A former journalist and women's rights activist in hiding


Image not of individual quoted in this article. Credit: "Media training on gender-based violence" by UN Women Asia & the Pacific, marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Zarghona - not her real name - is a former journalist and women's rights activist. Fearing her safety after the Taliban takeover, Zarghona left her home in Kabul and went into hiding in a remote village.

Zarghona tells Afghan Witness (AW) that in the past 20 years, the women of Afghanistan have experienced many societal changes, such as gaining access to education and work, and some even being employed in key positions within the Former Government of Afghanistan.

However, this is no longer the case, she says. "Since the Taliban's Emirate came to power by force, women live in an ambiguous, complex and fearful situation," Zarghona told AW.

The Taliban entered Kabul on August 15, 2021, and just two days later, women campaigners began protesting for their rights and freedoms. During the Taliban's first stint in power between 1996 and 2001, the group notoriously imposed harsh restrictions on women and girls. Women were unable to leave the house without a male guardian, girls couldn’t go to school after seventh grade, and women were required to wear the blue burqa known in Afghanistan as ‘Chadari’.

The Taliban have claimed they will be more moderate this time around, but since returning to power, while not explicitly banning females from working, they have continued to eliminate women from workplaces, aside from some essential staff such as nurses.

"When I returned [to work] after the Taliban's takeover, the Taliban told me that I am not allowed to go in unless there is a decree from the Taliban's leadership. We no longer have salaries," Zarghona told AW. Many of Zarghona’s journalist friends have also lost their jobs. A former New York Times reporter from Afghanistan, Fatima Faizi, tweeted that 979 women worked as journalists before the Taliban takeover, but more than 75% have lost their jobs.

Women’s rights campaigners have continued to protest despite a quasi-ban on demonstrations.

"It was just because of food, work, and freedom that women protested, their stomachs were empty, their pockets were empty, and their freedom was taken away from them…” Zarghona says.

However, activists and organisations remain fearful after several prominent female activists were recently detained. "No human rights activist is safe now,” Zarghona says. “Every time, every woman who stood against them, they were beaten and detained by the Taliban… why did they [the Taliban] beat them and detain them?”

Zarghona alleges that she too experienced force at a recent demonstration. “I was also beaten, and they took my phone; what right do they have to take my phone? I left my phone and ran away from them."

She tells AW that the Taliban searched for her. By the time they found her house, she had already escaped, so they detained her brother and father instead. She says that after beating and questioning her father, her family told the Taliban that Zarghona had left Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid recently told AFP that the authorities had the right “to arrest and detain dissidents or those who break the law”, though the de facto Taliban authorities have also denied targeted reprisals and claim that reports of violence and disappearances will be investigated.

AW recently spoke to female activists who alleged that the Taliban instructed detainees not to speak to the media. One of the women activists told AW that she had to change her whereabouts and SIM card as she had received threatening messages from unknown numbers.

Like many other women campaigners in the country, Zarghona is still in Afghanistan, but is living in hiding until she finds a way out.

"Only a few people were evacuated, but many activists, journalists and human rights defenders are still trapped, being hunted by the Taliban one by one. Where should we go?” says Zarghona desperately. “No one has helped me so far, and I don't have anyone to help me leave the country so I can feel safe!"

Interview with Afghan Witness