“Sister, Please Hurry”: Afghan Women Journalists Fear Time Is Running Out to Escape

Issue 266

Madi Williamson Sep 16, 2021

“Lots of journalists were kidnapped by the Taliban and still, no one knows what has happened or if they are alive. It seems like chaos. I can’t go to work anymore. When I went, they told me I didn’t have the right to go anymore,” my friend Halima,* an Afghan journalist, told me in a series of voice messages sent from Kabul, Afghanistan’s metropolitan capital. “There is no challenge or meaning in our everyday lives anymore. We lost our jobs and we are stuck at home. We can’t defend women’s rights. Our lives are under threat. I don’t know how long this situation will go on. I hope that the UN, the U.S. and those who have responsibility over us will hear our voice and not forget about us.”

“After five days, I went to my office and there were two Talibs standing there,” said Zahra,* another Kabul journalist. “I even went there with Islamic dress, and they told me I must not come to the office anymore. They asked me what I was doing there, and I said I worked there. They said you must not come anymore. They directly threatened me.”

Before the Taliban invaded Kabul and took control of the government in late August, Halima and Zahra worked as daily television news presenters with Radio Television Afghanistan, a public-broadcasting channel funded by the Afghan government. They are two of five women journalists that my friend Shakib and I are trying to evacuate out of the country. The Taliban knows most of their addresses and has searched their homes, sending these women into hiding.

Shakib’s team successfully evacuated over 100 female students from Kabul in the days leading up to the Aug. 31 deadline for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, but we still await answers on what to do about the five women who remain trapped. They send me WhatsApp messages from their refuges.

“We have to do something or my family will die in front of our eyes.”

“I was a human-rights defender and women’s-rights activist. The Taliban stopped me in the street and threatened me and my mother. If we are left here, we will die.”

“Sister, please hurry. I fled my house and am staying with my relatives. They already searched my house. They are looking for me.”

“Sister, please, my [niece and nephew] called me and they are crying, asking me to come be with them.”

Unlike many of their counterparts in the countryside — more than 70% of the Afghan population live in rural areas that bore the brunt of the U.S. occupation — Halima and Zahra, as cosmopolitan women, were able to experience a media web that was growing until the U.S.-backed government collapsed and the Taliban regained power.

The Afghan media had progressed dramatically in the 20 years since the Taliban was ousted in 2001. It made space for brilliant young journalists, photographers and advocates who covered human-rights issues and global issues. There were dozens of television channels that provided cultural programming, a combination of Afghan news and political programs, original reality television shows, Bollywood movies, American programs and foreign news networks including CNN, the BBC, Sky News, India’s DD News, and Al Jazeera.

“I was so happy because I could show and improve democracy in the young generation, especially to the girls and women in our society,” Zahra told me. “As a journalist, I could be a useful person and make a difference, helping people by letting them know about the news. It was a holy goal to me. And it gave me self-confidence that I can be a positive person in society. I could help as a minority by sharing the news to my people. When I recorded a program with someone, I could ask him or her the questions that I knew my people had on their minds. And so, I was sharing what the people actually wanted.”

Zahra is Hazara, a Persian-speaking ethnic group native to the mountainous region of central Afghanistan. The Hazaras, like other ethnic minorities who previously experienced persecution and ethnic cleansing, have already been targeted over the past few weeks as the Taliban rushed towards Kabul.

Since the Taliban took over, it has been telling women they are no longer allowed to work. It has also named leaders of the 1990s Islamic fundamentalist movement to top posts in its government, including heading the Council of Ministers, the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry. Women and men in Kabul protested in the streets, decrying the all-male appointments. The Taliban responded by beating protesters with rifle butts and sticks and firing into the air, witnesses say.

Reporters from Kabul say the Taliban arrested at least 14 journalists and photographers from TOLOnews, Reuters, Kabulnews TV, Nor TV, and Keled Group who covered a Sept. 6 protest. Taqi Daryabi and Nemat Naqdi, from the Kabul-based media outlet Etilaat Roz, have been released and say they were severely beaten while in custody. Photographs of their backs and faces covered by swaths of red whip-welts were released on Sept. 9.

“Freedom of speech is completely destroyed. No one — especially no woman — can talk against the Taliban,” says Halima.

Having lived under Taliban rule as a child in the 1990s, my colleague Shakib is skeptical of the sudden shift in their public pronouncements. “The Taliban is very good at [public relations],” he says. “Right before capturing Kabul and other major cities, there were killings and executions of soldiers, prisoners of war … then [the story] changed within a week. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Shakib is particularly concerned about younger Afghans, who have little to no recollection of the Taliban regime of the 1990s.

“I went through this 25 years ago. It’s really, really tough,” he says. “Especially for a younger generation that was born in the ‘90s, they have grown up in a relatively open society. Relatively accepting [of] women’s and human rights. They were socially connected to the world. They traveled. They built a life for themselves.

“It’s not just about Afghans at this point, it’s about everyone. We feel the pain for the Syrians, the Palestinians, Lebanon … everywhere in the world. Anyone who is going through this — losing your home is as dear as losing a part of your family. It is painful. The fact that you can’t go there and the things you have and made memories with and called home … that is taken away from you. The pain is more difficult than any other pain.”

For those who remain in their country, the media are already far different from a couple months ago. Reporters Without Borders says there are now only 76 women journalists still working for media outlets in Kabul, down from an estimated 700 last year.

“Now there are three or four [television channels] left and two of them are controlled outside of the country,” says Zahra. “It shows that we don’t have freedom of speech anymore. We have seen lots of programs being canceled and lots of movies, shows and festivals were cancelled, too.”

No music or artistic expression is allowed and women are no longer permitted to be seen on television.

During the last five years, Madi Williamson has been working as a migratory health nurse with Afghan communities in refugee camps and urban contexts. Madi and her colleague Shakib have been working tirelessly for the past several weeks to evacuate as many people from Afghanistan as possible. Madi currently lives in Istanbul, Turkey.

*Halima and Zahra have been assigned pseudonyms in order to protect the safety of our sources.

Amba Guerguerian contributed to this report.

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