Mahira* has become a familiar face on Afghan television, as viewers tune in every night to watch her anchor the news. Even during the most turbulent recent events, the 27-year-old journalist remained calm and collected while reporting on the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
On Saturday, Mahira appeared on screen but her face was covered with a black mask following a Taliban decree ordering female news anchors cover their faces while in the air.
“[Saturday] It was one of the hardest days of my life. They made us feel as if we had been buried alive,” Mahira told Al Jazeera. “I felt that I am not a human being. I feel like I have committed a great crime, which is why God made me a woman in Afghanistan,” she told Al Jazeera, holding back tears.
“What law in the world requires women to cover their faces on television? Even in [other] Islamic countries, female news anchors or female anchors don’t wear masks,” he said, anger evident in his voice.
Sosan*, a 23-year-old TV presenter, shared Mahira’s anger. He began working in the media in 2019 hoping to follow in the footsteps of the brave female Afghan reporters he had seen reporting across the country.
“We had achieved a lot and had a solid free media, with a growing presence of women in all sectors. But look where we are now… in a country where I can’t even choose what to wear or what to report on,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to an earlier decree of “11 rules for journalists” that required journalists to seek the approval of journalists. taliban before reporting.
The Taliban edict, announced Thursday, is seen by many as the latest sign of escalating restrictions on women’s freedoms and a return to the repressive rule of the Taliban’s previous time in power in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. .
Earlier this month, the Taliban passed a decree mandatory use of face veil in public spaces. They have also prohibited women from traveling more than 72 km (45 miles) without a mahram (male guardian) and prevented girls from attending school after the sixth grade.
Human rights activists say the Taliban’s increasing restrictions are aimed at removing women from public life and that it is clear they intend to enforce the latest decree on face coverings.
“Women journalists on television are very visible. Their continued presence gave girls and women a small sliver of security, amid the Taliban’s deepening attacks on women’s rights, that some women could still do their jobs, play important roles and appear. in public,” Heather Barr, deputy director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.
“By literally blocking these women from being fully seen in public, the Taliban have taken another important step toward their ostensible goal of erasing Afghan women from public life altogether.”
The Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice did not respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera.
‘I can’t give up’
A rise in gender-based discrimination under the Taliban has already forced many women out of the Afghan media, according to recent reports.
A survey by the National Union of Afghan Journalists, released in March, found that 79 percent of female Afghan journalists saying they had been insulted and threatened under Taliban rule, including physical and verbal threats and abuse by Taliban officials. Meanwhile, 60 percent of female Afghan journalists surveyed said they have lost their jobs since the Taliban took power in August.
AN poll by Reporters Without Borders, conducted in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover, found that there were fewer than 100 women left working in the media in Kabul.
“Of the 510 women who worked for eight of the main media outlets and press groups, only 76 (including 39 journalists) are still working today,” he noted, warning that “women journalists are in the process of disappearing from the capital.”
Women journalists in Afghanistan have also reported increased challenges in doing their jobs due to Taliban restrictions. On Thursday, women journalists in Herat province said they were barred from entering a news conference by Naeem al-Haq Haqqani, the Taliban’s provincial director of information and culture.
Sosan, who had aspired to become a documentary filmmaker, said restrictions have prevented her from entering the field.
“Before, we could go very far for news coverage, but it is very difficult to even get out of the city centers. If we are stopped by Taliban virtues and vices ministry officials, they ask us why we don’t have a mahram,” she said.
Mahira shared similar discriminatory experiences.
“About a month ago, we invited one of the Taliban officials to appear on my show. The interview was arranged by our producer, who is a man. But when the official entered the studio and saw me, he turned around and refused to join the discussion, because I was a woman,” he said.
When Mahira asked the Taliban official what the problem was, he told her he “would never sit in front of a girl for an interview,” he said.
Afghan women journalists also reported that they were “blacklisted” by Taliban officials.
“Ministry officials do not share interviews or information. When we approach them with questions, they respond by asking why we don’t wear the hijab or why we wear heels, or where our socks are. Would you call this freedom of the press? Mahira said.
“When I talk to them, they don’t even answer me and pretend that no one is talking. They don’t value women as human beings, let alone allow them to be anchors or news anchors who sit at the same table with them and have discussions,” she added.
Despite the ban on coming forward, Afghan women journalists continue to report.
“When I cover my face, my identity is lost, but I still decided to continue appearing on television even with a mask because I don’t want them to think that by pressing us they can eliminate us,” Sosan said.
Mahira also refused to bow to pressure, although the temptation to resign comes up every day. “But I can’t give up. Because we are the voices of those who cannot go to school, university and work. If we leave, who will speak for them? she said.
In acts of solidarity with their female colleagues, male journalists wearing masks have also appeared on screen in recent days.
“We stand with our female colleagues and protest this order because we know how difficult it is to appear on television with your face covered,” Idrees Farooqi, editor-in-chief and head of news at 1TV, told Al Jazeera.
Journalists and activists in Afghanistan and around the world also took to social media to protest the move by sharing photos of themselves wearing masks along with the hashtag #FreeHerFace.
For Afghan women, however, reporting is resistance, Mahira said.
“Although this order was very heartbreaking, I will tell you that even if I am forced to wear a burqa, I will continue to present on television. There is no force or pressure that you can apply that will make me leave my job,” she said.
“I will continue reporting on women because this is resistance. I will continue to resist until the situation improves.”
*Name changed to protect identity.