‘Didn’t want to be one of the bodies’: Rising violence is forcing Afghan women to quit media

The number of women media workers declined by 18 percent in the first half of 2020.

ByRuchi Kumar
‘Didn’t want to be one of the bodies’: Rising violence is forcing Afghan women to quit media
Kartik Kakar
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Last year, at only 21 years, Sofiea Sakhi Karimi was forced to retire from her brief but celebrated career in the Afghan media owing to growing threats and violence against media workers in her country. “Working in Afghanistan as a journalist always carried a risk – I lost a colleague in 2015 suicide bombing at Lycee Istaqlal High School – but things have steadily worsened, especially if you are woman in media,” she said.

A prominent face on Ariana TV, Karimi started working in the media in 2015, when the news industry in Afghanistan was rapidly expanding. “I come from a family of journalists and media personalities, particularly women, who’ve inspired me to be a part of this world of media,” she said.

Karimi went on to become a presenter and a radio host covering stories on culture, entertainment, and social issues pertaining to women. “I loved my work, especially because it allowed me to highlight issues of women and talk about powerful women to inspire the youth,” she said, describing the many shows she produced and hosted.

But as insurgent violence increased over the past year, Karimi found the conflict had come much too close to her. “Many of our friends received threats or were targeted, some survived and some were killed,” she said. “That had a big mental impact on myself and my husband, who is also a journalist.”

Since the United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal in February 2020, Afghanistan has seen a spike in assassinations – 169 percent, according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission – targeting, among others, civil society and media workers.

One of those killed was Yama Saiwash, Karimi’s friend and a fellow journalist, who was targeted on her wedding day. Saiwash’s killing was the immediate trigger for Karimi to decide she could no longer continue in the media. “I didn’t want to end up as one of the bodies,” she explained.

Already, her husband, Shafi Karimi, a journalist with Radio Azadi, had received threats from insurgent groups. In November 2020, his colleague, Elias Dayee, would be assassinated by the Taliban in Helmand.

“We have been under extreme mental pressure and dread this past year,” Karimi said.

Her outspoken demeanour on TV shows and her social activities, including the running of a fashion boutique, had made her a target for the Taliban and the Islamic State that have long disapproved of independent, vocal women.

The Taliban have a history of perpetrating violence against women, refusing them the rights to education and employment when they controlled Afghanistan in the late 1990s. Afghan women have made significant inroads in all sectors, including the mass media, since the Tablian were overthrown by the United States and its allies in 2001.

Karimi is far from being the only woman to leave journalism for fear of violence, or worse. According to a report released on March 8 by the Afghan Journalist Safety Committee, the presence of women media workers and journalists declined by 18 percent in the first half of 2020. “The figures for the first six months of the solar calendar showed that the number of women working for media in Afghanistan has dropped from 1,678 to 1377,” the AJSC said.

Nine of the country’s 34 provinces, the report noted, did not have a single female journalist employed with any news outlet.

Since the AJSC gathered the data, several women journalists have been killed, or threatened to leave their jobs. Most recently, three media workers at Enikass TV – Mursal Wahidi, Sadia Sadat, and Shahnaz Roafi – were killed in the southern province of Nangarhar. Enikass TV had lost a prominent female reporter, Malalai Maiwand, in December in an attack claimed by the Islamic State.

“My sister was a born leader and women in our society loved her. She was the first woman from our village to work in the media. She was a role model to many,” said Haroon Rahimi, Roafi’s brother. “This attack has traumatised people in our community, particularly women. Many women in Jalalabad showed solidarity by returning to work the next day.”

After the murderous attack, Enikass TV “suspended” their female workforce for fear they would be targeted if they continued working. Several of them have since quit, on their own or under pressure from family.

As the international community prepares to negotiate peace between the Taliban and the Afghan government, Rahimi, advised caution. “The sad truth is that there are Shahnazs in every corner of Afghanistan and there has been no justice. The Taliban are colluding with governments to create a new regime that will violate our rights, particularly those of women,” he said. “Afghan women suffered a lot during their regime and it’s the same group that’s trying to mute the voices of Afghan women. The international community, particularly the US and the UN, must take note of this brutality.”

Still, many women media workers remain undeterred. “Everyday I leave home, I have no idea what I will face or if I will return,” said Neda Azizi, 24, who works with Radio Television Afghanistan, or RTA, the national broadcaster. Azizi, like Karimi, started out in the media very young. “I joined while I was still completing my grade 12, but I was enamoured by the power of journalism in influencing change,” she explained why she chose the profession.

Azizi has spent several years covering the conflict, particularly in the northern provinces, and her work has put her on the radar of various armed groups. “I have been threatened many times, not just by the Taliban and ISIS but also illegal armed groups. But I cannot let that stop me,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with dying but I cannot accept a death from the Taliban or ISIS. No, I won’t accept it. If the enemy has their guns, I have my camera, and we will continue our struggle.”

Azizi, however, admitted that the growing violence against media workers had taken a toll on her. “In every direction, we are seeing journalists killed, talented men and women of Afghanistan. As a consequence, families are pressuring women to leave the media. Even female university students in journalism faculties are reconsidering their career choices,” she said, urging the government to take action before it was too late.

Her concerns were echoed by Karimi. “If women are forced to leave journalism, it will affect our presence and voice in society. If women are absent from the mass media, the next generation will not have any female role models to inspire them,” she argued. “Afghanistan is a male-dominated society and it has been hard for us to navigate any social setting without facing some form of harassment. And if after that we are still excluded from the mainstream media, who will represent us in the national discourse?”

Ruchi Kumar is an independent journalist who has been reporting from Afghanistan for seven years.

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