What is it like being a female journalist in Afghanistan?
Two days after the Taliban took over Afghanistan’s capital in August, a group of unidentified men came to Najiba Ayubi’s house.
“We didn’t open the door, and they eventually went back,” Najiba said. “After that, my family and I sat together and decided it was better to leave.”
In a matter of days, Najiba and her siblings, along with her sibling's children, evacuated their home.
"We lost everything. This is a very painful part of history. That is why every Afghan in different parts of Afghanistan and also parts of the world are still in shock"
Najiba has been a leading voice in Afghan media and journalism for more than a decade. She is currently the managing director of a non-profit public media initiative that administers some of the country’s most popular print publications and radio stations.
In 2013, she received the International Women’s Media Foundation Courage in Journalism Award and, in 2014, she was selected Reporters Without Borders’ Information Hero for her reporting on politics and women’s rights in Afghanistan.
Najiba grew up in Parwan, a province 50 km outside of Kabul. In the seventh grade, a librarian helped her get a byline in the local paper and although she does not remember what the story was about, she says this was the moment she knew she wanted to be a journalist.
Just as Najiba started picking up gigs in broadcasting and other prominent publications after completing school, the Taliban took over Parwan and told her family to leave the city.
The Taliban eventually grasped control of Afghanistan in 1996, and journalism went from being sternly restricted (as it was during Soviet rule) to close to absent. News channels disappeared overnight, and television sets were destroyed. Newspaper editorials, commentary, and photos were prohibited from the media, and most print publications were shut down. Only religious radio programming and propaganda papers like The Islamic Emirate, run by the Taliban, were permitted.
Najiba spent a portion of this time in Iran, where she had several opportunities to settle in countries like New Zealand. However, she decided to wait for a free Afghanistan.
“When the Taliban left the first time, we thought that war was finished. We wanted to play a very smart and very fundamental role in helping to build our society and our nation, to seek conflict-avoidance and work with other nations of the world. This was our mission at that time. Our hearts were full of love for our jobs.”
After the US and NATO invasion of Afghanistan and the toppling of the Taliban in 2001, the country experienced rapid growth in the media sector. Numerous television news stations, radio programmes and print media sources propped up, thanks to work journalists like Najiba were doing.
As Kabul’s local radio station manager, Najiba established ten other radio stations in less than ten years. She and her small team travelled from province to province and trained local men and women to generate regular programing.
"In a country like Afghanistan, being a journalist and woman are two very difficult things"
But none of this was easy. “In a country like Afghanistan, being a journalist and woman are two very difficult things,” she said.
Najiba remembers working under constant threats and attacks from the Taliban, the police and government entities for her and her team’s investigative reporting. According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 85 local Afghan journalists have been killed in connection with their work in the past 20 years.
Nonetheless, stopping has never been an option for Najiba. “Journalists are agents of change,” she said. With Afghanistan’s education system devastated by more than three decades of sustained conflict, Najiba feels that journalists are the voice for people who don’t know about the rights they have.
“But unfortunately, we lost everything. This is a very painful part of history. That is why every Afghan in different parts of Afghanistan and also parts of the world are still in shock. Believe me, I’m still in shock. I can’t believe what happened. We never thought things would change like this.”
Experts have described the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan as a massive “intelligence failure.” Yet, for Najiba and many other Afghan women’s rights activists, the Taliban’s advances were not entirely a surprise. She said she warned those in charge on the American and Afghan side that giving the insurgents a seat at the negotiation table without appropriate government representation could threaten women’s security and that an ill-prepared US exit could erase the hard-won gains made by Afghan women.
Speaking from a US army base that doubles as a refugee camp, Najiba told The New Arab that she feels Afghans have “lost 20 years of achievements in a few minutes.”
Even though the Taliban now claim to uphold “women’s rights under Islam,” eyewitness accounts from Taliban-controlled areas tell a different story, says Najiba. Women have already been turned away from schools and universities, ordered not to leave their homes without a male guardian, and flogged for breaching Taliban-imposed rules. There have also been reports of forced marriages and targeted attacks against women and girls.
“There are no jobs, no personal freedoms, nothing… Somehow, they want to delete women from society. This is very painful for everyone in the country.”
House to house searches have sent journalists critical of the Taliban into hiding and seeking refuge in safe shelters. Many women journalists have been barred from working on TV due to new Taliban rules, and thousands of Afghan media workers and US aid personnel are now desperately searching for ways to flee the country, she said.
"Najiba continues to encourage women to pursue journalism but not take high risks at this time. Her advice to new journalists is to keep detailed accounts of all evidence, network with journalists worldwide, and always take the side of the people"
“Killing is ongoing every day. They are asking people to come out of their house. When they go out, after two or three days, their family finds their body somewhere, or they have disappeared. In these situations, sometimes it is not clear who is doing it. But a lot of people, especially women, are working in Afghanistan still.”
Despite everything, Najiba continues to encourage women to pursue journalism but not take high risks at this time. Her advice to new journalists is to keep detailed accounts of all evidence, network with journalists worldwide, and “always take the side of the people”.
She now encourages nations that want to help to do so from the outside because history shows that the Afghan people will not accept foreigners.
After spending a month in a German refugee camp and 75 days in an army base in Virginia, US, Najiba and her family now live in Los Angeles, California.
“My body is here, but I never disconnect from Afghanistan. Sometimes I think I came here for a few days, and I will go back in time. Sometimes I think I’m asleep dreaming. And when I wake up, everything is not like this.”
When asked about her next steps, Najiba said that she was not sure. “But I know that if the situation changes, I will be the first person to go back.”
Zahra Khozema is a Pakistani-Canadian journalist currently based in Toronto
Follow her on Twitter: @Zahra_Khozema