Breaking the silence: Women’s resistance in Afghanistan

Breaking the silence: Women’s resistance in Afghanistan

Written by Alia Chebbab

Photo: Screenshot from ‘Afghan women on the front line’ / Zan Times

Since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in 2021, women and girls have seen their rights deteriorate so drastically that Amnesty International said their treatment should be considered a crime against humanity, that of ‘gender persecution’. And yet, despite losing their freedom of movement, political participation, and speech, Afghan women have been putting their lives at risk to fight for their rights. 

Zahra Nader, editor-in-chief of the women-led newsroom Zan Times, has recorded these acts of resistance in a documentary called ‘Afghan women on the front line.’ The two-part film was produced with the support of the International Women’s Media Foundation, and published in partnership with feminist newsletter Impact and NADJA.

The footage used in the documentary comes from the protesters themselves. “Not many journalists are allowed in the protests, and it’s these great women who are protesting and filming the resistance, sending it out to the media and on social media,” Nader explains. “I have a huge archive of different videos that women sent me from different provinces and different places. This is a documentation of the resistance in Afghanistan. It’s so inspiring to see how women are resisting, how they are fighting. We wanted to tell the different kinds of resistance that women in Afghanistan are involved in.”

Documenting the resistance

The first episode relates the story of Zahra Mohammadi and Rishmin Joyanda, two women activists who have been demonstrating on the streets. They recount how their protests were met with violence. “We have faced the Taliban’s gunfire, whips, electric batons, pepper spray and tear gas,” Mohammadi says. Joyanda explains how the Taliban besieged demonstrators for hours, before a protest she organised could even begin. “I told one of them: I am enjoying seeing fear in you. I am proud of ourselves, that we 14 women who have come with pens and papers protesting, you come with guns and cannons to fight us.” Mohammadi and Joyanda were both arrested in 2022; they later escaped the country to safety.

In the second episode, which will be published on Friday March 8, the documentary reveals how women are turning their homes into secret schools for girls, and using creative mediums like singing and theatre as forms of protest.

“In January 2022, the Taliban started arresting protesters, and started torturing them, creating an environment of fear and horror,” Nader explains. “It forced some women to stay indoors. But being indoors doesn’t mean being silenced: I have witnessed how women speak out from inside their homes, how they are resisting, how they’re fighting, how they are imprisoned for just asking for their rights.”

Nader hopes the documentary will serve as a catalyst for change. “I believe that you will never take action if you don’t know what’s happening – because you feel no action is needed. My hope for these video stories is to first inform people on what’s happening in Afghanistan.  If you don’t hear women’s voices on the street, that doesn’t mean everything is good and perfect. They started on the streets, but they were pushed out of the streets, and now they are using other ways to resist. 

“Once people know what’s happening, we hope they will start thinking about how they can support Afghan women. If they cannot fight for their rights because the Taliban imprison them in their houses, what can I do, as a woman who has the right to work, the right to education, with a very different life from Afghan women? How can I speak up? How can I support them? How can I raise more awareness and share information about what’s happening in Afghanistan?”

Afghan women journalists are reclaiming their narratives

Under the Taliban regime, more than 300 media outlets have closed and hundreds of journalists have left the country. Many have been questioned or arrested by the Afghan police. They have been beaten and tortured while detained. According to a 2023 report by the Afghan National Journalists’ Union (ANJU), two years ago 25% of journalists were women. This has now dropped to 15%. Since the takeover, at least 14 directives have been issued regulating not only what the media can publish, but also restricting the work of female journalists.

“The Taliban don’t want anybody to cover anything related to women’s rights or to LGBTQ rights, or anything that casts the Taliban in a negative light. They want their propaganda to be the narrative. And if any journalists try to report the truth, their lives are at risk,” Nader explains. 

For women journalists, it’s even harder. “There are two kinds of restrictions you have to be mindful of when you are a woman journalist,” Nader explains. “One is the general restriction on women, and then there is the restriction on the media. Women journalists intersect in these two.”

“It is not about women’s rights in Afghanistan alone: it’s about women’s rights everywhere”

UN Women reported that two years after their takeover of Afghanistan, the Taliban have systematically been erasing women and girls from public life through more than 50 edicts, orders, and restrictions, denying them their most basic human rights. They have ordered women to cover themselves entirely when leaving home, and to have a male chaperone to accompany them in public. They have banned them from attending secondary school or university, working from outside the home, or even accessing public spaces such as baths, parks, and gyms. In the eastern region, girls have recently been banned from contacting the media

Adding to those restrictions, the media decrees prohibit female journalists from interviewing men and force them to cover their faces on TV. In some provinces, women’s voices are not allowed to be heard on the radio. 

But despite the risks, women journalists keep reporting, using pen names to protect their identity. To be able to raise the voices of their people, of women in their community, gives them a sense of purpose, they tell Nader. 

Zan Times: reporting the untold stories of Afghan women

Zan Times was born from the need for women to reclaim their narratives and their identity. 

The media outlet is an independent, investigative newsroom that covers human rights violations affecting women and LGBTQ people in Afghanistan, launched a year after the Taliban takeover. It is led by professional women journalists both in Afghanistan and in exile.

“When we launched the website, we received over 500 requests for work, and the majority of them were women journalists in Afghanistan – that was huge,” Nader says. “One striking point for me was that we received a lot of comments on how they were so inspired that women called to interview them. Because all the time that they have worked in the media, it was all male journalists leading the projects. And it just feels so different in that moment: to have a woman sitting on the other side, you feel relevant, you feel that you share the same experience and that you understand me.”

In Afghanistan’s increasingly intimidating environment, journalists are forced to self-censor. But with the editorial team outside the country, Zan Times is able to cover critical issues openly, such as the rise of suicides among women. “We looked at how women are doing after two years of not having rights,” Nader says. “We saw many reports of suicides coming from different provinces. We tracked it, and discovered that Afghanistan is now one of the very few countries in the world where women’s attempted suicide rate outnumbers men’s. We looked into that in 11 provinces, and we saw this huge impact of the Taliban policies on women, who rather kill themselves than live in this situation. So it’s very critical that we are able to tell these stories.”

Nader also talks with LGBTQ activists to report on their struggles, which, she says, haven’t been covered in the media in the last 20 years. “LGBTQ people cannot name who they are. If they do so they would be killed. The immediate threat comes from their relatives, their family, their loved ones,” she says. “If we don’t tell their stories, who’s going to do that? We feel that we are responsible. We feel that if women in Afghanistan deserve equality, so does everybody else. You should not be asking for equality for a particular group. Equality should not be an advantage – but rather based on humanity. Every human should be guaranteed basic human rights. And we hope that our work will be that platform raising critical voices that otherwise would go untold.”

Nader hopes that by shedding light on the diverse forms of women’s resistance in Afghanistan, it will inspire people worldwide to take meaningful action. “Ask representatives and the people in power in your country to take action,” she urges. “Because what’s happening in Afghanistan is not about women’s rights in Afghanistan alone: it’s about women’s rights everywhere. It sets the standard for what could be denied to women. There will be nothing that the world can do to reverse that. And that’s scary because what’s happening in Afghanistan could happen in any other country. And the world is tolerating it.”


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