It was double whammy for Zainab Amiri (name changed for identity protection) when she first saw the reports of Taliban taking over Kabul on August 15, 2021. Why you ask? One, she was a female and second, she was a journalist- two social facets which have been bearing the burnt of Taliban’s regressive policies over the past one year.
Zainab had grown up listening to local radio stations at her home province when she was young and had dreamt of being the presenter of such programmes one day. However, things weren’t as bright for her as an Afghan woman as they are for others around the world. She had to go against the will of her family who wanted her to become a teacher or a doctor and later, became a journalist.
Even before the Taliban regime, the traditional society in Afghanistan had been against women working in the journalism profession, as per Zainab, who graduated from Kabul University. In 2014, while she was in her last year of school, Amiri entered the local radio station of her hometown province and started her job. After clearing her university exams, she moved to Kabul and continued to work in journalism. “Even in 2014 when I worked and studied, the presence of female journalists in the media industry had not been institutionalized because the society still had the same traditional thoughts,” says Zainab.
“My family’s main concern was the disorderly situation in the country. It was the time of elections, war and explosions and everyone was afraid. My family was also scared that in my field of work in the media, I might fall victim to one of these explosions. I had to go back to the village from Kabul,” she said dismayed. Since then, Amiri has worked in the local media scene until the fall of Afghanistan to Taliban and at the same time, she also freelanced with media organisations located outside the province, such as Kabul.
The past year under the Taliban regime, she has faced a lot of restrictions, to the extent that she had to resign from her job.
Amiri remembers the previous reign of the Taliban and calls it history’s darkest phase, however, like thousands of other women, she too was happy for a better future under the Republic regime. Amiri narrates the day when the provincial center fell (name not revealed to ensure protection) and says that there was a rush to leave the city and reach the villages, so much so that there was no transport left in the city.
“After Kabul fell, I had nowhere to go. My family was worried and they asked me to either go to a remote village or go to Kabul and try to leave the country,” said Amiri. However, she faced a dire situation as banks were closed and she had no money to use or rent a house in a big city like Kabul.
Amiri was afraid as the Taliban officials acted like the judge, jury and executioner. She mentioned that the officials would use hook or crook to trap people and punish them under frivolous pretexts.
Fortunately for Amiri, she could rely on a friend, who offered her the comfort of a home and this gave her hope, that she still could continue her life. During the first six months after the fall, she was a volunteer narrator of the lives of women under the Taliban’s rule.
The media outlet where Amiri used to work had stopped their operations after the arrival of the Taliban and the media manager also left Afghanistan. However, Amiri and some of her colleagues continued to report on women’s lives to reduce their mental stress. “We were working from home and with our resources and connections, we tried to depict the situation of Afghan women to the world through external media outlets,” she added.
Amiri said that she did the work out of a sense of duty and since, she did not receive any financial assistance, later on to support her family’s worsening economic conditions, she had to look for work.
Amiri was fighting many battles, her deteriorating mental health due to the repressive Taliban policies; her struggle to find a new job; and the continuing war against the harsh rules of the Taliban governing her daily life.
This phase had not been easy for Amiri, but she fought through. She got a job at a private office and even found work with other women comrades. However, this joy was short-lived as the Taliban forced the company to fire female workers as they could not allow men to drive the women to work and also quoted the compulsory hijab rule.
For the next two months, she remained unemployed, hope diminishing little by little. However, she did not give up and later, joined a private news agency and covered the stories reflecting the situation of women under the Taliban rule.
Zainab details the life of a women journalist under the Taliban regime quite vividly. She says she was shocked when she heard the mandatory mask rule for women presenters. Comparing the news to the fall of Kabul, Amiri said that the news was devastating and a bitter pill to swallow. According to her, these restrictions were just the beginning of the gradual removal of women from television and media screens, however, female journalists prevented this, by accepting the atrocious rules.
“We can never accept such restrictions, but it is important to work in these dark times, in order to show our resilience to the hardline Islamists. We will never leave the media industry and journalism,” she adds vigorously.
Apart from this, she also outlines the harsh rules of the Taliban on the media sector as a whole due to which the essential pillar of any country, has been reduced to crumbles. “Currently, the media personnel have no freedom. They do not have the right to publish and cover any news without the permission of the Taliban. They must always get permission from the Taliban, otherwise both the media outlet and the reporter will be prosecuted,” she adds.
She cited the Taliban’s special committee to monitor the functioning of the media, which ensures that the domestic media industry does not publish without the prior approval of the Taliban.
Amiri says that life for working women in the industry is completely now. Earlier, even though there were security issues, the women still had their basic right to work freely; earlier even though there was less information, it wasn’t like the information embargo which is prevalent today in Afghanistan due to lack of access to officials and the neglect which has been imposed on the media today was absent earlier, she adds.
“Now, there is no access to information. If they come to know that there is a woman on the other side of the line, they disconnect and block us. Travel too has been limited as they are afraid of being identified by the Taliban. I have spoken to some of the arrested women after their release and they narrate a terrible and bitter experience in the Taliban’s prison, from physical torture by whips, electric shocks to mental and psychological torture,” Zainab explains.
A dismayed Zainab believes that all Afghans have lost hope. The arrest, torture and harassment of journalists by the Taliban, affects the psyche of fellow journalists, she says, adding that they cannot function easily. However, she adds that leaving the country is not an option for her and she wants to do whatever she can, by telling stories from the Afghanistan heartland.