Afghan women speak up against new Taliban media guidelines

Journalists say the latest media ‘guideline’ is yet another form of control over women, as they vow to continue their work.

Women journalists work in the newsroom of the Kabul Weekly in the early 2000s [File: Ahmad Masood/Reuters]

Afghan journalists and activists have expressed concern over a new “religious guideline” issued by Taliban rulers, saying the move is yet another form of control over women.

The Taliban, which took over  Afghanistan roughly 100 days ago, on Sunday urged female journalists to follow a dress code and called on TV stations to stop showing soap operas featuring women, sparking fears over women’s rights and media freedom.

Akif Muhajir, spokesman for the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, said “these are not rules but a religious guideline”.

However, activists fear it could be misused to harass female journalists, many of whom have already fled the country in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover on August 15.

The Taliban has been accused of backing down on its pledge to protect women’s rights and media freedom. The latest move, which called on women to wear the hijab while presenting their reports, does not specify which type of covering to use.

Such restrictions, as well as tightening control on news reporting, has been done to preserve “national interest”, according to the group.

‘Muzzle the media’

Zahra Nabi, a broadcast journalist who co-founded a women’s television channel, said she felt cornered when the Taliban resumed power, and chose to go off-air the very same day.

“All the media is under their [Taliban] control,” Nabi, who established Baano TV in 2017, told Al Jazeera.

The network that was once run by 50 women was a symbol of how far Afghan women have come since the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s.

With most of the network’s crew members now gone, Nabi has remained adamant about doing her job, and like many other established journalists in Afghanistan, she has had to work under the radar.

“We work in a very tough environment, and are even collecting reports under the burqa,” Nabi said, referring to an outer garment worn to cover the entire body and face used by some Muslim women.

“It is really hard for female journalists,” she said, citing a recent example where she had to enter the city of Kunduz as a humanitarian worker, and not as a journalist.

“I’m not showing myself as a journalist. I had to arrange with local women a safe office space to work in,” Nabi said.

A group of women wearing burqas crosses the street as members of the Taliban drive past in Kabul, Afghanistan [Jorge Silva/Reuters]

Now that Baano TV is off-air, the 34-year-old said she is trying to find other ways to showcase her reports, perhaps through social media platforms, or via broadcasters outside the country.

Commenting on the move, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday that the new strict guidelines will especially harm women.

“The Taliban’s new media regulations and threats against journalists reflect broader efforts to silence all criticism of Taliban rule,” said Patricia Gossman, an associate Asia director at HRW.

“The disappearance of any space for dissent and worsening restrictions for women in the media and arts is devastating.”

Sonia Ahmadyar, a journalist who lost her job in August, said the Taliban has been moving to slowly “muzzle the media”.

Day by day, the Taliban has been placing restrictions on women “to not let them be active,” Ahmadyar told Al Jazeera.

Women “really feel discouraged to appear on TV,” she said, adding that the group has taken away their “freedom” as well as their financial autonomy.

The 35-year-old called on the Taliban to allow women journalists to resume working “without being harassed” as soon as possible.

“It is their most basic right, because it is essential for their livelihood, and because their absence from the media landscape would have the effect of silencing all Afghan women,” she said.

‘Obliged to obey’

Previously, the Taliban stipulated that private media would be able to operate freely as long as they did not go against Islamic values. Within days of coming to power, the group had said that the government will be guided by Islamic law.

But journalists and human rights activists have criticised the guidelines as vague, saying they are subject to interpretation.

It remains unclear whether going on air without the hijab or airing foreign dramas featuring women, would attract legal scrutiny.

When asked if avoiding the guidelines would be punishable by law, Muhajir from the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, told Al Jazeera citizens are “obliged to obey the guidance”, without elaborating.

According to Heather Barr, co-director of the Women’s Rights division of HRW, the Taliban’s directive is just the latest step by the group to “erase women from public life”.

The move comes after the group excluded women from senior roles in government, abolished the women’s ministry, women’s sports, and the system set up to respond to gender-based violence, she said.

Almost immediately after assuming power, the Taliban also instructed high school girls to stay home and not attend school. However, girls in parts of the country have now been allowed to resume classes.

Even though the vast majority of Afghan women cover their heads, some did not. But whether they did or not – “it was important that it was their choice,” Barr said.

Shaqaiq Hakimi, a young Afghan activist, agreed.

“God gave us … the right to decide. So it shouldn’t be something by force, but their [women’s] own decision,” she told Al Jazeera.

Since the guidelines do not specify the type of head covering women are expected to wear, Taliban officials will feel “empowered to determine what is and isn’t acceptable hijab,” Barr said, leaving women vulnerable to being stopped and harassed on the streets.

The consequences of such policing will force professional women to constantly wonder if their hijab is up to the Taliban’s standard.

This will have a “deeply chilling” effect on their ability to do their jobs, according to Barr.

But women like Nabi said the restrictions will not deter her from doing her job.

“We are working, we will not stop, and we will continue what we are doing,” she said. “That’s our plan.”

Hakimi echoed Nabi’s sentiment, saying if women stop fighting for their rights, “no one will give them to us”.

Additional reporting by Mohsin Khan Momand in Kabul

Source: Al Jazeera