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Under Taliban, Radio Stations Promoting Women's Voices Make Changes

FILE - A radio presenter reads the news during a broadcast at the Merman radio station in Kandahar, Sept. 29, 2020.
FILE - A radio presenter reads the news during a broadcast at the Merman radio station in Kandahar, Sept. 29, 2020.

Mina Akbari used to have a busy work schedule, presenting two daily shows for Shamshad TV in Kabul, and preparing content on women's issues for Nargis, a radio station in Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province.

But since the Taliban took Kabul on August 15, Akbari has been at home, too scared to return to work.

Nargis, the station where she worked, is one of at least three radio broadcasters run or staffed by women that have made changes to staff or programming out of concern that the Taliban may retaliate against them. One has temporarily suspended operations.

While none have received direct orders by the Taliban, under the group's previous rule women were not allowed to work or have high-profile roles. And since it took power, girls aged 12 to 18 have been told to stay at home.

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The Taliban's acting deputy minister for information and culture, Zabihullah Mujahid, told VOA last month that women will be allowed to return when it is safe.

"It is for the Islamic scholars to decide the rules for women and teach them how to work or continue their education," Mujahid said, adding that the Taliban is waiting for the scholars to inform the government of their decision.

The Taliban have also said that private media would be allowed to operate freely, as long as they did not go against Islam. But the group has circulated media guidelines, and rights groups have cited a spike in violence and threats perpetrated by Taliban members in the past two months.

Some journalists at state-run stations have also said they were blocked from working. Shabnam Dawran, an anchor for the state-run Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA), spoke publicly about how Taliban members prevented her from going to work.

"I was told by the Taliban to go home. The regime has changed," Dawran told VOA Deewa.

Dawran said that she was dressed in a hijab and presented her work ID, but she was not allowed to enter office. Male colleagues, however, were allowed into the station's offices.

Shabnam Dawran, an anchor for the state-run broadcaster Radio Television Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy of Shabnam Dawran)
Shabnam Dawran, an anchor for the state-run broadcaster Radio Television Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy of Shabnam Dawran)

"I had only seen Taliban in the pictures, in the media, in the news, but I had never imagined that one day I will stand up to and argue with them," Dawran said. "While I argued, one Talib came forward pointed his gun at my head and said, 'It is just a matter of a bullet.' But I responded no matter what, a hundred women like me has been killed and I will be the 101st."

Khadija Amin, who works for the same channel, says she was also sent home.

"Taliban would never want women to work. If the Taliban had no issue with women going to work, why did they not have a single woman representative in the peace process?" Amin asked.

"I do not believe in what Taliban says," she told VOA, as she pointed to reports of Taliban beating journalists.

Suhail Shaheen, a spokesperson for the Taliban's political office in Qatar, did not respond to VOA's requests for comment.

For Nargis journalist Akbari, the memory of threats before the Taliban were officially in power added to her decision to stay away from work.

Radio journalist Mina Akbari. (Photo courtesy of Mina Akbari)
Radio journalist Mina Akbari. (Photo courtesy of Mina Akbari)

"I was threatened by the Taliban a couple of times for not wearing a head scarf in the TV shows, for discussing women's rights or for reporting the facts about Taliban. They even accused me of being against Islam and being an infidel," said Akbari. "Several times for a short period of time I had to move to the neighboring countries and then came back to continue my work."

Several staff at the female-run station have gone into hiding. Some have even left the country.

Shafiqullah Rahmani, station manager for Nargis, said that many women-run organizations were affected by the Taliban takeover.

"Our female colleagues are still frightened. Each one of these women have worked more than 10 years in the field of journalism. We are in touch with them and they wish to return to work but are waiting for the Taliban's leadership to announce that they are allowed to go to work," Rahmani said.

It's a similar story at Naz, a local station in Khost province that broadcasts shows on education, health, awareness.

The station was run by around 15 women, but after the Taliban captured Afghanistan, none of these women returned. Instead, they were replaced by male colleagues.

Station manager Anwar Sadiq told VOA Deewa that his female colleagues had to stop coming in. "Their future is vague; they are still waiting," Sadiq said.

"The Taliban have not said anything to us about women's work in our radio, but the women thought if Taliban do not allow girls [to go] to school then it means they are not allowed to work either," he said.

In the western province of Kandahar, local station Merman — which means "woman" in Pashto — closed temporarily. Its team of female presenters used to broadcast for 14 hours a day.

The station was awarded the Reporters Without Borders prize for impact in December 2020 for its work promoting women's issues, and offering training.

Ruhullah Sherzad, the station's manager, told VOA Deewa, "We have shut the radio temporarily. We have not been assured yet."

When asked if the journalists could continue if they broadcast from home, Sherzad said it would be difficult.

"We might not be able to provide all the technical assistance at home for our workers. We have economic problems," he said. "There are so many issues in Kandahar with electricity and internet. We cannot provide computers, mics and all other equipment to these women at home. It will be costly."

For radio journalist Akbari, the past two months have been tough. "My heart breaks into pieces because I have no work to go to. I miss my colleagues and my workplace," she said.

This story originated in VOA's Deewa service. Munaza Shaheed is a journalist and news anchor for VOA's Deewa service in Washington, D.C. Shaheed focuses on politics, economics, and women and human rights issues in Afghanistan and Pakistan.