The stories of Afghanistan’s women journalists
From breaking barriers and challenging taboos, to facing widespread restrictions, AW looks at the experience of Afghanistan’s female journalists since the Taliban’s takeover.
23 Jan 2024
Cover photo: © Afghan Witness, 2023, Kabul, Afghanistan
For many women in Afghanistan, choosing to enter the media world is not just a career decision but a revolutionary act against cultural taboos and repression. Journalism serves as a beacon of hope and defiance in places like Afghanistan.
Mariam – not her real name – was inspired to pursue journalism by her aunt, a distinguished journalist in Afghanistan. "I wanted to become like her, a well-known, respected person," Mariam expressed with pride. She saw journalism as a crucial medium for societal transformation, reflecting that it was a way "to convey the voices and problems of people to relevant authorities and the world."
This is a sentiment echoed by another Afghan journalist, Khujesta. She tells AW that she believed her work symbolised the breaking of “cultural taboos” and Afghanistan’s progress: "My work as a woman journalist was crucial – the media plays a key role in every society, not just in Afghanistan. It was vital to show the positive developments in Afghanistan.”
Khujesta – not her real name – started her career five years ago as a volunteer anchor for an education-focused television station. From there, she quickly climbed the ranks and found herself working at a national news channel. She says that as a female journalist, she felt she was setting an example of what other women in Afghanistan could also achieve.
“It conveyed a feeling of ’we can do this!’ to other women and girls in Afghanistan so that they can live a good life. Cultural taboos and limitations towards women were decreasing, and more women were willing to work and present themselves publicly. Their mindsets changed for the better,” Khujesta adds.
Even prior to the Taliban takeover in 2021, female journalists faced challenges. In 2019, the Afghanistan Journalist Safety Committee (AJSC) recorded 105 cases of violence against journalists and media workers; out of all cases 18 were women. According to AJSC, there was a 13% decline in overall violence against journalists in 2019 compared to the previous year.
“I fought, and I ignored people's words and slanders so that the seal of silence surrounding women would be broken and they could get their rights,” Azita expresses.
After the fall of the first Taliban regime in 2001, despite journalists still facing significant threats, Afghanistan's media landscape saw rapid growth with a variety of programming. Media played an integral role in disseminating information, public awareness, education, spaces of debate and played the role of watch dog to hold the Afghan government and relevant bodies accountable to the public.
“I was part of the Afghan media family, and despite the social and security problems, I continued my work without any fear,” Azita Nazimi told AW who is a prominent journalist, TV anchor, and women's rights activist, she also protested against the Taliban's restrictions. Azita recalls the relative freedom that marked Afghanistan's media space prior to the Taliban's resurgence, noting, "during the last 20 years until the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the situation of media and freedom of expression was remarkably good."
Anisa Shaheed, a renowned journalist, was recognised by Reporters Without Borders as an "information hero" among 30 individuals worldwide. Photo by UN Women/Ryan Brown/ October 2021 on Flickr: https://rb.gy/gs6j5f
Everything changed on August 15, 2021 – the day the Taliban seized power in Kabul. Khujesta remembers that day vividly: that morning, she had delivered the morning news bulletin as usual, but by noon, she and her colleagues were fleeing their office.
"The atmosphere became suffocating," Khujesta remembers. Three days later, she returned to her office, only to be told she no longer had the right to continue her work. Employment opportunities disappeared in an instant, transforming the once-thriving media scene into a desolate expanse of quiet and fear.
“When the Taliban came in 2021, my workspace became unbearable," describes Angeza – not her real name – another female journalist AW spoke to.
According to the international media NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in 2020, Kabul alone had 108 media outlets with 1,080 female employees, of which 700 were journalists. Furthermore, in the entire country, 2,756 women journalists and media workers were employed prior to August 15, 2021.
Mariam's time at her workplace, which is a well-known private news channel, exemplified this sudden shift. The Taliban's restrictions on the press – including ban on types of content contrary to the Taliban’s beliefs such as music, entertainment, and programs that include women & promotes women’s rights – transformed her workplace into an oppressive space, making the simple act of going out to report a risky endeavour.
"Every time I went out to make a report, I was taken by the Taliban intelligence officers either to the police station or the police headquarters," Mariam recounts.
Afghanistan’s media landscape has undergone significant change since the takeover, a result of both Taliban restrictions and economic impacts. According to a RSF survey, in the first year of the Taliban’s takeover, Afghanistan lost almost 40% of its media outlets and 60% of its journalists.
"At the gates of the police station, another Taliban member asked the one who was with us why we had been brought in, and he replied it was because of filming. I won't forget how he responded, saying, 'You could just use two of your bullets on them and make it easy,' to his colleague," Mariam recalls the moment when the Taliban threatened her. AW cannot independently verify the claim.
The Taliban's restrictions on women's dress and work have compounded the challenges faced by female journalists in Afghanistan, affecting hundreds of already established and rising female journalists. Many of these journalists such as Angeza, with 16 years of experience, witnessed the stifling control exerted by the Taliban: “The Taliban pressured women journalists to wear face masks and broadcast current affairs and reports based on their will," she tells AW.
Angeza believes that censorship of the news is a violation of human rights, and similarly other restrictions that curtails women’s ability to be present in the society. She asks, "Closing schools for girls and depriving teachers of their livelihood by taking a percentage of their salaries to be distributed to the Taliban members, isn’t a violation of human rights?".
New figures from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) indicate a steep decline in female employment levels in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over in 2021. In the fourth quarter of 2022, female employment was approximately 25% lower than in the second quarter of 2021, before the Taliban’s takeover. In the same period, male employment levels also declined by 7%.
“All my dreams and those of other women were dashed, and all the achievements of twenty years were reduced to zero,” reflects Azita. Women, particularly in the media, found themselves unemployed, confined to their homes, or forced to flee.
Khujesta acknowledges that the challenges facing female journalists in Afghanistan are two-fold. Post-Taliban takeover, the country’s media outlets face self-censorship, limited access to information, and restrictions on the topics they can report on, but female journalists must also navigate restrictions on their rights as women – particularly on their employment, dress and freedom of movement – which further limit their ability to report.
Struggling with mental health and forced into exile
Azita was forced into exile in Germany after protesting against the Taliban’s restrictions on women’s right to education, work and personal freedom. Many of her fellow activists were allegedly detained and beaten by the Taliban. "I witnessed the scene where protesting women and journalists who came to cover the protest were whipped and beaten,” she recalls. In August 2022, journalists reported how the Taliban beat and threatened a group of women protesters who marched and chanted slogans of "bread, work and freedom" in Kabul. According to reports, some women who hid in shops were chased and beaten by the Taliban fighters.
Photo: © Afghan Witness, 2023, Kabul, Afghanistan
“I am no longer that Mariam of two years ago – now Mariam is heartbroken,” Mariam sorrowfully adds, reflecting on the impact on her mental health. She is not alone in these feelings – a joint report from three U.N. agencies indicates a decline in the mental health of Afghan women, who have endured severe restrictions enforced by the Taliban since their rise to power two years ago, affecting women nationwide.
Conversations with Afghan women reveal the mental toll of life under the Taliban: "I was under extreme mental pressure. I was thinking that perhaps I was losing my mind," Mariam tells AW. Similar experiences were also shared by Angeza; “I went through many changes, including becoming a refugee in a second country and waiting uncertain to be settled somewhere safe. I don’t have a job now, my children are left without education and schools.”
Angeza’s transition from a respected journalist to a refugee grappling with uncertainty in a foreign land illustrates the profound personal impact of these changes, in particular, a feeling of a loss of identity.
Despite the distance from their home country and the crushing weight of the challenges they face, there is a spirit of resistance among these women, as well as an enduring commitment to journalism. Khujesta, now living in Spain, continues to report on Afghanistan's situation. Her plea to fellow journalists is to not give up on the achievements of the past twenty years, a clarion call for resilience.
"Now the Taliban have come to rule and stop us from breathing, we [women] must stand up against them [the Taliban] and take [back] our rights – our rights are the right to life," Khujesta expresses.
According to RSF, Afghanistan is among most dangerous countries for journalists along with Vietnam and Russia. In 2023, the Taliban jailed 21 journalists in Afghanistan.
Despite the challenges, the female journalists we spoke to call for international support of those who still report from on the ground. “I want to encourage other journalists that they should never cover up the truth and never get involved in self-censorship or censoring their reports. They must publish the facts about Afghanistan and what is happening here, and those outside the country must support journalists inside the country so they can continue their important work,” Mariam tells AW.
At the time of writing this report, Mariam (not her real name) informed AW reporter that she has sought relocation to a European country but has to yet to hear back.