Their stories, their challenges, their lives

Nasrin, owner of a beauty salon in Kabul, says: “We were closed for two-three months.  There were lots of problems, like we still have to pay the rent. In the past, I made around 80,000 Afghanis, now I can’t even make ten.”  She is speaking in Pashto.  It was with her story that we relaunched the BBC News Pashto Instagram.  This channel now focuses on issues that matter to female audiences, bringing news, information, educational and entertaining pieces that women can directly relate to.  It will also highlight the challenges faced by women from different walks of life.

With my colleagues in London and Kabul we worked, in an all-female team, to make sure this Instagram page better serves Pashto-speaking women, to provide them with a safe ‘microclimate’ on Instagram, where each one of them – irrespective of their social status and education – can feel represented, heard, and inspired. Be it a story such as Nasrin’s, or a graphic explainer of what autism is and how to live with it – we will touch on every issue that matters to Pashto-speaking women in Afghanistan and across the region. We want this Instagram account to be a trusted source of knowledge and support.

Social-media platforms are an extension of offline public spaces. Many of the rules and limitations that exist for women continue their existence online, transported to social-media platforms. Sexual harassment and some cultural norms play a major role in making women passive or silent users on social media platforms, so one of the challenges is to find out what women think about the stories we cover and what they actually want us to concentrate on. That helps us break the vicious cycle where a failure to create enough material that appeals to women pushes them further away from us.

To tackle this issue headfirst, I created a project called Let’s Talk, which premiered on the BBC News Persian Instagram account. Instagram is traditionally more popular with women, and the purpose of Let’s Talk was to get Persian-speaking women to talk with us and with each other, engaging in conversations on various topics – from sexual and women’s health to whether house-work is “actually” work.  Every week we posted a postcard with short and informative caption, inviting our audiences to share their thoughts with us.

For women to freely share their thoughts on sometimes very sensitive subjects such as virginity, hymen reconstruction or breast augmentation surgery, it was important to vigorously moderate the comments.  In fact, the first hour following the publication of a post is especially important for comment moderation because those initial comments set the tone for the conversation under the post.  If you really want to do social listening and get women to speak, you need to moderate the comments and make sure they are free of harassment or bullying of any kind.

All this work yielded a great result, and we had some very engaging debates under the posts.  The social listening gave us ideas for the new topics to cover in Let’s Talk.

The success of the project me thinking about taking Let’s Talk further, now to our Afghan audiences – the BBC News Dari Facebook page.   This time around, each new postcard with the theme was followed by a Facebook Live debate with invited guests. For this format, we covered topics as diverse as beauty standards, post-natal depression, menopause, or how to talk to children about sex. The way women engaged with Let’s Talk on the BBC News Dari Facebook page showed us that, with the right approach and appropriate content, Afghan women can connect with us to discuss even taboo topics.

As we decided to tailor the BBC News Pashto Instagram account to women, we considered its visual identity.  It had to be true to Afghan and regional cultural elements.  As to the content – the BBC’s new Pashto Instagram account is packed with themes that we know resonate with women in the region.  With a chat on depression in simple, accessible Pashto, consultant psychiatrist in London’s Goodmayes Hospital, Dr Khurshid Tabassum, will start the monthly series of mental-health explainers. We will feature inspiring women – from entrepreneurs and manufacturers to athletes and activists – who are pushing boundaries and trying to bring change.  Another theme to be tackled – via testimonies from highly-qualified women – is the challenges they face as they try to get jobs.

We want to help educate people on issues that might be quite unexplored in their cultures, so we have put together testimonies by families who live with autism.  We explain what autism is in simple terms, using Instagram slideshows rather than long and heavy video material – data usage can be a challenge in Afghanistan and the region, and long videos are not accessible for everyone. Many of the women we want to reach are illiterate, so to make sure they can benefit from our content, we are also making sure that our material includes audio and voiceovers.

We won’t be able to reach all women in the region through a platform like Instagram, I am aware of that.  But we’ll be doing our best to reach as many as we can.  We’ll be using all the tools native to Instagram, and available to us, to tell a story such as the Kabul beauty salon owner Nasrin’s.  Their stories, their challenges, their lives.