When she finds time to relax, Afghan journalist Salma Niazi likes to stroll around her new home city of Islamabad, Pakistan, and play tennis. Her husband takes pictures to send to their relatives -the latest, snaps of her throwing white rose petals in the air.
In skinny jeans with blue sneakers and a loose headscarf, Niazi recalls how her life in Kabul -which she fled last year- was not so different from this until the Taliban government announced restrictions for women in the media industry. Then everything changed worryingly fast. The only option she had to safeguard her future was to leave.
Future is a word that Niazi often uses in describing how the Taliban are “ruining” Afghanistan by restricting women’s rights to study, work and act independently. First, it became compulsory for female TV presenters to wear hijabs to cover their necks and hair. Next, women were banned from working in positions that required exposure to the public.
“I could do only what the Taliban wanted,” Niazi says. “I lost my job, I couldn’t participate in social activities, I couldn’t show up, I couldn’t stay in certain places for fear of the Taliban. My life changed a lot and I lived in constant tension.”
Once in Pakistan, she could not stop thinking about the female journalists who were left behind. “How will they spend their time?” she asked herself. So she took the decision to found an all-women online media outlet — naming it The Afghan Times — focusing on human rights and women’s issues.
Niazi writes and edits all day from her kitchen in Islamabad. (Courtesy of Salma Niazi)
From exile, she now manages a team of five female journalists, starting work after morning prayers and finishing in the evening. Then comes a game of tennis – Niazi dreams of one day playing for her country.
For the moment she is funding the project herself from savings while knowing that personal financing is not sustainable. She already has plans to take on more staff – all women.
The website targets a local readership in the Pashtun language – which is also the native language for most Taliban – and an international public in English. One recent headline reads: “Banning women from working will increase the number of child labourers in Afghanistan.”
“We are different from other media. We are five girls and our goal is to reflect the voice of all Afghan women,” the journalist says. “Three of our colleagues are still in Afghanistan, and they are working despite the ban. These Afghan Times colleagues are brave and unyielding.”
A screenshot of the English-language edition of The Afghan Times homepage on Jan. 26. The website is also published in the Pashtun language, the native language for most Taliban. (Screenshot of The Afghan Times website)
The group’s work has not gone unnoticed in Kabul, and the authorities have explicitly told the outlet to halt operations. “Fortunately, the three journalists work under a pseudonym and the Taliban never managed to find them,” says Niazi.
According to Reporters sans Frontieres (Reporters without Borders), a Paris-based nongovernmental organization, more than 80% of female journalists have lost their jobs in the past year, compared with half of the men – a statistic that has helped to push Afghanistan to 156th of 180 countries ranked in RSF’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index.
RSF and the Center for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists say that only 76 media professionals, including 39 journalists, are still working in Kabul, compared with 4,940 journalists in 2020, 700 of whom were women.
While all women in Afghanistan are facing harsh discrimination — banned from secondary education, universities and nongovernmental agencies – the media landscape has become increasingly dangerous.
Since their takeover in August 2021, the Taliban have introduced a number of “reforms” that are tantamount to censorship, with threats of severe consequences for people who break the rules.
Women protest against a new Taliban edict banning women from universities, in Kabul on Dec. 22, 2022. (Getty Images).
Taliban supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada issued a decree on July 22, 2022, warning that “defaming and criticizing government officials without proof” and “spreading false news and rumours” were forbidden under Islam. Those who “slander” government employees were unwittingly collaborating with the enemy and would be “punished.”
Afghanistan has lost 40% of its media outlets since the Taliban takeover, according to RSF. “Most journalists don’t feel happy or safe in Afghanistan, especially women, because they are relegated at home and not allowed to go outside to work,” a journalist still working in Kabul told Nikkei Asia.
Another female journalist based in northeast Afghanistan says she is no longer working. “The situation is really bad. It’s been more than a year since I haven’t been able to work, and we survive on donations,” she says. “I want to flee the country but I would need more than $1,000 for the passports for my family.”
The Afghan Journalists Center, which monitors the abuse of journalists, recorded 260 incidents last year related to media freedom. These included threats and damage to equipment alongside 119 cases of arrest and criminal charges and 13 physical assaults.
Afghan girls practice Taekwondo in a secret club in Kabul on Nov. 17, 2022. (Getty Images)
Many of the journalists who have left Afghanistan for Pakistan want to travel to other countries but have to wait months for appointments with embassy staff. Many have been left in limbo because corruption linked to visas has become a thriving business, according to applicants.
Saeedullah Safi, a journalist who fled Afghanistan for a safe place and declines to disclose his location, said he received death threats and that his family asked him to leave for their own safety. “When the Taliban came to power, during a search, they found my camera. A gunman asked me: ‘Are you a journalist?’ And I said yes. He insulted me and said bad things, as if I were a big criminal.”
Working as a journalist in Afghanistan has never been easy — 125 journalists and media workers have been killed since 2001. Tolonews, a Kabul TV outlet, has a memorial on the ground floor of its main office to colleagues killed in a terror attack, their press cards lying next to a camera.
None of this stopped men and women like Niazi from pursuing journalism, which she says she fell in love with while listening to the radio at her grandfather’s house and then reading about the lives of successful women.
“But the Taliban do not allow Afghan women to become strong. They fear the empowerment of Afghan women,” Niazi says. “After the last Taliban order, girls cannot go to schools and universities, which means that Afghan girls will remain uneducated and this will have a bad impact on the future of Afghanistan,” she adds.
Afghan women demonstrate outside Parliament in London on Jan. 14 in response to the Taliban’s decision to ban women from attending university in Afghanistan. (Getty Images)
Niazi admits that Afghans are divided over the Taliban, with some saying that the government’s actions are justified. “Any problems in Afghanistan are caused by men against women,” she says, although “not all men are the same” and some want opportunities for women, including her husband.
“He is my supporter and is against all the actions of the Taliban; he stands by my side and supports me against every problem,” she says.
“He even does a lot of work with us at The Afghan Times, although it is not his responsibility. My husband is my hero,” she says, working from the kitchen of her apartment in Islamabad.
A 2022 report by the International Federation of Journalists and India’s Network of Women in Media said female journalists are at particular risk among the 95% of women in Afghanistan who are now estimated to be unemployed. The report urged the international community to grant refugee visas for journalists at risk and work permits for those who have resettled.
Most women interviewed by the IFJ wanted to continue working even from abroad, so “educational qualifications should be recognized in their countries of asylum so that they can continue their education and upskill themselves,” the report added.
Niazi says she believes that running The Afghan Times can have an impact on Afghanistan, at least in holding the Taliban accountable. But she also thinks that only the international community can really stop the Taliban, through sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
As for her future, Niazi says she cannot stay in Pakistan forever, nor go back to Afghanistan. She says she hopes to find a safe country where she can serve “the women of my country in peace.”
Credit: AIPS Media
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