Defying the Taliban – A stark reminder of the collapse of Afghan women’s rights

Last Thursday, human rights organisation Anotherway Now hosted a screening of the Sky News documentary ‘Defying the Taliban: women at war in Afghanistan’. This was followed by a panel discussion hosted by Index on Censorship’s Editor-at-large Martin Bright.

Part of the discussion challenged the British government to create a route for Afghan women to apply safely for asylum into the UK. Zehra Zaidi, from the advocacy group Action for Afghanistan, said people need to show they are taking up the issue with the government. She added: “We also need to show it’s not a vote loser. That it’s the right thing to do, and the compassionate thing to do. We must keep fighting.”

The first of three documentaries looking at the fight for women’s rights in the world’s most hostile environments, Special Correspondent Alex Crawford travelled to Afghanistan over a year after the Taliban takeover.

Despite being a country where women’s rights plummeted under one of the most oppressive regimes in the world, we saw young women training as gynaecologists and paediatricians, with higher-level education currently allowed for women. However, with secondary education banned for young girls and women, it’s clear this will be a rare sight in the future. With medics generally only treating their same sex in Afghanistan, a ticking time bomb awaits.

What was striking is how women operated in the underground. Crawford used her network of contacts to show us a hidden world, including a safe house in Kabul run by rights activist Mahbouba Seraj, who is a 2023 Nobel Peace Prize nominee. A rare refuge from the brutal world outside, Seraj explained she takes in abused women and girls from all over Afghanistan, adding: “The Taliban don’t want us to exist. That’s why there’s no schools or work, or why women shouldn’t be walking on the street.”

Seraj doesn’t fear the Taliban though. “I find it ridiculous, insulting and annoyingly childish. But am I scared? No”, she said.

A secret network of schools also operates across Kabul, run by volunteers who teach maths and English to a younger generation of girls.

We’re shown secret workshops where women make art out of weapons and bullets; and make beautiful dresses where they can artistically portray their tough situation. Proceeds are used to feed their families, but also gives the women the freedom to expose their treatment in a male-dominated society. However, the freedom to artistically express is no longer an option for Farida (not her real name), once one of Afghanistan’s most celebrated painters. She said: “The Taliban burnt my gallery and said you can’t work on (paint) the faces of women.

“It killed me. We are empty. Now we don’t have hopes, and we don’t have dreams.”

Postcards of artwork by Farida that was smuggled out of Afghanistan (source: Sky)

During the post-screening discussion, Crawford explained the Taliban’s hypocrisy as the official reason given for banning women from attending medical school is male/female segregation isn’t possible, but female-only medical schools are closed anyway.

Zahra Joya, an exiled Afghan journalist and founder of Rukhshana media, urged everybody to keep the conversation about Afghanistan alive after the screening. She said: “This film shows the full-scale war against women in Afghanistan. Keep them in your mind and speak up.”

Calling for a show of hands from the audience, Zaidi asked the audience if anybody knew there is currently no asylum route into the UK for Afghan women. “There is none!”, she exclaimed. “None of those women in the film can apply to the British government for asylum. Our petition alone in August had 470,000 signatures to prioritise Afghan women and girls.”

Zaidi believed the Afghanistan crisis is being purposely mixed up with the small boats’ crisis and “illegal” migration bill, so it won’t stand on its own as a genuine issue in the UK. To wrap up, she offered her dream encounter with the British home secretary.

“I like a challenge. I see myself sitting opposite Suella Braverman inviting Afghan refugees to the UK if it’s the last thing I do!”

The daily risks taken by Afghanistan’s female journalists

“Every single day, the situation is intensifying,” Zan Times editor-in-chief Zahra Nader told an audience this week. Along with Afghan Witness and the Centre for Information Resilience, the Zan Times editor shone a spotlight on the experiences of Afghan reporters with the online event Discrimination, Prohibition and Perseverance: The Reality for Female Journalists in Afghanistan.

Nader started her journalism career in Kabul, but now lives in Canada. From there, she is not only an Index contributor, but also runs Zan Times, a women-led investigative newsroom focused on human rights violations in Afghanistan. She works with journalists in the country who all use pseudonyms, as well as others outside the country.

“Our aim is to report and tell the truth,” she said. She wants to put the power into the hands of women, so that “they define news”.

The laws that prevent women reporting effectively are not always specific to female journalists, she explained. They are impacted by the intersection of being female and of being a journalist. The Taliban issued decrees that women are not allowed to travel alone, that TV presenters and guests must cover their faces, and in some provinces that their voices cannot be heard on the radio. Travelling to meet sources suddenly becomes impossible, while radio presenters and other female voices are silenced in places like Kandahar, where women have been told they cannot phone into radio stations.

Nader explained how journalists in general, female or not, are forbidden from publishing anything contrary to Afghan culture or Islam. The Taliban has a strangling hold on media policy. She described a landscape where the Taliban has tortured people for covering women’s protests, and where more than half of media outlets have closed down due to a lack of funding or the impossibility of working within Taliban restrictions. The Taliban recently closed a women-run radio station in Badakhshan, and Nader is doubtful that any woman-owned media remains.

“The possibility of them to function seems very low,” she said.

Nader also suggested that for media organisations, “the Taliban vice and virtue would knock on their door everyday” is they hired female journalists, assessing what they were wearing and doing. She has heard reports of some organisations telling women that if they want to work as a journalist, they must do so without pay.

“Women are the main target of the Taliban,” she said, asking who, without female journalists, will platform women’s voices.

“The traditional classic work we used to do in Afghanistan no longer functions,” she said, explaining that new ways of reporting are needed, including offering women cyber security training to minimise risk, which is were working with organisations like Afghan Witness comes into play.

Afghan Witness’s Anouk Theunissen works from outside the country with open-source reporting and citizen journalism to de-bunk Taliban narratives. She explained that in the days since the Taliban takeover, online hate speech against women has increased significantly.

“As women have been erased from society, they have taken to social media,” she said. There, they can speak out more freely. But female journalists are beset with hateful comments and messages. Nader recalled one particular instance where a male journalist commented on a post, calling the abuse of women fake news.

Both Nader and Theunissen are doubtful about the situation in Afghanistan improving. What is missing, Nader said, is solidarity from the international community.

For women still working as journalists in Afghanistan, safety is paramount. Nader explained that rather than putting all their Afghan journalists in one WhatsApp group, Zan Times editors keep each conversation separate. Otherwise, if one journalist is arrested and their phone checked, all will be at risk.

Female journalists are forced to work remotely as much as possible for their own safety, and Zan Times advises them to only speak to sources who they can be sure are not linked to the Taliban. Any time they tell someone they’re a journalist, they risk being identified.

Some of Nader’s colleagues on the ground describe leaving their homes and wondering if that is the day they will be arrested, and yet they continue to go out.

“That gives me a little bit of hope, when they are still resisting,” she said. “That resistance might just be keeping the hope alive.”

The harsh reality for Afghanistan’s journalists

In deeply patriarchal and repressive societies like Afghanistan women have always been subjected to gender-based discrimination and violence. This was the case before the Taliban came to power but it has become much worse since – and women, who were already underrepresented in the media industry, are suffering immeasurably.

The dwindling community of female journalists has reached a concerning level. Soon after the Taliban’s coup they started a crackdown on all journalists. There were raids on the houses of journalists, arrests, detentions, intimidation and harassment.

In addition to direct threats, the Taliban started to systematically harass women in the media to make it difficult for them to work. The Taliban introduced strict dress codes, including making the veil mandatory. The ban on long-distance travel of women without a male guardian has made field work for women impossible. Women have also been banned from appearing on TV shows. The Taliban effectively want us to completely disappear from the media landscape.

Due to these barbaric laws many women have lost their jobs and many have fled the country. Those women who were the sole earners in the family are now living in destitution.

The outflux of women with essential skills has created a brain drain in Afghanistan. Years of progress with regards to media development, women empowerment and capacity building of women in media has been undone by the Taliban in merely two years. All the women journalists who toiled for years and built up their skills – despite the difficulties – are now either confined to the home or in exile in miserable situations. Unfortunately some have lost their lives in attempts to seek shelter. A female senior Pashto journalist, Torpekai Amarkhel, drowned with her family in a boat sailing them to Italy just a few weeks ago.

Amarkhel’s asylum case for Australia was in process. But due to the long, arduous, slow and chaotic process of filling and requesting asylum or refugee status in developed countries, journalists in distress are opting for perilous and illegal means of immigration. It’s a response coming from extreme desperation and frustration. Western countries must try to understand this and must make the visa process easy, fast and efficient.

Within Afghanistan, people’s desperation is being exploited for financial gain. Acquiring essential travel documents is being aggravated by long delays, tough requirements and chaotic procedures, which has meant the opening of illegal channels to mint more money from helpless people running for their lives. For example the average fees for a passport right now is at least $3000 and fees for a Pakistani visa is $1200. This makes the legal evacuation from Afghanistan for those journalists at risk almost impossible, forcing them to opt for illegal channels. For those taking this route the outcomes can be awful. In many instances people are arrested and detained in neighbouring countries.

In exile the Afghan journalists are unable to continue their journalistic work due to a myriad of issues, such as lack of opportunities in the countries of temporary residence, language barriers, legal barriers and discrimination against Afghans. The result? Women journalists in exile are either forced to stay at home or they are forced to do menial work to simply make end meets. They’re out of work, gaps in their career growing. Some are now quitting the industry and switching careers.

The situation is stifling for male journalists too. The heart-wrenching stories of Afghan journalists are sadly countless. A journalist who worked alongside me in a media outlet recently posted on Twitter and other social media platforms about selling one of his kidneys to get some money to support himself and his family in exile in Pakistan. Another journalist from Afghanistan trashed all his academic and professional documents out of frustration at his joblessness and inability to get any humanitarian support. And another journalist, a senior one with a strong track record in the industry, has become a cobbler working in the streets.

In order to save the community of journalists in general, and women journalists in particular, the world must act. Western countries must open their doors so that we can access work, education and free speech and expression which we have been denied in our own country. But everyone can help protect Afghan journalists and create opportunities for them within Afghanistan and in exile. Engage with Afghan journalists through fellowships, scholarships, workshops, training and other opportunities to save the media from dying. And finally pressurise the Taliban to reverse their barbaric decisions that have created a gender-based apartheid and is pushing generations of Afghans back to the stone age.

‘Thank Gary Lineker for being a true advocate for refugees’

Index is in contact with a number of Afghan journalists forced to flee their country after the Taliban takeover. In danger because they exercised their freedom of speech through their work, they are now all refugees. Below is a message we received from one of them, Afghan sports journalist Saeedullah Safi, following the recent Gary Lineker row:

As a sports journalist from Afghanistan, I have been following Gary Lineker’s work with great admiration, and I am writing this message to publicly express my gratitude for his efforts to support refugees.

Gary Lineker’s dedication towards providing facilities and support for refugees is truly commendable. His passion for advocating for their rights is an inspiration to all of us who share the same goal of creating a better world for everyone.

I personally know how difficult migration can be, as I have been stuck in Pakistan for a year after leaving Afghanistan to pursue my dreams in the hope to reach a final destination. Lineker’s work gives me hope that more people like him will continue to work toward creating a better future for refugees.

On a personal note, I am also a fan of Manchester United and I hope to one day cover them closely. On and off the field Lineker has made a tremendous impact on the world, and I am honoured to have the opportunity to publicly thank him.

Once again thank Gary Lineker for his incredible contributions and for being a true advocate for refugees.