On May 19, female television hosts and journalists working in Afghan broadcasting received a new order from the Taliban: “Cover your face”. Our Observer, an Afghan TV presenter, explains how she received the order and how Afghan journalists have been resisting the Taliban’s resolve to “remove women from society”.
The Taliban’s Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice issued the order to female journalists around Afghanistan, to be observed from Saturday, May 21. The Taliban made it clear that “any female presenter who appeared on screen without covering her face must be given some other job or simply removed”, according to Sonia Niazi, a presenter with TOLOnews.
The day after the order came in, female journalists from three privately owned media companies in Afghanistan refused to comply, going on air with their faces visible. However, on May 22, they succumbed to the directive, citing “pressure and threats from the Taliban”, wearing a burqa or mask over the bottom half of their faces.
Many male journalists and TV presenters in Afghanistan began wearing black masks in solidarity with their female colleagues. The trend caught on around the world, with journalists from various countries posting photos of themselves wearing black masks using the hashtag #freeherface.
When the Taliban captured Kabul and solidified their control over Afghanistan on August 15, 2021, many Afghan journalists left the country or went into hiding, fearing Taliban persecution. Up to 257 media outlets shut their doors in only three months and many others reduced their staff. The first victims of this massive crackdown were women, many of whom had to stay at home, afraid of the Taliban’s reaction.
‘It was soul-crushing, I felt like they stole my identity
Yalda Ali is a host on TOLOnews. She told the me about her life as a well-known female journalist and presenter under Taliban rule.
“When the Taliban took Kabul, I decided to stay in Afghanistan because I heard that they would prosecute the families of journalists who left the country. I could not leave my family behind to endure this just because I wanted to run. I decided to stay, so that if the Taliban came looking for me, they would only arrest me and not bother my family. So I stood my ground.
In the two weeks after the Taliban took Kabul, our TV channel was shut down. After that, I heard that one of my male colleagues was going to start presenting “Bamdad-e-Khosh” [translation: Delighted Morning], the show that I used to host.
It greatly saddened me, I was crying. I thought: ‘that’s it’. They removed women from the scene and there would only be men from now on. All day I was thinking that if this could break my heart and could crush my hope about the future as a woman in Afghanistan, then I’m sure that many other women would have the same feeling when they saw that a man had replaced me.
That night, I called the television directors and told them I wanted my job back, I wanted to present my show. Fortunately, they accepted and I resumed my work.
I was the first female journalist to go back to her work and it wasn’t easy. It was horrifying and I was expecting them to come and arrest me at any moment, I covered my face at the checkpoints to hide my identity.
But I think it was a glimmer of hope for Afghan women to see me on TV screens. Every day I got messages from men and women saying how happy they are to see me on the show.
But it was with some compromises too. The Taliban had made it clear that women’s outfits on TV must conform to Islamic rules, as they define them.
I had to wear an all-over, oversize black coat to hide my ‘body’s curves’ and cover all my hair very carefully. Before, I used to wear colourful dresses and show my hair. Anything I wanted to wear was my choice.
It was like this until May 19. I was recording a promotional video for our show when the set manager came inside the studio and told me “I’m sorry but you have to wear a mask to cover your face”.
The directive came two weeks after the Taliban ordered all Afghan women to wear the full-coverage burqa in public places, prompting protests by some women’s rights activists.
‘It’s about our existence as women in society’
At first, I didn’t take it seriously – I thought it was a joke. But the TV director came in with a piece of paper in his hand and confirmed it was real and definitive. I was the first host that had to do this.
It was soul-crushing, I felt like they stole my identity. They are obliterating me as an independent human being and as a woman.
There was a battle inside me over whether I should follow the order or not. But I think, in the end, our fight with them is more complex than what women wear or the freedom of our personal choices. It’s about our existence as women in society. It’s about me just being present on a TV set.
And if this depends on covering my face, then let it be. I won’t give up. I will hold on and resist, in order to stay on the scene until the end. I will keep going no matter what to keep this flame lit – to keep alive the hope, willpower, and determination to fight for our rights as Afghan women.
If I give up now, the Taliban would achieve their ultimate goal, which means removing women totally from society, and I won’t let them do that.
The presence of Afghan women in society has already been diminished and we are the last ones who are resisting. But I feel it will not end here. They will ban women’s presence in the media or any other public space sooner or later, I’m sure of that. And what I’ll do on that day, honestly I have no idea.
Since the Taliban took over, I’ve risked my life and my family’s lives too. The day that they ban my presence on the TV, I will have no more reason to stay here. The only thing that I think these days is that Afghan women will not give up. We fight for our rights and our freedom and I hope that the world does not forget us.
The Taliban has a long history of violence against journalists, particularly female journalists. Since their takeover in August 2021, at least 50 journalists and media employees have been detained or arrested, often violently, for several hours up to nearly a week, according to Reporters Without Borders.
In 2021, Afghanistan was the deadliest country for journalists, with nine journalists having lost their lives.