It’s a photo that caught the world’s attention: A news anchor at one of Afghanistan’s most prominent news outlets, pictured with her head in her hands after the Taliban ordered women to cover up.
The woman pictured, TOLOnews anchor Khatera Ahmadi, says that despite increasing restrictions on women in Afghanistan, at the time that photo was taken in May, she still planned to stay and be a voice for other women.
But mounting pressures and a later attack on her husband forced the family to rethink their plans. In June they moved to Pakistan.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders estimates nearly 60% of journalists lost their jobs since the Taliban returned, with women disproportionately affected. Female journalists no longer work in 11 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
A spokesperson for the Taliban did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.
At the time when women were ordered to cover up on air, a spokesperson said it was a religious order that “helps with their modesty and honor.”
The Taliban have also said they would respect media freedom and women’s rights.
In an interview with VOA, Ahmadi says she has no faith in Taliban comments that women are free to work in journalism or other professions, saying the restrictions already imposed are “suppressing (women’s) voices and forcing them to stay home.”
This interview has been translated and edited for length and clarity.
VOA: When the Taliban ordered female journalists to cover their faces, your picture was widely shared. How did you feel in that moment?
Ahmadi: I wanted to reassure myself that everything was fine, and (tell myself) “If you keep fighting, things will get better, you can be the voice of thousands of Afghan women who are oppressed today.” I wanted to boost my morale.
Our male colleagues, in solidarity, wore masks, and this began with our station, TOLOnews. They wanted to show we were not alone in our fight.
But after a few days, they received threatening messages.
Taliban officials tweeted that if the men did not remove the masks they would act against them. The threats increased. Some even received death threats.
Eventually, they removed their masks.
VOA: How and when did you decide to leave Afghanistan?
Ahmadi: The situation in Afghanistan is very difficult for everyone, particularly female journalists. Every day, we faced a new law. The [Taliban’s] Vice and Virtue Department had no other job but to make new laws for women.
Our outfits in the media were not acceptable to them. Faces of women presenters had to be covered. We faced threats on the street. Taliban spokespersons were not willing to be on our shows because we were women.
Our cars were followed. At every checkpoint, we were stopped and told that as a Muslim woman, as an Afghan woman, we should not appear on TV. Our drivers were slapped and asked where they were taking us and why we sat in the front seat.
We were known because reputable international media had interviewed us. They knew where we were [living] and working. Even when we went to the bank, we would hear the Taliban saying our names and pointing.
We were very scared. But we were saying that this is our country, and we have to be there and adjust to the (Taliban’s) laws.
That changed when my husband was attacked.
He was on his way to work when he was taken by the Taliban and beaten.
That was the day I decided we could not stay in Afghanistan anymore.
Editor’s Note: Ahmadi’s husband Ekram Asmati was a journalist for a local news station. He was left unconscious in the attack. Officials at the time said they would investigate.
VOA: How are your former colleagues in Afghanistan doing?
Ahmadi: They are all depressed, as I was in Kabul. Their situation is worse now.
They call and ask how life is (in Pakistan).
Being a refugee is difficult. But their situation is worse. Each one of them calls and asks, “How can we find a way out of Kabul to another country?”
I tell them it is not easy to go to a new place. When you become a refugee, the situation becomes more difficult. It is tough when you leave your country and those you know. Getting passports and visas is also a problem [in Afghanistan]. Some of our colleagues had to leave [without families]. They had to make a difficult decision, just like I did.
VOA: The Taliban claim they have no problem with women working, including female journalists. What is your view?
Ahmadi: I have no faith in what the Taliban say. People don’t believe them either because they have not fulfilled any of their promises. They said that they would open schools. A year has passed since their return. They have not.
They said they do not have any problem with women working outside, but we witnessed that women in [government] ministries were told to introduce male members of their families to replace them.
They said they have no problem with women journalists and women working outside, but all the rules they have imposed on women and girls are aimed at suppressing their voices and forcing them to stay home.
But as far as I know, [Afghan] women will not stop fighting [for their rights].
This story originated in VOA’s Afghan Service.