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Slipping Past Taliban Censors
Female journalists are risking all to tell the truth and fight for a better future in Afghanistan.
Sana* used to love traveling for work in Afghanistan. As a journalist, she was always meeting sources in other provinces and covering events on the ground. When a new story came up, she would book a flight, throw her things in a bag and head to the airport. “We would just send a last-minute message to our families to let them know where we were going. That’s how safe and relaxed it was,” she says.
These days life looks very different for journalists in Afghanistan, particularly women, who are barred from most forms of employment by the Taliban. Traveling even the short distance to Kabul from Sana’s home in Bamiyan Province is now extremely difficult. “Women who travel without a male companion are always questioned a lot. The Taliban members turn away as though disgusted to talk with them. That’s how these people react to women,” she says.
Since August 2021, thousands of journalists have fled Afghanistan. New regulations curbed press freedom and forced many outlets to close. A decree issued by Taliban supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada in July 2022 warned that “defaming and criticizing government officials without proof” and “spreading false news and rumors” are forbidden. Those who “slander” government employees will be “punished,” he said.
In the space of a year, Afghanistan lost 60 percent of its journalists as the Taliban reshaped the media landscape into a propaganda platform for the regime. Female journalists were the hardest hit, with 76 percent losing their jobs. A year on, the situation has deteriorated further. The domestic media agencies that remain are closely monitored, and many reporters self-censor to avoid antagonizing the regime.
Resisting a New Reality
When the Taliban first seized power in 2021, there was some suggestion that they would stand by promises to respect human rights, including access to education for women and girls. That hope quickly drained away as they barred teenage girls from school and rolled back the rights of women with strict limits on dress and conduct, compelling them to stay at home and limit their presence in public life.
Meanwhile, reports of torture, disappearances, public floggings and executions revealed by local reporters and rights groups show how quickly Afghanistan has reverted to the darkest days of the first Taliban regime in the 1990s. A culture of fear prevents many from speaking out about family members who have been tortured or murdered.
Journalists like Sana and Tamana* continue to uncover the truth at great personal risk. But they know that at any time, they might be discovered. “The Taliban sees reporters as spies. If they find us reporting, especially for a foreign media agency, it would put our lives in danger,” Tamana explains. “At the very least, they would stop our work and put us in prison.” Reporting in the streets, she is careful to keep a low profile. “Even holding a phone makes us suspicious,” she says.
Tamana works for an organization called Radio for Peace International, which is producing a series on the stories of Afghan women. The program’s coordinator, Jamila Karimi, was forced to flee Afghanistan shortly before the Taliban seized power. Now she is helping female reporters to continue their work on the ground because she sees it as one of Afghanistan’s last hopes. “Saving gender journalism means saving a diverse society and ensuring pluralism in the country,” she says.
It’s not just the security situation and Taliban censorship that are making life difficult for journalists in Afghanistan. The country’s economy is close to collapse, starved of its lifeline from international aid programs. A UN report published in April this year revealed that nearly 34 million Afghans out of a population of 40 million are now living in poverty, amid soaring food prices and high unemployment.
For most Afghan reporters operating in secret, overseas funding is the only means of sustaining their work. Using a grant, Hoor Sabah* launched her online magazine Zane Rooz in November last year to tell the stories of Afghan women. “We are shedding light on the horrible atrocities the Taliban and their people are committing. Otherwise, people will become accustomed to what they are seeing and start to accept this new reality,” the 26-year-old explains.
An incident she covered recently revealed the suffering of a woman who was beaten to death for defying her husband and visiting her mother without his permission. When the husband told the Taliban this, he was released without charge. “These cases are very difficult for us to comprehend, very shocking and disturbing. Nobody mainstream is talking about them because they can’t,” she says.
This makes reporting these stories all the more vital, not just to show the outside world what is happening in Afghanistan, but to remind Afghans that these violations must never become normal. “While we can’t save the people in these stories, we can help shape society and save women in the future,” Sabah adds.
But with fewer journalists on the ground, it is increasingly difficult to access women in rural communities. Most of the journalists that remain are based in Kabul and, with travel restricted, it’s difficult to shed light on cruelties perpetrated elsewhere in Afghanistan.
Sabah’s male colleagues work in an office, but she and other female members of the team work from home, aware that any day they might be discovered by Taliban officials, who conduct house-to-house searches and question people in the street. But while the fear of discovery hangs over her as she works, Sabah refuses to stay silent. “If we don’t take this risk, nobody will know what’s going on,” she says.
For Sana too, the toll of telling these stories is a heavy one. Sitting with women as they unburden their struggles in hushed tones, she listens and consoles, offering what little comfort she can because these days, there’s nothing else. “If a woman is abused and has troubles at home, nobody is going to listen to her, no court will prosecute her case. The least I can do is listen, let them express their thoughts and talk about what they went through,” she says.
Many have nowhere else to turn. One woman Sana spoke with was hospitalized by her husband for querying his decision to take a third wife. His family had a relationship with the Taliban, so she stayed silent, afraid they would take revenge on her father or brothers if she uttered a word. “It brings me to a state of shock knowing that in the 21st century, this still happens,” Sana says. “There is a sense of hopelessness to see people in other countries live with rights, liberty, and freedom when in Afghanistan, women are prosecuted just for being female. It’s painful that I can’t do anything about it other than listen.”
Returning home in the evenings, she feels altered by the suffering she has seen. “I get upset, unsettled, even my relationship with my family is different when I hear these things.” But she perseveres, hoping that one day it will make a difference in bringing these stories to light. “When I leave, I tell them everything will be ok, they are empty promises, but at least it brings comfort to them,” she says. “And they are happy knowing that somewhere around the world there are people and organizations that are interested in hearing what they have to say and understanding what they are going through.”
Olivia Cuthbert is a freelance journalist focusing on the Middle East.
A version of this piece was originally published by Ideas Beyond Borders on June 21.
* Pseudonyms have been used for several individuals to protect their identities.
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