Setara Hassan: Empowering Afghan Women Through Media

This month, Leadarise takes you to Afghanistan to meet Young Woman to Watch Setara Hassan.

Setara ZanTV2
Setara Hassan during an interview.

Setara was born in Afghanistan but fled the civil war with her family in the ’90s when she was still a child. The family first moved to Pakistan before settling in Denmark. Setara grew up influenced by both Eastern and Western cultures. She speaks fluently Dari, Urdu, Danish and English. She graduated from the Copenhagen Business School in 2014 where she studied Economics, International Business and Politics.

Setara first returned to Afghanistan in 2013-2014 to work for the United Nations. A few months ago, she decided to go back again and to work for the first television network run by and for women in Afghanistan, Zan TV. The network was founded in February 2017 by an Afghan entrepreneur, Hamid Samar, who credits his mother for being the inspiration behind this audacious project.

The development of the media sector has certainly been one of the greatest achievements in the post-Taliban Afghanistan. Today, Afghans have access to about a hundred TV channels and more than 300 radio stations. The media have established themselves as one of the institutions in which the Afghan people have most confidence (65%) according to the latest survey of the Afghan people by the Asia Foundation. But a channel dedicated to women is definitely a bold initiative in a country like Afghanistan where women have been marginalised for so long.

Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous countries for women and girls. While the 2004 Constitution claims their equality and upholds their rights, in reality they remain mostly subjected to men. Gender-based violence, child marriage and maternal death are major issues for women in Afghanistan. In addition, they lack access to education and the literacy rate is only about 17%. Yet, compared to 2001, the progress is undeniable. About a third of Afghan girls go to school, a right denied to them under the Taliban. A quarter of the members of parliament are women and there are several female Ministers and Deputy Ministers. The First Lady Rula Ghani has taken the lead on women’s economic empowerment. But much more remains to be done to change the perceptions of women in the society and improve their access to justice, education and work.

That is where the media, especially Zan TV, can play a crucial role. Setara Hassan firmly believes that women’s full and active participation is indispensable to build a peaceful society and to achieve sustainable development. Her main focus as the CEO of Zan TV is to use media as a means of empowerment for women in Afghanistan, by introducing the viewers to role-models, to women who are breaking grounds by taking on leadership positions. Zan TV’s programmes highlight the personal and professional paths of women in the fields of business, security, politics, media, civil society, etc. They also seek to raise awareness on a variety of issues such as maternal health, education and domestic violence.

Setara Zan TV
Setara Hassan (in the middle, first row) with the Zan TV team wearing orange scarfs on the occasion of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign.

We had a chat with Setara about leadership and her experience spearheading the first women TV network in Afghanistan.

What’s your definition of a leader?

A leader is a good strategic thinker, who is able to develop a clear vision, who guides and supports the team members in reaching their best potentials for solving a problem or developing a solution, utilizing each person’s unique talent and capabilities and putting it all together in achieving the vision.

Have you ever learned from failure?

Though success boosts your self-worth and confidence, I believe that failures teach you the most important lessons. I tend to head for books when I feel like I am failing. I have read the greatest books when I have been in my lowest. When you experience success, it boosts your confidence and while you are happy with yourself, it is rare to feel the need to learn more. On the contrary, when you fail, you question and carefully evaluate yourself, and most often you are motivated to learn more and master your techniques.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The fact that I can support Afghan women. I am working to empower them, in every way possible. Exercising free will is as important as breathing, and everybody, including women, should have the opportunity to live freely.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I have always been bothered by the underrepresentation of women in politics and top managerial positions. From a very young age, I was extremely uncomfortable with the fact that men and women were treated differently based on their gender. I always thought women were treated as second citizens, especially in the Eastern world. It bothered me even more when I saw women being on terms with it. They barely realized that they were treated unfairly. Women are simply persuaded to think that they are not as important as men, not strong enough, that their needs are not a priority, their dreams are not worth pursuing and their preferences mean nothing, not even at home. In Afghanistan, the only role of most girls is to get married, often without her consent, sometimes when she is still a teenager. She is forced in bed with a man twice or three times her age. She carries children in her immature body and gives birth to more girls only to repeat this cycle. My dream was to grow up and change that.

What’s your advice to young women in leadership?

Hang in there! I know it is not easy at times. Most people believe that women need to groom masculine characteristics to become great leaders. In Afghanistan, when someone talks about a successful and strong woman, they usually describe her as a “macho” woman (mardana zan). On the contrary, when describing a weak and unsuccessful man, they call him a “womanlike man” (zancho mard). As if being a man in itself represents strength and being a woman means that you are weak and cannot be a good leader. This means you have to work harder than your fellow men to defend your position and demonstrate your capabilities. Changing that image of women especially in the corporate environment is quite a challenge. My advice is that you do not need ‘masculine’ characteristics to be a great leader. You should not have to hide your feminine side to be perceived as capable. In fact, most decisions can become more holistic and comprehensive when both genders are included in the process. So, don’t be afraid to be a great feminine leader.

Anything else you’d like to share?

I have often experienced that women themselves are very unacceptable of women in leadership positions. We simply have been convinced to perceive ourselves and other women as unlikely to be good leaders. And when we experience a fellow who signals otherwise we find it comforting to challenge her rather than support her. I am always stunned by the difference in how we judge women compared to men. A polite and well-spoken male leader is charming, on the contrary a polite female leader is either incapable or “cheap”. An aggressive man signals power while an aggressive woman is perceived as a “bitch”. We have to question ourselves on why the same qualities are perceived completely different between men and women, why we tend to be more forgiving towards men. Isn’t it just because we are more used to see them in leadership positions? We question less when something seems to be “normal”. Why can’t women also signal power? Isn’t it because, we are used to see them in submissive roles? Even if they were assertive, we usually label them as aggressive because it is just so out of the “ordinary”.

Do you think your appearance is important to your work?

What is important to my work and in most work are the competencies to be able to perform professionally at the workplace; the professional and personal skillsets that make a person capable of doing certain tasks. I think girls are too often raised to be over-obsessed with their appearance and being an eye pleaser. This is a harmful attitude. Girls too should be encouraged to be athletic, smart, intelligent and hardworking, and not to primarily rely on their looks nor on their male peers for their needs, so they too see themselves as the providers, the breadwinners and thereby the decision-makers.

How did you build your reputation?

I have never focused on building a reputation. I stay true to what I truly believe in and I do what I can to achieve it. If you focus on reputation, you learn to pay attention to what people think of you and how they perceive you. That is very draining and uninspiring because people most often judge by the parameters of their own limitations. Instead, if you focus on doing what you love to do, you get to build a reputation as a side effect.

What have you learned never to do?

Never settle for anything less than you think you deserve, in all perspectives of your life. You only get what you dare to ask for. Nothing happens without a daring thought and the bravery to pursue it. Only you know what you can be capable of, and no one else can define you but yourself.


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