Since the Taliban takeover, women and other marginalized groups have faced systematic repression in Afghanistan. A women-led investigative newsroom tells their stories.
In August 2021, the world witnessed the takeover of war-torn Afghanistan by the Taliban, once again. As Kabul fell to the Taliban's guns, Afghans in the country and around the world were sent into deep anxiety about losing their rights and freedoms, and most importantly dealing with the death of democracy in the country.
For Afghanistan, the Taliban takeover ensured a systematic rollback of rights, feuds over freedoms, and tensions over trade. But it also mandated a heavily censored media, which would now be forced to either exist as the mouthpiece for the Taliban or die in darkness.
Amid this dearth of avenues of expression for Afghans, 'Zan Times' was born in August 2022 – a women-led, investigative newsroom covering human rights violations in the country. 'Zan' means women in Farsi, one of the official languages in Afghanistan.
The Taliban have banned girls from middle and high school and barred women from most fields of employment
Zahra Nader, the Times' founding editor, said that the news portal emerged out of the war-ravaged country due to the need for people to reclaim their independence and the right to exercise self-determination and make decisions for themselves, to carve and create ways and means that would free those rendered silent by the regime change.
"The world should know about the blockage of freedoms that Afghans face," she said. "Zan Times is a step in the same direction. It is a tool for us to talk to the world about our trauma."
Since August 2021, a total of 231 media outlets in Afghanistan have had to close and more than 6,400 journalists have lost their jobs. According to asurvey by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Afghan Independent Journalists Association (AIJA) a sweeping shift in the Afghan media landscape has been witnessed since the Taliban took over.
The survey also suggests that "four out of every ten media outlets in the country cease to exist" and at least 60 percent of journalists and media employees are unable to work. Women have suffered much more than men: 84 percent of them have lost their jobs.
In February 2022, DW Akademie and partner organizations conducted a survey among 175 Afghan journalists to understand the reality of the media sector in the country post the Taliban takeover. The survey put to light the fact that 88 percent of the country's media outlets battled difficult to very difficult financial conditions, while only 9 percent are managing as normal financially, or doing well.
Amid these losses of livelihoods and freedom of expression, Nader's Zan Times aims to empower Afghan women through a new media platform. On October 20, 2022, Zahra Nader introduced herself as the editor-in-chief of Zan Times and spoke at the UN to discuss the struggle Afghan women and girls face every day under the new Taliban rule. Nader, currently based in Canada also emphasized on "why women’s representation – in peacebuilding, in journalism and everywhere else – mattered."
Speaking in May 2022, Sima Bahous, the UN Women executive director, said, "Current restrictions on women's employment have been estimated to result in an immediate economic loss of up to $1billion – or up to 5 percent of Afghanistan's GDP."
Nader, who started the Times with her own savings, says that she took a leap of faith because of her belief in the idea. "We had the knowledge and experience, so we started with whatever little resources we had," she explains. Initially, all editors joined in on a voluntary basis. Back then, Zan Times only paid their journalists based in Afghanistan.
Now, after establishing their base, they have received financial grants from Internews, Reporters without Borders (RSF) as well as the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF). Along with uncertainties around continued funding, Zan Times is faced with extreme risks that come along with reporting from the ground in Afghanistan.
Since November 2021, Human Rights Watch has conducted interviews remotely, using secure communications, with 24 journalists and other media professionals currently working in the country.
These journalists allege that Taliban officials harassed, detained them or their colleagues, and in some cases also beat them. Some Afghan journalists said they had been physically assaulted for reporting on anti-Taliban protests.
In a joint study undertaken by DW Akademie/Nai SOMA in January 2022, participants described restrictions on female journalists as "the most extreme alteration since August 2021 in the Afghan media landscape" and as "a tragedy for society in general." They also reported a severe impact on their personal lives and safety.
Afghan women chant slogans in protest against the closure of universities to women in Kabul, December 2022
Atia FarAzar, associated with the Zan Times, is a journalist currently based in Afghanistan, who uses a pen name to report on the repercussions that Afghans face daily. She feels that being an educated woman in her country and being banned from working means death – to many women like her. She explains, "I grew up in a village where no media existed and people believed that I should not be working because I am a woman. Currently, women in my village are not allowed to raise their voice against injustice. Even if they do raise their voice, they will be suppressed by violence."
This is why, FarAzar says, she decided to work as a journalist, to tell the stories of women around her. She feels that it is worth risking her life to raise the voices of the people who cannot do it themselves.
Far Azar, Nader and their colleagues know well that they are in the Taliban's radar. Local journalists associated with Zan Times battle with risks as they tell stories from the ground – stories where women speak for themselves, stories which are not censored by the Taliban regime.
About: Tarushi Aswani is an independent journalist, covering various topics such as human rights, governance, religion, and politics within the South Asian region. She is based in India.