Taliban’s devastating impact on women and press freedom in post-2021 Afghanistan is unforgettable

Farida Nekzad

Farida Nekzad is a prominent Afghan journalist and human rights defender, who was forced to flee after the Taliban takeover in August 2021. At the time, she was Director of the Centre for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists, and earlier in her career the managing editor of Pajhwok Afghan News, one of the country’s largest independent news agencies.

Upon arriving in Canada, Ms Nekzad was met by Canadian Connections volunteers who helped her land the position of Journalist-in-Residence at Carlton University in Ottawa.

Farida is also a founding Board Member for Canadian Connections. We are grateful for her guidance and her continued support of our work.

“I left my familiar surroundings, including my house, hometown, educational institutions, workplaces, and meaningful connections to secure a better future for my daughter, and to advocate for the rights of women who continue to live under the Taliban’s oppressive rule”.

On Aug. 15, 2021, as part of my usual morning routine, I left my office at around 8 a.m. in Share-Naw, Afghanistan, part of the main city of Kabul, and headed to the bank to withdraw funds. But the bank wait turned out to be unexpectedly prolonged. While I was in line, I received urgent calls from friends in Share-Naw informing me that the Taliban had entered Kabul. The city was in a state of panic, and people were rushing to find safe havens. Simultaneously, my daughter’s school contacted me, urgently requesting that I retrieve her. The alarm had been raised, and the chaotic atmosphere was palpable.

Upon arriving at my daugh-ter’s school around 11:30 a.m. due to the traffic, I found my daughter visibly frightened, tearful, and in need of reassur- ance. The teachers had warned of the Taliban’s presence, and fear gripped everyone. As I consoled my daughter, I grappled with my own fear, knowing the brutality and violence these extremists had inflicted on people—particularly women—during their control of the country from 1996 to 2001.

The Taliban infiltrated my workplace, Share-Naw Kabul CP- AWAJ, on the third day, arriving at 10 a.m. on Aug. 18, 2021, and interrogating even the mainte- nance security guard. Shockingly, one of them possessed a photo- graph of me, which they showed to the guard. As the threat loomed, I followed my husband’s advice and sought refuge at his mother’s house in the west of Kabul. When we returned from my daughter’s school at 1 p.m., the Taliban had started firing.

In the first part of Khairkhana Sarafi Street in Kabul’s District 11—which was my residence—the Taliban dispersed the people with airstrikes, and people shouted to run away. The Taliban arrived, and the people fled. In another part of the city, two Taliban fighters fired Kalashnikovs at the security forces’ trains and tanks in Khorasan Square, which had probably arrived in Kabul from the provinces around 1:30 p.m.

As an experienced journalist and media professional, I have dedicated more than two decades of my life to my work. My roles have spanned from profile writing to investigative reporting, managing newsrooms, and supporting fellow journalists in their pursuit of freedom of expression in Afghanistan. Throughout my career, I have embarked on more than 40 international and regional trips, often facing perilous situations such as kidnapping threats, and even the explosion of my home’s parking area. Despite these challenges, I have remained steadfast in my commitment to professional integrity and have never abandoned my country. For instance, on Aug. 5, 2021, I found myself participating in a crucial discussion on Tolo News, one of Afghanistan’s prominent television channels. The discourse centered around the government’s negligence and the alarming pattern of Taliban-led assassinations. My voice echoed with urgency, denouncing these atrocities and demanding accountability.

However, a pivotal moment arrived in the late afternoon of Aug. 21, 2021. The profound responsibility of parenthood compelled me to make a difficult decision: to leave Afghanistan. I feared for my daughter’s future, knowing that girls her age were being denied their fundamental right to education. Thus, with a heavy heart, I chose to depart from my homeland, on Aug. 23, 2021, at 4 p.m., enduring countless hardships alongside my daughter.

I departed from my familiar surroundings, including my house, hometown, educational institutions, workplaces, and meaningful connections with friends, colleagues, and family. My purpose in undertaking this journey was twofold: to secure a better future for my daughter, and to advocate for the rights of women who continue to live under the Taliban’s oppressive rule.

Initially, I had entertained the possibility that the Taliban might have shifted their stance, perhaps engaging in peace negotiations while enjoying opulence in five-star hotels, and driving luxury cars alongside local and foreign politicians. Since the peace negotiation or agreement between the Taliban and United States on Feb. 29, 2020, some of the Taliban had shown that they were not opposed to women in the public sphere, as long as it concurred within the Islamic Sharia law.

Consequently, I awaited their official declaration, seeking clarity on the path forward and the assurance of women’s rights. However, my optimism was short lived. In a press conference on Aug. 17, 2021, the Taliban, true to their historical pattern, announced a general amnesty, while emphasizing adherence to Sharia and Islam. Surprisingly, they also acknowledged women’s right to work and participate in public life.

However, despite initial promises and commitments, violence and targeted killings—particularly of women and military officers from the republic era—began shortly after. The city of Kabul became a place of fear, and pregnant women were shot in front of their families on Sept. 5, 2021, in the province of Ghor. The absence of law and accountability allowed this terror and dictatorship to persist for more than two years.

This narrative reflects the experiences of numerous Afghan women, many of whom have been either forcibly expelled from Afghanistan, or are now residing as refugees. These women have faced significant losses and, in some cases—like me—have resorted to leaving the country with nothing except my daughter with her backpack.

Twenty years ago, I had been awarded the Shujaat Award 20. My media work in Afghanistan was challenging, particularly due to gender-based discrimination. But my efforts were recognized by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression organization in 2007, and I was awarded the highest international award for the first time.

On Sept. 3, 2021, I arrived in Toronto after a stay in Qatar.

Canada was my preferred destination for two reasons. Firstly, we found it easier to continue living, studying, and working in Canada due to our proficiency in English. Secondly, although we had lived in Germany for a year and developed a familiarity with the language and culture, we were happy to have found new friends in Canada who were always kind to us. We cherish our old friendships in Germany, but we are content with our decision to stay in Canada. I opted for Ottawa due to its diplomatic and tranquil location, despite having two job offers. I am deeply thankful to Allan Thompson, director of journalism and communication at Carleton University, who pleasantly surprised me with the hospitality of Carleton’s other colleagues. I would like to express my gratitude and appreciation to my good friends Lisa LaFlamme, Carl Off, and Leora Eisen who provided unwavering support in every situation and ensured that my daughter and I never felt lonely or homeless.

Despite everything, I never lost hope. I am grateful to the friends me as a well-known journalist. They did not spare any kind of co-operation, especially the Canadian Connection Network, a grassroots group of volunteers that came together in August 2021 with a mandate to support Afghan families fleeing the Taliban. I was put in touch with Rachel Pulfer, the head of Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), through Carol Off.

I express my gratitude to Carleton University, especially to Thompson, as well as the Scholars at Risk Committee for enabling my relocation to Ottawa, which has opened doors of hope for my daughter and me. Carleton University’s settings, along with the chance to engage in professional panels, presentations, research, and utilize its facilities, have facilitated my communication with journalists, particularly those associated with the Centre for the Protection of Women Journalists in Afghanistan.

In 2022, despite personal challenges and hardships, I embarked on my master’s degre at Carleton University, surrounded by esteemed professors and supportive classmates. Simultaneously, my daughter began high school, nurturing her aspirations while awaiting her father’s return. The professional community at Carleton has been akin to family, consistently offering valuable support and assistance to us.

In line with university requirements, students are required to take a few weeks of entry-level training in a Canadian media outlet. Luckily, I had the opportunity to be introduced to The Hill Times newspaper. I’m delighted to have worked under Kate Malloy’s management, where I gained insights into journalism and writing for a newspaper. The team is committed, friendly, and experienced.

Nevertheless, in Afghanistan, widespread poverty, hunger, violence, and mistreatment persist. Particularly concerning is the gender apartheid faced by women. Although the international community has not exerted significant pressure on the Taliban to address this issue, and Afghanistan is not a top priority on Canada’s radar, Canadian politicians have started to raise awareness.

For instance, a Special Committee on Afghanistan was created, and in June 2022 presented specific recommendations to the Canadian Parliament regarding violations of human rights—especially for women—and humanitarian aid after the return of the Taliban. The Special Committee reported to the House that it firmly denounced the Taliban, and rejected any recognition or legitimization of their control over Afghan territory. In particular, the committee denounced the Taliban system of gender discrimination, systemic violence targeting minority communities, reprisals against former members of the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces, attacks on freedom of the press, and other violations of fundamental human rights.

On Aug. 13, 2023, a momentous initiative unfolded in collaboration with the Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan to commemorate the second anniversary of the Taliban’s occupation and authoritarian rule. This significant event transpired at Parliament Hill, where dozens of Afghan participants congregated, bolstered by two MPs who were guest speakers. The large-scale demonstration resoundingly conveyed a potent message: a resolute rejection of the Taliban regime, and an unwavering stance against the gender apartheid it perpetuates within Afghanistan.

Later that year, Conservative MP Garnett Genuis, a member of the House Justice and Human Rights Committee, asked MPs to concur in a report on Afghanistan, emphasizing that the Canadian government should not recognize the Taliban as the rulers of Afghanistan, and that they must remain on the terrorist list as a radical terrorist group.

Liberal MP Chandra Arya concurred, adding: “The Taliban’s strict interpretation of Sharia law has systematically relegated women to second-class citizens, stifling their potential and leading them to a submissive life. This blatant gender discrimination is a gross violation of human rights and an insult to the principles of equality and dignity.”

Arya believes that the Taliban’s attack on freedom of the press is equally alarming. Journalists and media personnel have been targeted and silenced, preventing them from sharing information. A free press is fundamental to democracy, and the Taliban’s attempts to suppress it are a direct assault on the principles of transparency, accountability, and the right to information.

The House unanimously voted in concurrence with the committee report, which denounced the Taliban, its “system of gender discrimination, systemic violence targeting minority communities, reprisals against former members of the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces, attacks on freedom of the press, and other violations of fundamental human rights.”

The Taliban remains on Canada’s list of terrorist entities.

It is notable that throughout my time in Canada, I have observed that Canadian officials and citizens exhibit no discernible inclination toward political engagement with or recognition of the Taliban. Canada stands out as a nation that staunchly supports women’s rights, particularly those of human rights activists. It fosters conducive environments for ongoing education, professional pursuits, and overall quality of life. This commitment to empowering women remains unwavering across various provinces.

At present, I possess both the agency and the platform to advocate for women who continue to grapple with their rights and endure trauma. My commitment lies in amplifying their voices and supporting women journalists in their pursuit of freedom of expression. While I am reassured about my daughter’s well-being and education, my concern extends to girls of the same age who are confined to their homes or coerced into early marriages in Afghanistan.

Farida Nekzad recently interned at The Hill Times through Carleton University’s school of journalism and communication’s master’s program.

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