Blacklisted and downtrodden: Afghanistan’s exiled female journalists still searching for a safe space
This article is part of The New Arab’s States of Journalism series, a sustained exploration of freedom, repression, and accountability in MENA and global media landscapes. Read more of the series’ articles here.
“It was supposed to be the happiest moment of my life,” says Sodoba Nasiry, when discussing her wedding day.
The event was marred by the fact that Sodoba, formerly one of Afghanistan’s top TV anchors, was absent, in hiding in Islamabad.
“With the Taliban coming to power I lost all my hopes and dreams… every young girl across the globe has lots of dreams about her wedding but my wedding ceremony was held in Kabul without me,” she says when speaking to The New Arab.
A small photograph was the best likeness of her that could be managed for the ceremony.
Sodoba’s husband, also a journalist, is now a wanted man and fearing reprisals has gone to the ground. Sodoba remains in Islamabad; technically homeless, she sleeps in whatever hostel she can afford.
"A place on the Taliban’s blacklist means many of the Afghan women in Islamabad have little chance of returning home to their families, instead they will continue to wait with hopes of safe residence or asylum elsewhere"
Her case is far from isolated, she is just one part of a congregation of Afghan journalists who find themselves in forced exile in Pakistan’s capital; at home, they are classified as dissidents, many including Sodoba have colleagues who have been imprisoned, tortured or ‘disappeared’ by the de facto government.
For Sodoba, her activities prior to the Taliban’s takeover made her a prime target. As a lead presenter for Zan TV (translated as women TV), she hosted a variety of hard-talk style political programmes, railing against the old orthodoxy of the Taliban and instead promoting female education and visibility.
Her activism both on and off-screen meant she was also brought on to act as an official consultant in government for issues relating to women’s rights.
After August 2021 she quickly found herself on the Taliban’s notorious ‘tracking list’ which functions as a record of people who may have engaged in subversive or ‘anti-Taliban’ activities.
"Because of that I left the country as soon as possible," she says.
Having failed to board a plane during the hellish scenes of last summer’s evacuation from Kabul airport, she was eventually able to secure a flight out of Afghanistan through the help of the coalition for women in journalism (CFWIJ), a Canada-based NGO.
But since arriving in Pakistan, she has felt let down by them. “At first they promised us that they would help evacuate us from Pakistan but now they are saying we don’t have any responsibility. We helped you in getting out of Afghanistan, now it’s up to you.”
She claims that in the nine months she has been in Islamabad she has repeatedly emailed CFWIJ and other organisations but is now being ignored.
“We don’t want to live here in Pakistan. We don't feel safe,” she says of her and the large community of Afghans that have joined her.
In reference to Sodoba Nasiry’s case, CFWIJ issued a response, saying, “Sodaba was evacuated with her brother by CFWIJ on a PIA (Pakistan international airlines) flight in September. These were some of the last flights we facilitated out of Kabul, the majority of our assistance went directly on US flights and arranging safe houses for journalists in Afghanistan.
"We have had several meetings with the Canadian government and Sodaba is one of the three journalists left amongst our evacuees to Pakistan who we are still trying to find a solution for."
In regards to the situation for female journalists in the country, the organisation added, "We are extremely worried and distressed by the situation of Afghan journalists, especially women who worked for local media. There is a blatant absence of priority to assist these women by governments, and we are concerned that our advocacy and efforts to get government attention are meeting deaf ears.”
One of these exiles, Kreshma Radmanish, finds herself in a situation just as precarious. Formerly one of the country’s most promising young journalists, even being invited to meet the former President Ashraf Ghani, she now has less than 3,000 Pakistani rupees to her name (15 dollars) and fears living on the streets.
“In the past eight months no one has helped us, but I still prefer to stay here,” she says, unable to bear the thought of the threat that waits back for her in Afghanistan.
The latest developments back home seem to reinforce their decision to leave; the few female journalists who remain on TV are now being forced to wear face-coverings.
One image of a female presenter for the channel Tolo News went viral last month, showing her hunched and exhausted against her desk, struggling to breathe amid her full body-burqa.
The hashtag #freeherface briefly lit up social media in response to the new law and multiple male staff at Tolo News even elected to wear face masks of their own in solidarity with their female co-workers.
This glimpse of resistance aside, however, few among the community of ex-journalists in Islamabad hold out much hope for women’s future on Afghan airwaves.
“Every passing day the Taliban are imposing new rules and regulations,” says Kreshma. “After the latest law about face coverings on TV, I’m pretty sure they will soon issue a decree about complete banning women from work.”
Sodoba bluntly adds, “Girls are the only ones in Afghanistan with no future.”
For now, both remain in Pakistan where they are processing asylum applications and looking ahead to a future clouded with uncertainty.
“We do not have much security in Pakistan because we are homeless and alone,” says Sodoba “There are more threats and it is not difficult for the Taliban to find and reach us. I can’t go back to my country because I am on the Taliban’s blacklist. Two months ago, they captured my cousin and we have not heard anything from him since."
A place on the Taliban’s blacklist means many of the Afghan women in Islamabad have little chance of returning home to their families, instead, they will continue to wait with hopes of safe residence or asylum elsewhere.
Given the stony silence from governments, their pleas have been met with, but neither seems likely to happen soon.
Hadees Pardes is an Islamabad-based Afghan freelance journalist covering the Afghanistan war and politics.
Follow him on Twitter: @hadesspardes
Michael Maitland-Jones is a freelance Journalist at the BBC World Service and Newsnight.
Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelMaitlan5