Zahra Joya: the Afghan reporter who fled the Taliban – and kept telling the truth about women

As a child in Afghanistan, she pretended to be a boy in order to get an education, before starting her own women’s news agency. Now living in Britain, her fight continues

Just over a month ago, Zahra Joya left her house in Kabul to walk to her office, as she had been doing every day. From this small office, Joya, a journalist, ran Rukhshana Media, the news agency she founded last year to report on the stories of women and girls across Afghanistan. By the time she returned home in the afternoon, however, men with guns were on street corners and her sisters were shut inside their house, shaking with fear. In just a few hours, normal life had been obliterated.

“Right to the end, on that afternoon of 15 August, I couldn’t believe what was happening,” she says. “It was like a bad dream. Even on that day, it just seemed impossible that the Taliban could come to power so quickly, wipe away 20 years and drag us all back to the past.”

Joya was airlifted out of Kabul by the UK government in the last frantic and terrifying days of the evacuation, along with other family members. Although she is in a place of safety, her world, once alive with possibilities, has been reduced to a hotel room with sealed windows and beige walls.

“All my life, I thought I was part of creating a new Afghanistan,” she says. “I never in my life imagined I’d end up a refugee.” It is just over two weeks since she arrived in the UK and she is still numb with the shock and trauma of what has happened.

She feels a deep grief over the eradication of women from public life in Afghanistan. Last week, the Taliban announced that only boys would be in the classrooms when secondary schools reopened, making Afghanistan the only country in the world to deny 50% of its population the basic right to education. In Kabul, it has also been announced that women will not be allowed to occupy any public sector jobs that could be done by men.

“To believe the Taliban’s propaganda, that they are somehow different this time around, is to betray the millions of Afghan women and girls who have lost their chance to have anything but a life of domestic servitude and illiteracy,” she says. “I think of everything that I and so many other women fought so hard to achieve and it has all disappeared. We lost everything.”

Rukhshana Media has not quite been wiped away: Joya is still running it, albeit from a tiny desk in her hotel room. It is, she says, the only thing that is keeping her going. “Some mornings, I wake up and I feel like I just can’t do this, but then I open my laptop and I am a journalist again; I have a purpose.”

Joya has been a journalist for nearly a decade, in local news agencies and then as an investigative reporter for newspapers in Kabul. She originally wanted to be a prosecutor, but a university friend suggested she do a few days’ work on a local newspaper. She was hooked immediately.

Life for a female reporter was not easy. Afghanistan has long been one of the most dangerous places in the world for female journalists and she was often the only woman in the newsroom. “I would have to argue with colleagues and people on the street, who would be telling me to go home and that I should be ashamed for being out in public asking questions. I would always say: ‘I am a journalist and I have the right to be here.’”

By the time she founded Rukhshana, with her own money, in December 2020, she was also working as the deputy director of communications at the Kabul municipal government. “I wanted to show that women – especially women from an ethnic minority like me – could be active in public life,” she says. Joya is from the Hazara community, the majority of whom are from the Shia sect of Islam and who have long been persecuted by the Taliban.

Born amid icy mountains and bright blue lakes in a small rural village in Bamyan province in 1992, Joya has never accepted that she must play by the rules imposed on her from birth.

“When I was born, the elders in my family were so sad and ashamed that my parents had a daughter,” says Joya, throwing up her hands in mock alarm and shame. “They didn’t think I had any value at all. This is a reality for women all over Afghanistan. We are born unwanted. Yet I have never, ever felt sad or ashamed of who I am. All my life, I have believed I could be whoever I wanted to be.”

The first time I visit Joya in the hotel where she is staying, along with hundreds of other Afghan evacuees, her family crowd around her and laugh as they tell me that, as a child, Joya would fight anyone who told her that she couldn’t do something because she was a girl. It is not hard to imagine. In person, she is warm and charismatic, but there is a toughness that matches up with the stories of the scrappy child ready to fight for the life she wanted.

When Joya was a child, there was no school for girls anywhere near her village, so for five years Joya dressed as a boy to get her education. “I’d walk two hours there and two hours back every day,” she says. “I was lucky, because my parents supported me. They made me boys’ clothes and I made everyone call me Mohammad. I don’t think I was especially brave, because I know there are so many other girls who would never, ever get the chance to do something like this.”

Joya, aged 8, dressed as a boy to go to school.
Joya, aged 8, dressed as a boy to go to school. Photograph: Courtesy of Zahra Joya

From a young age, she believed her generation of women were pathfinders – forging the way for others to follow. “Despite all the difficulties and dangers we faced, me and my friends believed that we were the future of our country, we were the ones who would change things and change the course of history,” she says. “I believed we were building a new Afghanistan.”

Although Afghanistan was a fledgling democracy, the guns and bombs of the Taliban have been a constant presence in her life. “They were people who wanted you to fear them, but our job was to resist,” she says. “I lost my best friend to a Taliban attack. Everything I stood for was in opposition to their ideology. To me, they had nothing to do with the Afghanistan that we were building.”

She founded Rukhshana as Afghanistan’s first feminist news agency, where local female journalists reported on the reality of life for women and girls across the country. The purpose was to provide a counternarrative to the wider Afghan media. There were radio stations and TV channels run by, or for, women in various parts of the country, but her ambition was that Rukhshana would be the first national news source where an Afghan woman in any region could see her own life reflected in the stories published every day.

“I was saying to Afghan women: this is your space, a place where we will tell your stories and the stories of all our sisters across Afghanistan,” she says. “For Rukhshana reporters, it was an opportunity to tell the stories male editors would never consider newsworthy.”

Rukhshana was openly critical of the Taliban militants and documented their campaign of murders and attacks on women in public life in the months before the US and UK troop withdrawal. Scores of women – police officers, judges, journalists, activists and politicians – were assassinated in shootings and car bombings.

In the week the country fell to the militants, Rukhshana partnered with the Guardian to publish the Women Report Afghanistan project, where Joya’s team of female journalists across the country told the world what was happening there. Like everything on Rukhshana, the articles were unflinching, telling of the plight of single and divorced women under the Taliban; the intergenerational conflict within families over the burqa; and the women and their children forced out of their homes into a life of displacement.

“My team at Rukhshana are all young women – most are 22 or 23 years old, all of them are so brave and so fearless, all of them put themselves at risk because of the work they were doing,” Joya says. They all worked for local radio and newspapers in their own provinces, too, and published stories with Rukhshana on issues such as domestic violence, rape, corruption and forced marriage, which led to death threats and intimidation. Joya received anonymous threats from suspected Taliban fighters because of her journalism. “It only made us more resolute to keep going,” she says.

But on the day that Kabul fell to the Taliban, Joya and her reporters suddenly became moving targets. Three had already gone into hiding the week before, as their provinces fell. Joya’s work for the government in Kabul, and her ethnicity, put her further at risk.

Joya with her sisters and niece
Joya with her sisters and niece. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

“If I stayed in Afghanistan, I really believe they would have killed me,” she says. “Maybe not straight away, but eventually.”

In the two weeks before she was evacuated from Kabul, she was overtaken by an “overwhelming fear … it was so intense that none of the Rukhshana team dared report on what was actually happening. I felt suffocated,” she says.

She hid at home. “As someone who had been out of the house all day, every day, I felt like a bird who was trapped in a cage.” After days of pacing her house and small courtyard, she resolved to leave and report on what was happening on the streets.

“I realised I didn’t know what to wear,” she says. “In the 28 years of my life, I never once thought of buying those long black robes; I didn’t have one at home. So I left my house in my normal clothes. When I got outside, I could see the Taliban’s white flags everywhere. There were no women on the streets; it was like we’d all just been wiped out. For me, as a person who struggled and worked so hard in a patriarchal society to get where I am, it was so distressing.

“Suddenly, it didn’t matter if I was a young woman in 2021. My fate was no different from the fate of a woman who lived in Kabul in 1996. For many years, my eyes freely looked at the hills of Kabul, taking in its mud houses and wildflowers. I could not accept having to see the world through the prison bars of a burqa.”

In her final days in Afghanistan, she heard that the Taliban had come looking for her and so went into hiding. “When we got the [British government’s] evacuation notice, we just shut the door of our house and ran,” she says. “We left our whole lives behind.”

For two days, Joya and her family were trapped among panicked crowds outside the airport, struggling to get to the safety of the departure gate. “The Taliban were at the front, with long hair and loose robes, beating people – women, children and old men – with sticks and rubber pipes and shooting bullets in the air, screaming that we shouldn’t be trying to leave our country. It didn’t seem real, like it was happening to someone else,” she says.

At night, the panic and terror of the people around her grew overwhelming. “Seeing that level of helplessness and humiliation, I burst into tears. I began screaming in pain,” she says.

Eventually, they managed to get near a British soldier, who looked at their evacuation notice and let them through. “When we finally got on the plane, there were no windows,” says Joya. “I didn’t get to see my beautiful Kabul for the last time. From where I was sitting, I could only see the faces of the other evacuees.”

Since arriving in London, the shock has been difficult to bear. “It is like I’m drowning,” she says. “But I have to stay strong for my family. I just have to make sure that they are all OK. I know that we have a lot of hard times ahead of us.”

While she is talking, her hand strays to her laptop and the Rukhshana website springs to life on the screen. She is launching an English-language version this week and is continuing to report for the Guardian on life for women under Taliban rule. In the past week, she has covered the murders of female police officers across the country and how single mothers face losing custody of their children under Taliban rule. Her reporters in Afghanistan have either been evacuated or are in hiding. A recent analysis found that fewer than 100 of the 700 Afghan women who were working as journalists remain in their jobs. But Joya says that, even though her heart is breaking every day, she will never stop her work trying to keep the voices of Afghan women alive.

“The Taliban can use their guns and their rules to try to break the spirit of Afghan women, but they cannot silence us all,” she says. “I will never stop resisting.”

Contributor

Annie Kelly

The GuardianTramp

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