‘We Have to Stand Up for Ourselves’

Afghanistan’s female journalists face the future under Taliban rule.

Women walk past a beauty salon, just before Kabul fell to the Taliban. Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP via Getty Images
Women walk past a beauty salon, just before Kabul fell to the Taliban. Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP via Getty Images

The power was out in Madina’s home near Kabul, so her family was forced to gather around her phone to learn what Afghanistan’s new rulers had in store for them. A friend had sent her a video of the Taliban’s spokesman, speaking at the group’s first press conference in 20 years after it seized control of the capital, the final prize in its countrywide takeover.

“In the last four days I have become older, maybe ten years older,” said Madina, whose name has been changed to protect her safety, speaking up over a baby chattering in the background. Her family members had left their homes and come together under one roof.

Madina had covered press conferences as a journalist before the Taliban’s return and had recently been interviewing with two TV networks. “Last week they called me to come in for interviews, but then it all happened, in six or seven hours, it all changed,” she said.

Like many female journalists, she was holding her breath to see if such a career were even possible after the Taliban spoke. “We have been waiting to hear this,” she said.

By the end of the press conference that promised a gentler form of Taliban rule, she was just left more confused. The Taliban invited both male and female journalists to the press conference and announced that women will be allowed to play a role in government as well as hold jobs — if it aligns with their interpretation of Sharia. “From his speech, our future and jobs are not clear, because he said women can go to work. Maybe we can work, but do we need to wear a burka? What are the new rules for us?”

International media aren’t waiting, with the Washington Post, New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal imploring President Biden to provide safe passage for their colleagues into the U.S.–controlled Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, patrolled by the Taliban. (On Wednesday night, the Times said that it successfully got 128 people out, including family members of colleagues.)

Others affiliated with American missions, such as translators and interpreters, must rely on the frustrating U.S. Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) program, which started stalling months ago. It requires applicants to be referred by U.S. agencies, senior U.S. officials, nongovernment bodies, or media outlets. Volunteers from across the world are teaming up in private-chat groups to help Afghans get their applications sent off and acquire the referral letters.

“How can we make the evacuation flights if we are still waiting for processing and are getting attacked and turned away at the airport?” said one SIV applicant who has been waiting for a response since June. “On one hand, we want to highlight that we are SIV applicants to get on the flights; on the other, we don’t want to highlight our work with the U.S. for fear for our safety.”

Others are scrambling to find an alternative way out. Madina and some 200 other female journalists have been furiously filling out applications for a special visa from Canada, which announced it would resettle up to 20,000 vulnerable Afghan nationals there. “The other girls are all doing their applications for Canadian visas also because it’s the only program they know about. Nobody knows what to do or what to apply for,” she said.

Madina said it doesn’t particularly matter where she goes. “We are applying to any country, not even choosing the country where our new lives will be. We will go anywhere kind enough to take us and we will start our life again.”

She had waited to apply “because my heart didn’t want to leave here, but also I didn’t know how fast the Taliban would take the country. I didn’t even think they actually would,” she said. “Now, the pressure is on me because I am a journalist. That’s the stress right now. I am in charge of the financial situation for my whole family and now I am in charge of securing their safety.”

So far, the Taliban is allowing women to report. TOLO News’ Beheshta Arghand interviewed a Taliban spokesperson about the group’s plans for the country, and other female journalists at the station have since returned to work after a brief pause. A female reporter from Baano TV, a media company led by women, was also on the streets of Kabul interviewing Taliban fighters. Still, an anchorwoman on state television, Khadija Amin, was replaced by a male Taliban presenter on Monday.

“I wish I could be out there on the streets with my colleagues. It is frustrating,” Madina said, adding that a friend found her name on a purported list circulating on social media earlier this year of people the Taliban wants to kill. “This is why my mother does not want me to report now.”

Malala Maiwand, with Enikass TV, and her driver were killed by unknown gunmen on their way to work on December 10 in the eastern city of Jalalabad. Three other women from the same station where Maiwand worked were shot dead in March. Such targeted killings of influential and prominent Afghans, including journalists, human-rights activists, and judicial workers, escalated last September, when peace talks began between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The United Nations reported in February that more than 700 people had been murdered in targeted killings in 2020.

“My brother and mother didn’t allow me to go out. ‘If you don’t think about yourself, please, at least, think about us. They can follow you and then follow you home,’” she recalled them telling her. “We have to stand up for ourselves. Sometimes it’s hard because we are thinking of our families and of people who are close to us, but if we censor ourselves, then they will 100 percent censor us.”

Ever the reporter, Madina went out anyway, resorting to the relative safety of a car to report. There were other women out on the streets, though fewer than usual. “Right now, it’s hard to know who is Taliban or not,” she said. “It was calm and quiet, but everything has changed. The Taliban removed our flags from government buildings. They put their messages and signs on the walls. Outside of the malls, the Talibs sit in the chairs once occupied by security guards.”

“I don’t have a job anymore, but I can’t stop being a journalist. I share news on lots of social-media groups. It’s like my own newsroom. I am my own boss now, but I still work for Afghans.”

‘We Have to Stand Up for Ourselves’