An award-winning journalist who fled from Afghanistan last August says the international community must not remain silent on Taliban restrictions for female journalists.
Anisa Shaheed, a former TOLOnews broadcaster who on May 23 was named as an International Center for Journalists’ Knight awardee, says she is troubled by orders that impact the ability of female journalists to work.
In an interview with VOA’s Dari service, Shaheed said the Taliban mandate that women cover their faces when reporting is “not acceptable.”
“I hope these difficult days pass,” said Shaheed. “Where in the Islamic countries do journalists work like that? This is very painful and upsetting.”
Shaheed worked with TOLOnews, one of Afghanistan’s largest broadcasters, for more than a decade. She described that time as an honor, saying journalism allowed her an others to “echo” the voices of women in the country.
The ICFJ praised Shaheed’s “intrepid coverage of major stories,” including an armed attack on a maternity hospital and government mishandling of pandemic resources.
The organization noted that as a woman in Afghanistan, Shaheed faced a dual threat. The ICFJ will present Shaheed with its award in November.
When the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, Shaheed left the country. Currently, she lives in Washington, where she works as a freelance journalist.
‘Suffocating freedom of speech’
But her thoughts are never far from colleagues back in Afghanistan.
“Unfortunately, from the day the Taliban came to power, they have not only imposed restrictions on the media but also on the people and women,” Shaheed said. “The restrictions have increased day by day.”
By ordering women to cover their faces, the Taliban are “suffocating freedom of speech,” she said. “It can only mean one thing and that is that they want to omit women from media and public life.”
The international community widely condemned the Taliban order and several male journalists went on air on May 22 wearing masks in a show of solidarity with their colleagues.
Sharon Moshavi, president of ICFJ, told VOA that the situation for Afghan journalists should not be forgotten.
“People don’t know credible information anymore. They do not have any critical reporting of their government. And the impact of that over time is going to be pretty astronomical,” Moshavi said.
While media still faced risk under the old government, the return of the Taliban rule swiftly eroded the space for free expression, rights groups say.
The country currently ranks 156 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders index, where No. 1 is most free. It is a significant decline on the 2021 rating of 122. RSF says the Taliban return had “serious repercussions” for media freedom and journalist safety.
“Being a journalist in Afghanistan has been dangerous for many decades. That is not new,” Moshavi said. “What is different now, of course, is that the government in power is actively censoring, curtailing press freedoms.”
A free press is a key pillar for society, Moshavi said. “You're not going to have a democracy obviously unless you have a free press.”
Respect for women
Since returning to power, the Taliban imposed strict restrictions. Girls are denied access to high school and women are banned from work and can no longer travel without a close male relative.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on May 25 such polices “are an affront to human rights” and “will continue to negatively impact” Taliban relations with the international community.
No country has recognized the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan since the group seized power in August 2021.
“The legitimacy, the support the Taliban seeks from the international community, it depends on their conduct, including – and centrally – their respect for the rights of women,” Price said.
Shaheed believes international organizations and rights groups should do more to raise this issue.
“Today, Afghan girls do not have the right to get an education. Today, Afghan women do not have the right to work. Today, Afghan women journalists do not have the right to show their faces to talk to the people. Their mouths are shut,” Shaheed said. “Organizations (must) not remain silent in the face of these restrictions.”
This story originated in VOA’s Dari Service.