Exiled Kashmiri photojournalist seeks ‘normal life’ in U.S.

In honor of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, members of the National Press Club’s Press Freedom Team have interviewed journalists in exile from around the world. We will feature their stories every day this week to shed light on press freedom issues worldwide.

Masrat Zahra, a Kashmiri photojournalist living in exile since March 2021, simply wants an opportunity to continue her award-winning work in the United States.

Zahra, from India-occupied Kashmir, is being persecuted by the Indian government for her work, which focuses on human rights abuses of women and children in Kashmir. She has been published in publications such as The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, TRT World, The Sun, The New Humanitarian, and Getty Images, among others.

We interviewed Zahra to learn more about her experience in exile and her work as a photojournalist.

What led to your exile?

Zahra: I was working as a photojournalist in Kashmir since 2015, focusing on intimate stories about women and children in conflict. In 2018, I drew the attention of the Indian government when I shared a photo of myself covering a gunfight, where I was the only civilian present. I was falsely labeled as an Indian spy to discredit my work. Despite this, I continued my work. But in April 2020, I was charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Usually Indian states book terrorists under this law, and I face imprisonment for seven years under this charge if they detain me. However, immediate solidarity from people and international organizations prevented my arrest. There was a hashtag campaign, #IstandwithMasratZahra, which was backlash against the government’s attempt to silence me.

In 2020, a fake poster with the name of a Pakistani militant outfit — who fight the Indian state either for an independent Kashmir or merger with Pakistan — letterhead appeared on social media accusing me of working for the Indian government. Later, the militant group clarified that they had nothing to do with me and that Indian agencies were trying to kill me and blame them. The local police then offered me police protection, which I refused. However, after a human rights activist lawyer was killed in my neighborhood, the police returned and tried to force me to accept their protection, citing the dangerous situation. I refused and eventually found a way to leave Kashmir in March 2021 through a German NGO that supports persecuted individuals. 

However, the Indian government had put me on a no-fly list, like many of my Kashmiri colleagues, rights activists, and businessmen, after learning of my departure. If I return, I may face imprisonment or threat to my life for my work and speaking truth to power.

Furthermore, my family has been facing harassment every now and then by the police. My father was beaten, and my mother was also harassed. When I shared a picture of my father’s bruises on social media, the police accused me of planning this with my family to stay in the news. They keep inquiring from my family about my whereabouts.

What motivated you to become a photojournalist?

Zahra: Growing up in conflict, I witnessed frequent protests and insurgency-related events unfolding in everyday life. During extended school closures, my only source of information was newspapers, and I was always drawn to the photographs. However, I noticed that all the bylines belonged to male photojournalists. As I attended funerals and witnessed incidents in my neighborhood, I saw the male photojournalists taking pictures, but their presence often made the grieving families uncomfortable and less willing to share their stories. I wanted to provide a female perspective on the conflict in Kashmir. 

Despite the challenges of being the first female photojournalist from Kashmir, my family supported my aspirations. However, working in a conflict zone was difficult, and my family had concerns about my safety. You also have to face slut-shaming by society — even sometimes by educated people and colleagues. A [question] is raised on your chastity when you’re a minority in a male-dominated profession.

How has being in exile in the U.S. affected your ability to practice photojournalism?

Zahra: I spent a year in Germany before coming to the U.S., and it has been challenging for me not to be able to work. Although I am on a J-1 visa, I am not authorized to work here. It has taken a toll on my mental health as I see other photojournalists working, and I know that I am capable of doing the same. However, due to the lack of a work permit, I am unable to practice my profession anywhere, including Kashmir. 

Most of the work I share on social media is from my time in Kashmir, but I am forced to self-censor as the situation there is critical, and my family still resides there. Journalism has been criminalized in Kashmir, and even locals and my colleagues have been arrested for doing their work. It is a difficult situation to be in. Many of my colleagues have been incarcerated now for years, simply for their work. I fear if I go back, I might meet the same fate.

Do you want to return to Kashmir?

Zahra: Right now, I don’t think I’ll be able to go back to Kashmir. To be honest, I don’t see this as an option. Journalism has been criminalized in India, not just in Kashmir. Four of my colleagues are in jail; one has been there since 2018. Right now, there are no stories coming out of Kashmir because of government surveillance. News has dried up. We have some brilliant young independent journalists in Kashmir who will go to any extent for the story, even risk their lives. But Kashmir is right now going through the darkest phase for journalists. We face continuous harassment and intimidation from the state. Everyone is being called to the police stations. You have to face immediate consequences for the stories you do. Journalists’ homes get raided. Their gadgets get confiscated. There is no privacy. And your sources are not safe.

It has also led now to self-censorship. It’s like an Orwellian world. Thought Police and Big Brother is watching you day in and day out.

Right now, I don’t see any hope of me going back because I’ll be arrested and I won’t be able to do my job there. My job — photojournalism — is why I would want to go back. If I can’t do my job there, I don’t think it is an option.

What do you want American reporters to understand about the challenges reporters face in other countries? How can American reporters support you?

Zahra: There are organizations in the world who help journalists and other human rights activists. There should be a vibrant organization that keeps track of their colleagues in every corner of the world, particularly when they are facing persecution, and keep track of the developments and be in touch with them.

To come to a foreign land, to which you are totally alien about, and then survive here for living is really tough. I never came across any organization here who helps journalists like me who are in exile to continue their work and support them. Ask them if they are able to work? Can you go back? Perhaps there can be a reservation in every news organization for journalists in exile or who are facing persecution to help them continue their work. I am a journalist and my specialization is that I can work anywhere in the world, not just in Kashmir. I am a visual storyteller. There are other people who can work regardless of where they happen to live. I have to extend my current visa, but I am not able to do it because there is no organization who I can reach out to for my help. I have exhausted all my contact with people and organizations. It’s tough. I am applying for jobs, and no organization is ready to sponsor my visa.

Tell me about your health complications.

Zahra: Since I came to the U.S., I’ve had health complications. I understand they are happening because I’m under a lot of stress about my work, my family, my visa, and other things. I don’t have a home, I don’t have a place to call home in a foreign land, and it’s taken a toll on my health and my mental health. I didn’t have these complications when I was in Kashmir.  I have been diagnosed with a blood disorder recently, and I have to see a doctor every Monday morning. Every month, I end up in the emergency room, I have another doctor’s visit. Once my fellowship ends, I’ll not have health insurance. It’s challenging. How will I survive in these circumstances without health insurance? Stress and anxieties about my future has been worsening my health.

Have any of your colleagues been arrested in Kashmir for their work as journalists?

Zahra: Unfortunately, yes. Over the past few years, several Kashmiri journalists have been arrested and charged with offenses such as sedition or under UAPA, which is a draconian law that India often uses to stifle voice and dissent. One recent example is the arrest of my colleague, who was charged under the UAPA and sent to an Indian jail. It is deeply concerning and has a chilling effect on press freedom in Kashmir. 

As a female photojournalist in Kashmir, what are some topics or areas that you focus on? Did you mention earlier that you specialize in capturing what happens to women in conflict zones?

Zahra: Yes, as a female photojournalist in Kashmir, I have a unique perspective on the experiences of women in this Himalayan region, with stunning natural beauty but unfortunately consumed by decades of conflict. I specialize in covering stories related to women, children, and human rights, with a focus on gender issues in conflict zones. In Kashmir, women have been deeply affected by the ongoing conflict, and their voices are often overlooked. Through my work, I aim to shed light on their experiences and amplify their voices.

There are a wide range of topics that I’d covered as a photojournalist in Kashmir. For example, I have documented the experiences of female pellet gun victims, who have suffered serious eye injuries due to the use of pellet guns by security forces. I have also covered the impact of the conflict on women’s mental health and the ways in which they cope with trauma and loss.

In addition to these topics, I have covered issues related to gender-based violence and discrimination in Kashmir. For example, I have documented the experiences of women who have been subjected to sexual violence, domestic abuse, and harassment. I have also covered the struggle for women’s rights in Kashmir, including their fight for access to education and employment opportunities.

Through my work, I hope to raise awareness and promote a better understanding of the complex issues facing women in Kashmir. I believe that photojournalism has the power to inspire change and to give voice to those who have been silenced.

Tell us about those.

Zahra: I remember one of my first stories involved the aftermath of a civilian’s killing. When I arrived at the victim’s home with my colleagues, I was struck by the presence of so many women in the room. As a woman myself, I felt connected to them, but I also wondered how I could take pictures without being intrusive or insensitive. Kashmir is a very conservative society. Women mostly don’t speak until they are comfortable. I eventually found a way to take photos that were respectful and conveyed the emotions of the moment.

Working in a conflict zone like Kashmir can be challenging, especially for a female photojournalist. People sometimes underestimate my abilities or dismiss me as not being serious about my job. However, I remain committed to telling the stories of the people affected by the conflict. Even when faced with criticism or hostility, I continue to do my job with professionalism and empathy.

As a female photojournalist, I have the unique opportunity to capture the experiences of women in conflict zones. This can include stories of women who have been displaced from their homes or who have lost loved ones in the violence. It can also involve documenting the ways in which women are leading the fight for justice and human rights in their communities.

Despite the challenges, I feel privileged to work as a photojournalist in Kashmir. Through my work, I hope to shed light on the experiences of the people who are too often overlooked or ignored. Some examples of stories I have covered include the impact of the conflict on children’s education, the experiences of women who have lost family members to violence, and the ongoing struggle for justice and accountability in the region.

How would you like to spend the next five years of your career?

Zahra: In the next five years, I hope to continue working as a journalist, be the voice of the voiceless and speak truth to power and I mostly want to pursue women-centric stories. I aspire to tell the stories of those who are often silenced and overlooked by mainstream media outlets. My dream is to return to Kashmir and be a voice for my community while also inspiring other women to pursue careers in journalism.

What is the U.S. government doing to help keep you here?

Zahra: As a journalist living in exile, it can be challenging to find ways to continue working in a foreign land. I am currently on a J-1 visa, which is a non-immigrant visa for exchange visitors. The J-1 visa has specific conditions and limitations that are tied to the purpose of my exchange program, which is my Knight-Wallace fellowship at the University of Michigan.

While the U.S. government does not offer direct assistance to help me stay in the country beyond the limitations of my visa, there are legal options available. One option is to apply for political asylum, which can be a lengthy and complex process. However, I am hesitant to do so because it could have significant implications for my family and my future in my home country.

Why don’t you want to do that?

Zahra: Applying for political asylum would close all doors for me to return to Kashmir. It’s not a decision I take lightly, as I also don’t want to put my family in further trouble. They’re already suffering a lot because of me. Applying for asylum would limit my ability to travel and work independently without restrictions, which is important for me as a journalist.

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