Zahra Joya on the Resilience of Afghanistan’s Women in the Face of Patriarchy and Pressure

Recent Features

Interviews | Society | South Asia

Zahra Joya on the Resilience of Afghanistan’s Women in the Face of Patriarchy and Pressure

Even before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan’s media landscape was largely male-dominated; women’s stories were either underreported or misrepresented. So Joya founded Rukhshana Media.

Zahra Joya on the Resilience of Afghanistan’s Women in the Face of Patriarchy and Pressure
Credit: Photo by Anselm Ebulue

In 2020, Afghan journalist Zahra Joya founded Rukhshana Media as an avowedly feminist outlet with a mission to bring the authentic voices of Afghanistan’s women to the forefront. While Afghanistan had, at that point, come a long way from her youth – under the Taliban’s first stint in power from 1996 to 2001, Joya attended school disguised as a boy using the name Mohammad – the media landscape was male-dominated, as were most of Afghanistan’s power structures, and she found that women’s stories and perspectives were broadly overlooked. 

The following year, the Taliban completed their march back into power and Joya’s work became more important than ever. Although she was forced to flee, Joya’s colleagues remain in Afghanistan and Rukhshana Media’s work continues.

“The Taliban’s reaction to our reporting has been predictably hostile,” Joya said. 

In the interview below, Joya speaks with The Diplomat’s Managing Editor Catherine Putz about the Taliban, the importance of women’s perspectives, what stories international media are missing in Afghanistan, and her hopes for Afghanistan’s future. 

You were a child when the Taliban seized power the first time, in 1996, and an adult when they returned to power in 2021. A hot topic of debate is whether the Taliban “changed” between these two points in time and whether “moderates” in the Taliban could steer the group into more inclusive governance. What did you think about those discussions in 2021, and what do you think now? In your experience, have the Taliban “changed”?

We, as Afghan citizens, were aware about the Taliban’s brutal behavior even when hundreds of thousands of international forces were in Afghanistan. And we believed that this group is very extreme and will never change, and it is true. 

During the [negotiation of the] Doha agreement between the United States and the group, the debate about whether the Taliban had changed since their first rule in 1996 was intense. Some observers hoped that the Taliban might have evolved to adopt a more moderate and inclusive approach to governance. Personally, I was skeptical of these claims, because in 2019 in a peace talk between Afghans in Moscow, I had the chance to have an interview with one of the senior members of the Taliban, Abdul Salam Hanafi – the first female journalist to do so. I asked him about girls’ education, his response was the same as now: that women and girls can get education according to the Sharia law. Which is a lie. 

While the Taliban made some efforts to present a more moderate image internationally, their actions on the ground, particularly regarding women’s rights and freedoms, suggested otherwise. Now, after observing their rule since 2021, it’s clear that the core ideologies of the Taliban remain unchanged. Their governance continues to be marked by oppressive measures, especially against women and minorities. Despite some cosmetic changes or tactical shifts in rhetoric, the fundamentalist and authoritarian nature of their rule persists.

Can you explain what led you to found Rukhshana Media in 2020? 

The idea to found Rukhshana Media in 2020 stemmed from a pressing need to amplify the voices of Afghan women and address the glaring gaps in media coverage regarding their issues. Afghanistan’s media landscape was largely male-dominated, and women’s stories were either underreported or misrepresented. 

By establishing Rukhshana Media, I aimed to create a platform where female journalists could report authentically and boldly on the realities faced by women and girls in Afghanistan. It was a response to the silencing of women’s voices and a commitment to ensuring their stories and perspectives are heard and recognized. In my country, women always have been told to be silent, so I believe in the power of words and videos. I wanted to create a dialogue between Afghan women. 

Rukhshana Media is an avowedly feminist outlet, where female journalists report on the reality of life for women and girls in Afghanistan. Why are these perspectives important? Why is it important to hear women’s voices on every issue, not just “women’s issues”?

In my opinion, when you live in a patriarchal country, freedom is not free for women and girls. At Rukhshana Media, we give women the opportunity to exercise their right to the freedom of expression. They should not be silent.

The perspectives offered by Rukhshana Media are crucial because they provide an authentic representation of the lived experiences of Afghan women and girls. Reporting from a feminist standpoint sheds light on the systemic injustices and gender-based violence that are often overlooked by mainstream media. It’s important to hear women’s voices on all issues, not just those traditionally labeled as “women’s issues” because women’s perspectives enrich our understanding of societal dynamics. They highlight the intersectionality of various issues and challenge the dominant narratives that often exclude or marginalize women’s experiences and contributions.

You were forced to flee Afghanistan but have reporters still working in the country. What threats do your colleagues face? What motivates them to continue reporting? What has the Taliban’s reaction been to your reporting?

Our reporters in Afghanistan face significant threats, including harassment, violence, and arrest by the Taliban. Despite these dangers, they continue to report because they are driven by a profound sense of duty to their fellow citizens and a commitment to truth and justice. They understand the critical role of journalism in holding power to account and in providing a voice to the voiceless.

The Taliban’s reaction to our reporting has been predictably hostile, as they seek to suppress any dissenting voices. Nonetheless, our reporters remain undeterred, motivated by the belief that their work is essential for a better future for Afghanistan. Additionally, we advocate for the restoration of our lost rights and freedoms.

When it comes to international media, there has been coverage of the deterioration of the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan since 2021, but little else. What stories do you think international media are missing when it comes to Afghanistan?

International media have indeed covered the worsening situation for women and girls since the Taliban’s return to power, but many other important stories are being missed. These include the broader human rights abuses, the economic hardships faced by ordinary Afghans, the plight of ethnic and religious minorities, and the resistance movements within the country. Additionally, the resilience and bravery of Afghan citizens, who continue to strive for a better future despite immense challenges, deserve more attention.

These stories are crucial for a comprehensive understanding of the situation in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has become a safe haven for terrorist groups. We should be concerned that a country providing refuge to terrorists will pose a global threat. For this kind of coverage, we need international media attention. 

And a final question: What do you hope for the future of Afghanistan?

I hope for a future where Afghanistan is a peaceful and inclusive country, where all citizens, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or religion, have the opportunity to live with dignity and freedom. I envision an Afghanistan where human rights are respected, and women and girls can pursue their dreams without fear of repression.

My hope is that through resilience and international solidarity, Afghanistan can overcome its current challenges and move toward a more just and prosperous society. I still see fresh, young forces in Afghanistan who have the courage to stand up to the Taliban. These forces include women, girls, and men. I believe they need support to overcome the oppressive narratives of the Taliban.