Rukhshana news agency founder Zahra Joya, pictured here in London. (Photo courtesy Zahra Joya)

‘I thought about the efforts and struggles of two decades… and cried’

The founder of a news agency dedicated to covering the lives and concerns of Afghan women on how female journalists are still reporting the news

In November 2020, I decided to create an Afghan news agency run by and for women—an online news service that would counter the prevailing patriarchal norms of Afghanistan. The news agency was named after a young woman, Rukhshana, who in 2015 was stoned to death by the Taliban in Ghor province for fleeing a forced marriage. 

At the time we started, I was also working as deputy director of media and public awareness for the Kabul municipality, and I was spending much of my salary—the equivalent of about $1,000 a month—to employ three other female journalists. Some of my friends worked voluntarily, bringing our full staff to six.

Women journalists under pressure

CPJ/Esha Sarai

 Our reporters were mostly untrained, but they knew the struggles of their own lives and could report with empathy about other women. They covered many previously uncovered or undercovered issues, from the street harassment that a majority of Afghan women face to the experience of menstruation.

In Afghanistan, particularly in remote areas, many teenage girls are unaware of menstruation before it happens to them, and when suddenly experiencing it, they feel stressed and sometimes go into nervous shock. Menstruation was like a taboo, and we wanted to help normalize it. 

We also interviewed girls and women who had been raped, including the particularly upsetting case of a nine-year-old child. Other media reported that the rape had occurred in March last year, but we searched out the family and reported the details of what happened. The child lost a lot of blood in the assault and had to be taken to a hospital to undergo surgery. An aunt of the young girl, who was raising her at the request of the child’s father, told us that after the assault, neighbors and others looked on her family with contempt. The aunt said they did not know where to “take refuge.”

 Gender apartheid

That kind of reporting is now at risk. Like so many other Afghans, I never imagined that the Taliban would retake Afghanistan so quickly, and that my family and Rukhshana Media’s team of journalists would be forced into hiding or exile. Yet on August 15, 2021, we all faced an excruciating dilemma. Under the Taliban, we believed women would have only two choices: You either accept their oppressive laws and live by them, totally changing your identity, or you live as you did and risk getting killed. As someone who struggled hard to get where I am, both options were unacceptable. I couldn’t accept having to see the world through the prison bars of a burqa, nor did I want to die. So when I received a call from the British embassy on August 24 giving me a chance to board a flight out, I took it.

For almost a year now, other Afghan women have been waking up each morning to the bitter reality that they live under a gender apartheid regime. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been eliminated, and the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has taken over its offices.

Millions of teenage girls have been hoping to return to their schools, but the Taliban keep prevaricating and delaying. Rukhshana has reported that violence against women at home and in public is on the rise, with bodies turning up on the streets like discarded waste. Afghan women who enjoyed certain political, social, and career freedoms a year ago now must often stifle their ambitions. 

“Women and girls in particular have been subjected to severe restrictions on their human rights,” says a recent United Nations report, “resulting in their exclusion from most aspects of everyday and public life.”

Female journalists face particular challenges, including intimidation, lack of access to information, and severe discrimination. Surveys vary, but those that have been conducted during the past year show that most women journalists have lost their jobs since the Taliban takeover. In some provinces of Afghanistan, women are not allowed to work at all.

According to our reporting, the Taliban have banned the broadcast of women’s voices in some areas, as well as the broadcast of movies with female actors. Media outlets have been instructed to separate the offices of men and women, to prevent them from working together directly. In March this year, the Taliban banned private news channels in Afghanistan from rebroadcasting programs of the BBC, VOA, and Deutsche Welle, reportedly because of the way their news presenters dressed. In May, the Taliban ordered all female TV presenters to cover their faces. In some places, it has also banned female journalists from attending its press conferences.

When the Taliban forced female presenters to wear the hijab, I edited the news with a heavy heart. To me, it meant that a form of social imprisonment was being reimposed. At about six o’clock that evening, I turned off the computer in my room here in London, far from Afghanistan, and for a moment I thought about the efforts and struggles of two decades—especially the struggles of Afghan women—and cried.

Despite all these restrictions, however, female journalists continue to work. A female presenter for a private television station told me she finds it challenging to wear a mask while working on-air—she can’t breathe properly and has difficulty pronouncing her words clearly—but added that she won’t give up doing on-air work. Some female reporters, meanwhile, have taken on male aliases, to better hide their identity and protect themselves.

Our first male reporter

After the Taliban takeover, Rukhshana remained committed to providing opportunities to female journalists. But fear prevailed, and we had difficulty recruiting—particularly in the provinces and outside the main cities. So almost two months after the Taliban took power, we hired our first male reporter. Since then, we’ve enlisted others who share our commitment to telling the stories of women.

Together, our female and male reporters, often working covertly, aim to report for their fellow Afghans but also for audiences around the world, so they too can know what the people of Afghanistan are going through in the current crisis. We publish in both Dari and English, and use social platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Telegram to disseminate our news reports and video. 

A women’s rights protest outside the Arg Presidential Office in Kabul, on October 21, 2021. (AAMAJ News Agency/via Reuters)

All of our reporters in Afghanistan write under pseudonyms and have very little access to official information. Still, they try. In February this year, a reporter who goes by the name Nasiba Arefi called a Taliban spokesman for the police in western Herat to ask about two dead bodies that had been hung from the shovel of a giant backhoe. Instead of answering her questions, the spokesman made demands: First, he said the media outlet where she worked had to pledge to operate according to Taliban policies. Second, she should send any reporting to him for review before publication, and she should never use the term “Taliban group” (which is regarded as a term used by the Taliban’s enemies to delegitimize its rule). 

Rukhshana published the story with the information we had. The Taliban official later texted Arefi, asking her to provide him with the address and details of the media outlet where she worked. She declined, fearful that she could be arrested or harassed. 

We always have to tread carefully. In order to ensure the safety of our interviewees and reporters, we sometimes decline to publish sensitive stories. Once, we deleted a story from our website and social media accounts because I’d received a call from a man saying that if we didn’t delete it, “we will find your reporter.” 

‘I will never give up’

The remaining female journalists in Afghanistan have one thing in common: They love their work, and feel it is more vital than ever.  “I love journalism and I will never give up,” one Rukhshana journalist told me. Still, there are times when female reporters question themselves. A woman journalist for a television station in Kabul recently told Rukhshana that she can spend days trying to get comment or information from Taliban officials—without result. “This situation makes me more discouraged from working as a journalist every day,” she says.

Journalists also face financial stress. I started Rukhshana with the hope that when other media outlets realized the importance of our work, they might support us financially. But we did not receive that sort of backing, at least initially. Now that so many Afghan media organizations are shrinking or collapsing, such support is more important than ever, and even harder to get. 

Still, we’ve been very fortunate. Last year, a friend conducted a fundraising drive in Canada that brought in enough money to cover our operations for nearly a year, and more recently we received funding from Internews. We now have four full-time editors, seven staff reporters, and several freelancers who work for us regularly. We’re not exactly booming, but we’re far from folding. Too many women are rooting for us.