Hailing from the old city of Srinagar, Masrat Zahra is a freelance Kashmiri photojournalist, a visual storyteller and a voice of unheard in Kashmir, especially the women. She has been working for 4years in the valley now. She photographs the daily life of the people in Kashmir, provides a deep insight of life in a Conflict zone, covers the encounters, clashes and reports the stories of human rights and women in the disputed region. She has been featured in Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, TRT World and many other organisations and her work was exhibited in the Photoville Brooklyn Exhibition in New York from 12 September to 22 September 2019.
Masrat Zahra was charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in April 2020 by CyberPolice for uploading some ‘Anti-National’ content on social media.
Despite UAPA, Masrat Zahra managed to become the first female Photojournalist from India to win the prestigious Anja Niedringhaus award for her courageous work.
The award glorifies the memory of German Photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus, who worked for the Associated Press and was killed in 2014 in Afghanistan.
The prize is awarded annually by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), which since 1990 has been fighting for press freedom and supporting courageous women journalists.
The News Cradle’s Iqra Shakiel spoke to Masrat Zahra about her professional life, challenges faced in the conflict zone, and the journey of being a female Photojournalist in the patriarchal society.
Iqra:First of all on behalf of The News Cradle team I would extend my heartiest congratulations to you on winning the prestigious Anja Award. Your work, courage, and talent are commendable.
Masrat: Thank you so much, this happened because of the support of my people and this award belongs to the whole Kashmir, this award recognises the work of the entire Kashmir.
Iqra: Thank You, Ma’am, so what are the challenges that you have faced in your professional journey?
Masrat: Being a female there are a lot of challenges, the biggest challenge that I have faced till now is that I have had to fight with my family when I told them that I want to be someone who goes out with the camera and captures life in Kashmir. I belong to a conservative family, my mom always wanted me to be a Doctor, but I wanted to be in this zone since I was a kid.
When I chose Journalism as my profession, I had no one to look up to and provide an example to my parents. Moreover, working in a conflict zone is a huge challenge itself, you have to go through the toughest tides and the roughest seas; you have to deal with the different people having a different mentality.
I have faced immense criticism in my life, people used to bully me, abuse me, I was even called a ‘Mukhbir’ (Collaborator) on social media; that’s the worst challenge I have faced in my professional journey.
Iqra: What are the challenges that you feel you wouldn’t have faced should you have been a male?
Masrat: Well, photojournalism is believed to be a male-dominated field, I wanted to end the stereotype and I believe it has ended now. Earlier, when I was a novice in this field I used to get insecure, I used to be afraid of people around me and the endless criticism in the society used to haunt me but I never gave up on my profession. And now when I work, I forget about my identity and I only remember my profession. When I cover the stories of women’s resistance, I feel the pain of being a woman.
Iqra: What was the reaction of your parents when you were booked under an anti-terror law?
Masrat: My parents never wanted me to be in the field of journalism, they always opposed it, and I didn’t have the courage to tell them that I have been booked under the UAPA. With God’s grace, I got the support of everyone in the valley; even the press club supported me, although I am not an accredited member of the club.
At that time my parents realised how people and society was supporting me and from that day they started to support me and cheer me up.
Iqra: What are the challenges that you feel that the UAPA has had on your life, personally and professionally?
Masrat: It was around 4:30 in the morning when I saw a tweet by a fellow journalist, I got goosebumps, I couldn’t sleep, and I got a call at around 10 Am by the cyber police. They told me to report to the police station. My mom asked me for where I was going but I had no answer, I hugged her and left. I somehow managed to reach the Press Club and then I saw a press release in which they had mentioned that Masrat Zahra a ‘Facebook User’ is booked under UAPA. It affected my professional life because they were trying to hide my identity being a Journalist.
I was more concerned about the repute and the safety of my family. I didn’t want them to suffer because it was my decision to be in this field, not theirs.
Iqra: How did you and your family react to winning the most prestigious Anja Award?
Masrat: It was a moment of joy for me; tears were halfway to roll down my cheeks. I was perplexed at the same time. I was being appreciated and recognised for something that I was earlier criticised for. Words are not adequate to express the happiness of my parents, they hugged me and we celebrated the victory.
Iqra: What is the motivation behind your work and success? Who do you feel has been instrumental in your professional journey?
Masrat: When I started, I was among the first female photojournalists. I live in the downtown area of Srinagar which is and has been a hotspot of protests. I have been witnessing the clashes since my childhood. Whenever I used to go outside, during the clashes, I observed that there were no female journalists working in the conflict zone; it struck me. I realised that I should become a journalist, and be one of the first, if not the first, female photojournalists.
Whatever I do, or whoever I am today, first of all, I thank Almighty Allah, people of Kashmir for supporting me, and then I owe this to my mentor Showkat Nanda Sir. He is my inspiration, he is behind us and he has worked very hard for us so that we can fulfil our expectations and touch the heights. From filling the form of Anja Niedringhaus to sequencing my work he has helped me in everything. I can’t thank him enough.
Iqra: You are an inspiration for budding female journalists, your work inspires us. I am curious to know what charges your passion.
Masrat: I feel privileged that I have always got the back of Kashmiri people. When I won the Anja Award, my social media was flooded with the congratulatory messages of people from worldwide, some people messaged that they want their daughters to be like me, some messages that I am their role model, and some said that I am their inspiration like you mentioned and this is a driving force that keeps me going and cheers me up.
Iqra: Covering the violent clashes, protests and encounters in a conflict zone is not an easy task, do you feel at risk while covering such events and how do you deal with the fear?
Masrat:Yes, it’s very risky to cover the stories in a conflict area, earlier, I remember once while covering a Friday protest, I got a pellet on my forehead and I used to be very scared of these protests and encounters, but now I have become fearless, I surround myself with the optimism, and optimistic people. I work with courage and dedication as I am more concerned about my profession now. I absolutely love working behind the camera.
Iqra: Female professionals, particularly female journalists face a lot of criticism. How does a budding journalist cope with it?
Masrat: You have to face criticism in every field, all you have to do is build the confidence within yourself, you should know how to deal with the people and the situation around you, you should be dedicated towards your work and enough courageous to report from ground zero.
The most important thing is that you should ignore the negative comments of the people. When trying to demotivate you, try to give birth to motivation with your confidence. Confidence plays a major role in the field of Journalism.
Iqra: What message would you like to convey to the youth who wants to pursue the same profession?
Masrat: I want to tell them to never stop, do whatever you want, and I want to request the parents to support your children in every profession and never stop them from achieving their passion. Never think about the people around you, how they will react and comment, they will anyway talk behind the back.
Also, Kashmir needs more and more journalists; there are many tales to tell and many voices to hear. No matter how much the government tries to muzzle the voices of the Journalists, we will never give up on our noble profession.