North Africa, West Asia: Feature

Afghanistan’s women journalists don’t need saving – they need supporting

The knowledge and rights of Afghan women journalists must be protected as we look to ensure an independent media survives this period

Preethi Nallu
28 August 2021, 12.01am
A cameraman and journalist at work in Kabul, 2015
Ton Koene / Alamy Stock Photo

Wahida was just eight years old when the US military entered Kabul and ousted the Taliban. It was 20 years ago, but she remembers it like it was yesterday.

“I thought we would finally have a free country,” she told me from Afghanistan last week. But the troops never left, instead, they cemented their presence in the collective memory of Wahida’s generation.

By the age of 13, Wahida began to see more women journalists on television. A spark lit within her that would eventually grow into a passion for journalism and rights advocacy.

Wahida recalls this period as being marked by palpable progress for women’s rights. She felt part of a new era, which reaped the benefits of gender advancements in Afghan public life.

By the time Wahida enrolled in college, she had begrudgingly accepted the continued presence of foreign troops in her country. She knew that without an independent, unifying leadership, all gains made during the post-9/11 era remained fragile and reversible. Such a leadership never came to fruition. Wahida, along with scores of her peers across the country, feels the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan is the result of a failure to stabilise the country at multiple levels.

Wahida worked as a radio reporter during the early 2010s, the golden years for journalism in the country, when the space for media reform was gradually expanding. But the sector was not without deep-rooted flaws, ranging from nepotism and corruption to a deeply embedded patriarchy.

Still, enthused by the evolving environment, she joined the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC), a key architect of the independent journalism landscape over the past decade.

While planning her own exit following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, Wahida has been working around the clock to ensure the safety of journalists. Many are facing death threats, while others have already had attempts on their lives.

All gains made during the post-9/11 era remained fragile and reversible

When I first spoke with Wahida on 14 August, she was helping to arrange emergency supplies and evacuation plans with 40 other colleagues posted across 34 provinces in the country. While risking their own lives, they set up eight safe houses for media workers, two specifically for women journalists.

One of those who was evacuated is Sumaya. An experienced journalist, who is 15 years older than Wahida, Sumaya escaped to Pakistan last week through an emergency visa scheme. She loathes the question of “whether the new Taliban is indeed moderate”.

The presence of women in any public sector in anathema to the Taliban, she says, recollecting the “bad years”. Sumaya’s youth was marked by extreme restrictions under Taliban rule, including a lack of access to education. The possibility of a ‘reformed’ Taliban rings especially hollow for the many women workers fleeing the country to save their own lives and those of their families.

“I could not leave my home without a male guardian, let alone pursue a career,” Sumaya told me from Pakistan.

Within days of the Tablian takeover, more women were seen on streets accompanied by similar guardians, especially in rural areas of the country.

A critical juncture

The scale of displacement in Afghanistan has increased exponentially over past weeks, with more than 400,000 losing their homes since the beginning of the year, a 300% increase on the same period last year. When the very people who report on conflict and displacement find themselves displaced, an information vacuum starts to unravel the narrative.

I have witnessed this unraveling amid increasing violence and displacement since 2017.

Like many foreign journalists, I have had the privilege of relatively unrestricted access to Afghanistan. I was reporting about the displacement of Afghans and, in more recent times, had started advocating for the rights of journalists and rights defenders.

I last visited Afghanistan in November 2020, to finish a documentary film on Afghan asylum seekers. During my two-week visit, suicide bombers killed 34 children attending school in west Kabul and gunmen stormed into Kabul University, killing 32 students, while 32 Afghan soldiers died in Ghazni province during an attack against a military base. I was randomly stopped by militiamen between Jalalabad and Kabul. As they departed the city, 14 people were killed in bomb attacks in Bamiyan. It was a harrowing warning of what would unravel over the next months, leading up to 15 August, when the Taliban took control of Kabul.

Afghans are arriving in different parts of the world with nothing but the clothes on their back

By the time of our last conversation, Wahida had made it to the Kabul airport. I promised to relay her story and the needs of her peers while she reckoned with the stark reality that has been thrust upon her.

This is a crucial juncture in the history of the country, and the reality looks dismal. The space for women is rapidly shrinking. But, while the world ponders what is possible within the narrow margins of political negotiations, the lives of media workers – the conveyors of information – are under immediate threat. The AJSC and other organisations have been calling for continued US military support to safeguard the airport and to provide escorts for those trying to reach the premises. The latest bombing outside Kabul Airport may lead to new safety plans. We must continue to listen to the organisations on the ground.

What next for Afghan women?

On the other side of the journey, many Afghans are arriving in different parts of the world with nothing but the clothes on their back. They need the immediate assistance of local organisations to adapt to their new lives. In the longer term, countries receiving Afghans must ensure that they receive trauma treatment and opportunities to remain in their fields of work. It is vital that we help preserve the intellectual reserves of the country that are being forced into exile.

The international media must provide more opportunities for Afghan women to tell their own stories, in their own words. In response to patronising headlines from Western media, my female Afghan colleagues have reminded me that they do not need to be ‘saved’. They need to be supported wherever they are and their knowledge and rights protected.

Sumaya, who has witnessed the rapid changes in power, laments the “weaponisation of women’s rights”. While the US used ‘freeing Afghan women’ as a moral justification for the invasion, the media is returning to the same narrative as the Taliban re-enters the country, she points out. Indeed, there were many years in between when US media did not sufficiently question the fragility of women’s rights under the US-supported Afghan government, according to several media watchdogs.

Finally, it is important to preserve the autonomy of organisations like the AJSC, which are operating without support from the now-defunct government, yet managing to support 4,000 media workers across the country. At least 2,000 of them qualify for relocation, and Wahida is among them.

Related story

Our writer, a Western-Afghan scholar and government official, reflects on the pain and fury he feels watching the scenes unfolding in Kabul, and explains how we got here

By the time I finished writing this piece, Wahida had reached Denmark through the assistance of Copenhagen-based International Media Support. But many of her peers spread across the country will remain.

One of those who has been unable to escape is Farida. The university graduate had just started interning at a local, private news channel but does not possess any formal documentation as a media professional. With safe houses at full capacity, she is staying with her extended family in a province close to the Iranian border. Her Hazara ethnicity makes her even more vulnerable; the Hazara, a historically persecuted minority in Afghanistan since the 13th century, were brutally targeted during previous Taliban rule. Like millions of Afghans fleeing from one province to another, Farida faces becoming internally displaced.

The 22-year-old doubts that she will ever work as a professional journalist. “It was always my dream to tell important stories from my community, but now it is too risky for Hazara people,” she told me.

Six hundred other women media workers have left the profession due to direct attacks and social pressures, according to the AJSC. Continued support for these journalists, both inside and outside the country, is vital to ensure that an independent media can survive this turbulent period.

“What I need (when things settle) is the opportunity to build my skills as a reporter,” Farida added before ending the phone call abruptly. With that, she headed off to another province, to stay in a different relative’s home, constantly rotating her location in an effort to avoid detection by the Taliban.

Some names in this article have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals.

Preethi Nallu is an independent journalist and adviser at International Media Support (IMS) that has helped organisations like Afghan Journalists Security Committee (AJSC) over the past decade.

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