias have different political aspirations. That isn’t true. Many in my community feel that my work speaks on behalf of them, and that makes them proud.
MA: Do you think your work inspires other women?
MZ: Yes, definitely. And that is a driving force. I am very glad. People from world over have told me that they want to be like me, they want their daughters to be like me.
This kind of encouragement keeps me going.
MA: In what ways do you think this profession would be more encouraging of women?
MZ: One thing, parents need to be supportive. Another there needs to be a Female Journalists Association to help women out.
MA: What would you like to tell the families of women who want to pursue the same profession?
MZ: I want to tell those women to never stop. I want to request those parents to support their daughters. Never think about what people would say. No matter what one does, goes out or sits at home, people will talk anyway, we might as well pursue what we want to.
Another very important thing is that we need journalists in Kashmir. A lot of journalists.
There are so many stories to tell, I feel, for now, we haven’t even told ten percent of the stories in Kashmir that need to be told.
Muntaha Amin has studied Film and Media from Jamia Millia Islamia. Her research work revolves around representation politics, religion and gender.
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