Afghan women speak up against new Taliban media guidelines

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Journalists say the latest media ‘guidelines’ are another form of control over women, as they vow to continue their work.

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Afghan journalists and activists expressed concern over a new “religious guideline” issued by Taliban rulers, saying the move was another form of control over women.

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The Taliban, which took control of Afghanistan nearly 100 days ago, on Sunday urged female journalists to adhere to a dress code and called on TV stations to stop showing soap operas that spark fears about women’s rights and media freedom.

“These are not rules but a religious guideline,” said Akif Muhajir, spokesman for the Ministry of Virtue Promotion and Evil Prevention.

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However, activists fear it could be misused to harass female journalists, many of whom have already fled the country after the Taliban takeover on August 15.

The Taliban has been accused of backtracking from its pledge to protect women’s rights and media freedom. The latest move, which called on women to wear a hijab when presenting their reports, does not specify what type of cover to use.

Such restrictions, as well as tighter controls on news reporting, have been done to preserve the “national interest”, according to the group.

‘muzzle the media’

Zahra Nabi, a broadcast journalist who co-founded a women’s television channel, said she felt taken aback when the Taliban resumed power and decided to go off-air the same day.

“The whole media is under his control” [Taliban] Control,” Nabi, who founded Bano TV in 2017, told Al Jazeera.

The network, once run by 50 women, was a symbol of how far Afghan women have come since the Taliban first came to power in the 1990s.

Most of the network’s crew members are now gone, Nabi has stood firm to do her job, and like many other established journalists in Afghanistan, she has had to work under the radar.

Referring to the outer garment worn to cover the entire body and face, used by some Muslim women, the prophet said, “We work in a very harsh environment, and are also collecting reports under the burqa. “

“It is really hard for women journalists,” she said, citing a recent example where she had to enter the city of Kunduz as a humanitarian worker, not a journalist.

“I am not showing myself as a journalist. I had to arrange for a safe office space to work with local women,” said Nabi.

A group of burqa-clad women cross the street as members of the Taliban drive past in Kabul, Afghanistan [Jorge Silva/Reuters]

Now that Bano TV has gone off-air, the 34-year-old said she is trying to find other ways to show her reports, perhaps through social media platforms, or through broadcasters outside the country.

Commenting on the move, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday that the new strict guidelines will harm women in particular.

“The Taliban’s new media rules and threats against journalists reflect widespread efforts to silence all criticism of the Taliban regime,” said Patricia Gossman, an associate Asia director at HRW.

“The disappearance of any space for discontent and worsening restrictions for women in the media and the arts is devastating.”

Journalist Sonia Ahmedyar, who lost her job in August, said the Taliban was slowly moving to “silence the media”.

Ahmadyar told Al Jazeera that the Taliban are banning women day after day “for not allowing them to be active.”

“Women feel really discouraged to be on TV,” she said, adding that the group has taken away their “freedom” as well as their financial autonomy.

The 35-year-old called on the Taliban to allow women journalists to work “without being disturbed” as soon as possible.

“It is their most basic right, because it is essential to their livelihood, and because their absence from the media landscape will have the effect of silencing all Afghan women,” she said.

‘obliged to obey’

Previously, the Taliban had determined that private media would be able to operate freely as long as they did not go against Islamic values. Within days of coming to power, the group had said that the government would run according to Islamic law.

But journalists and human rights activists have vaguely criticized the guidelines, saying they are subject to interpretation.

It is not clear whether airing without a hijab or broadcasting foreign dramas featuring women will face legal scrutiny.

Asked whether avoiding the guidelines would be punishable by law, the muhajir of the Ministry of Virtue and Prevention told Al Jazeera that citizens are “obliged to follow the guidelines”, without elaborating.

According to Heather Barr, co-director of HRW’s women’s rights division, the Taliban directive is the latest move by the group to “wipe women out of public life”.

She said the group took the move after excluding women from senior roles in government, the ministry of women, women’s sports and dismantling the system established to respond to gender-based violence.

Almost immediately after taking power, the Taliban also instructed high school girls to stay at home and not go to school. However, girls have now been allowed to resume classes in some parts of the country.

Although most Afghan women cover their heads, some do not. But whether they did or not — “it was important that it was their choice,” Barr said.

Shaqq Hakimi, a young Afghan activist, agreed.

“God has given us… the right to make decisions. So it should be nothing by force, but their [women’s] Her own decision,” she told Al Jazeera.

Since the guidelines do not specify the type of head covering women are expected to wear, Taliban officials “will feel empowered to determine what is and is not an acceptable hijab,” Barr said, adding that women are allowed to take to the streets. Left unprotected to stop and harass.

The consequences of such policing will force professional women to constantly wonder whether their hijab is at the level of the Taliban.

According to Barr, this would have a “deep chill” effect on his ability to do his job.

But women like Nabi said the restrictions would not stop them from doing their jobs.

“We are working, we will not stop, and we will continue what we are doing,” she said. “That’s our plan.”

Hakimi echoed the prophet’s sentiment, saying that if women stop fighting for their rights, “no one will give them to us”.

Additional reporting by Mohsin Khan Momand in Kabul

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