Happier times back in 2017 when Afghan presenters record their morning TV program at the first women's TV channel Zan TV station in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 6, 2017. Photo: Haroon Sabawoon/Getty Images

Silenced Voices: The Struggle and Resilience of Women Journalists Under the Taliban’s Shadow

Nestled by the window, waiting for dusk, Leila Soltani, a female journalist from Ghazni, gazes at the barren city through grimy windows. She quickly shares her background: “I worked as a presenter, announcer, and reporter. If it weren’t for the ban on my profession, I’d be anchoring the evening news right now.”

Passionate about journalism and seeking purpose in her career, Soltani believes her work can create tangible change. Her unique perspective, shaped by personal experiences, leads her to report on the economic and social conditions of women and children in Ghazni province. By sharing their stories, she finds healing and solace amidst the chaos.

Soltani started her journalism career five years ago at two private local media outlets in Ghazni City. Initially, she joined the private “Sama” radio station before moving to “Ghaznavian,” a private radio and television station. As the conflict between the Taliban and government security forces escalated, so did the danger to journalists, particularly women. Fearing for her safety, Soltani’s employer temporarily suspended her, promising she could return when conditions improved.

Before the Taliban took control of Ghazni City and Kabul, Soltani reached out to her manager, who was willing to work under any conditions imposed by the group. Her supervisor informed her that the Taliban’s requirements for female employees had not been met and that she should wait for further instructions. A year and a half later, Soltani remains in limbo, never hearing from her employer or colleagues. Each night, she goes to sleep hopeful for an improved situation for Afghan women and a return to her profession.

Despite her hopes, the Taliban continues to impose harsh laws on women, increasingly restricting their access to public activities, work, education, and societal engagement. Reflecting on how her life mirrors those she once reported on, Laila acknowledges that each person has a unique story, including her own.

Navigating Afghanistan’s male-dominated landscape, where dependence on a male guardian for sustenance and protection is common, Laila reveals that she never had the support of a father or brother. Instead, she has faced life’s challenges independently for years. “Only I know the difficulty of persevering in an ultra-conservative, misogynistic environment like Ghazni City,” she laments, “where seeing a woman on the busy streets is a rarity.”

Soltani lives with her young-widowed mother, their stories and hardships intertwined. “We are both casualties and survivors of conflicts we played no part in,” Soltani poignantly observes.

Seven months pregnant with Laila, Zaliakha lost her husband, Mohammad Taqi, without a trace. A seasoned militant from Ghazni, Taqi vanished during the first wave of Taliban rule. Despite Zaliakha’s tireless search, Taqi’s fate remains unknown. Even after 23 years, she clings to hope, awaiting her husband’s return. When asked how she would feel if her father returned, Soltani says, “My mother would show him her gray hair, wrinkles, scars, and me, recounting the suffering and hardships she faced in his absence.”

Zaliakha has endured these years alone, holding onto hope while confronting life’s challenges. With her modest earnings from cleaning homes, she raised three children, two of whom have since married and left the country. Now, only Laila remains by her side.

While attending high school, Soltani began her journalism career as an assistant. Excelling in her university entrance exam, she studied Management and Administration at Ghazni University for two years. Simultaneously, Laila worked in local Ghazni media, hosting educational programs before being promoted to news anchor and reporter.

With the Taliban’s return in 2021, Laila lost her job, income, and a sense of purpose. She endures for her mother’s sake. Struggling financially, her mother now works as a domestic laborer while Laila helps with sewing and weaving tasks.

Last winter, unable to afford rent or heating in Ghazni City’s Hyderabad neighborhood, they sought shelter at Zaliakha’s older daughter’s home. Laila recalls, “My sister’s house has just one room. The six of us – her four financially unstable family members and us – huddled together in that single space all winter.”

Over the past year and a half, Laila contacted numerous social and educational institutions searching for employment. No organization dared to assist her, fearing Taliban retaliation. However, an educational center running an underground school recently offered her a position teaching female students after the Taliban prohibited women’s education.

To accept the job, she must relocate closer to the center. Yet, without a male guardian, they struggle to find housing. Laila explains, “People view women without male guardians with disdain and force them from their homes.” To secure a rental, they must rely on the goodwill of reputable and influential individuals.

Despite their initial promises that women would retain the right to work and study, the Taliban has increasingly barred women from public spaces and severely curtailed their movements under the guise of “Afghan and Islamic values.” In the rare instances where the Taliban permits women to work, such as in the health sector, they must be accompanied by male guardians.

A November 2022 survey by Reporters Without Borders and the Afghan Independent Journalists Association revealed that more than 80% of women journalists lost their jobs. After the Taliban banned women from working, even these remaining journalists lost their jobs, plunging them into hiding to avoid persecution. The Taliban’s actions have placed women in increasingly precarious and vulnerable social and economic positions.