Mahira* has become a familiar face on Afghan television, as viewers tune in every night to watch her present the news. Even during the most turbulent recent events, the 27-year-old journalist remained calm and composed as she reported on the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.
On Saturday, Mahira appeared on screen, but her face was covered with a black mask following a Taliban decree ordering female news anchors to cover their faces while on air.
“[Saturday] was one of the hardest days of my life. They made us feel as if we had been buried alive,” Mahira told Al Jazeera. “I felt like I am not a human. I feel like I have committed a big crime which is why God made me a woman in Afghanistan,” she told Al Jazeera, choking back tears.
“Which law in the world requires women to cover their faces on TV? Even in [other] Islamic countries, female news anchors or presenters do not wear masks,” she said, the anger evident in her voice.
Sosan*, a 23-year-old TV presenter, shared Mahira’s anger. She began working in the media in 2019 with hopes of following in the footsteps of the brave Afghan women reporters she’d watched reporting from the length and breadth of the country.
“We had achieved so much, and had a robust free media, with growing presence of women in every sector. But look where we are now… in a country where I cannot even choose what to wear or what topics to report on,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to an earlier decree of “11 rules for journalists” that required journalists to seek Taliban approval before broadcasting reports.
The Taliban’s edict, announced on Thursday, is seen by many as the latest sign of escalating restrictions on women’s freedoms and a return to the repressive rule of the Taliban’s previous time in power in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
Earlier this month, the Taliban passed a decree making the wearing of face veils mandatory in public spaces. They have also banned women from travelling more than 72km (45 miles) without a mahram (male guardian), and have prevented girls from attending school after the sixth grade.
Human rights activists say the Taliban’s growing restrictions aim to remove women from public life and that it is clear they intend to enforce the latest decree on face coverings.
“Women journalists on television are highly visible. Their continued presence gave girls and women some small shred of reassurance, amid deepening Taliban attacks on women’s rights, that some women were still able to do their jobs, to hold important roles, to appear in public,” Heather Barr, associate director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.
“By literally blocking these women from being fully seen in public the Taliban has taken another major step towards their apparent goal of erasing Afghan women entirely from public life.”
The Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice did not respond to a request for comment by Al Jazeera.
‘I can’t quit’
A rise in gender-based discrimination under the Taliban has already forced many women out of the Afghan media, according to recent reports.
A survey by the Afghan National Journalists’ Union, released in March, found that 79 percent of Afghan women journalists said they had been insulted and threatened under Taliban rule, including physical and verbal threats and abuse by Taliban officials. Meanwhile, 60 percent of Afghan women journalists surveyed said they lost their jobs since the Taliban takeover in August.
A survey by Reporters Without Borders, done immediately after the Taliban takeover, found that fewer than 100 women remained working in the media in Kabul.
“Of the 510 women who used to work for eight of the biggest media outlets and press groups, only 76 (including 39 journalists) are still currently working,” it noted, warning that “women journalists are in the process of disappearing from the capital”.
Female journalists in Afghanistan have also reported increased challenges in doing their jobs due to the Taliban’s restrictions. On Thursday, female journalists from Herat province said Naeem al-Haq Haqqani, the Taliban’s provincial director of information and culture, barred them from entering a press conference.
Sosan, who had aspired to become a documentary filmmaker, said the restrictions have prevented her from going into the field.
“Earlier, we could go far distances for news coverage, but it is very hard to even go out of the city centres. If we get stopped by officials of the Taliban’s vice and virtue ministry, they question us about why we don’t have a mahram,” she said.
Mahira shared similar discriminatory experiences.
“About a month ago, we invited one of the Taliban’s officials to appear on my programme. The interview was arranged by our producer, who is a man. But when the official entered the studio and saw me, he turned around and refused to join the discussion, because I was a woman,” she said.
When Mahira inquired with the Taliban official what the problem was, he told her that he would “never sit in front of a girl for an interview”, she said.
Afghan female journalists have also reported being “blacklisted” by Taliban officials.
“The ministry officials don’t share any interviews or information. When we approach them with questions, they respond by asking us, why we don’t wear the hijab or why have we worn heels, or where are our socks. Would you call this media freedom?” Mahira said.
“When I talk to them, they don’t even respond to me and pretend as if no one is talking. They do not value women as humans, let alone allowing them to be a presenter or news anchor who sits at the same table with them and have discussions,” she added.
Despite the ban on showing their faces, Afghan women journalists continue to report.
“When I cover my face, my identity is lost, but yet I decided to continue appearing on TV even with face masks because I do not want them to think that by putting pressure on us, they can eliminate us,” Sosan said.
Mahira also refused to give in to the pressure, even though the temptation to resign arises every day. “But I can’t quit. Because we are the voices of those who are not allowed to go to schools, universities and work. If we leave, who will speak for them?” she said.
In acts of solidarity with their female colleagues, male journalists have also appeared on screen wearing face masks in recent days.
“We stand beside our female colleagues and protest this order because we know how difficult it is to present on TV with your face covered,” Idrees Farooqi, chief editor and head of news at 1TV, told Al Jazeera.
Journalists and activists in Afghanistan and across the globe have also taken to social media to protest against the move by sharing pictures of themselves wearing masks alongside the hashtag #FreeHerFace.
For Afghan women though, reporting is resistance, Mahira said.
“Although this order was very heartbreaking, but I will say to them that even if you make me wear a burqa I will still present on TV. There is no force or pressure that you can apply that will make me leave my job” she said.
“I will continue reporting on women because this is resistance. I will continue to resist until the situation improves.”
*Name changed to protect identity.