Afghan journalist Zahra Nader: Creating a platform for Afghan women’s voices to be heard

Zahra Nader is an Afghan Canadian journalist and editor-in-chief of Zan Times, a newly launched media outlet that covers human rights in Afghanistan with a focus on women, the LGBT community and environmental issues. Born in Afghanistan, she is from the Hazara community, an ethnic group that faces marginalization and violence. She began her journalism career in Kabul in 2011, before moving to Canada in 2017 to purse higher education. She is currently completing a Ph.D in Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies.

On 20 October, 2022, Zahra briefed the UN Security Council during the Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security. While at the UN, she spoke with UN Women about the Taliban, human rights in Afghanistan, and why women’s representation—in peacebuilding, in journalism and everywhere else—matters.

Zahra Nader briefs the Security Council at UN Headquarters in New York, 20 October 2022. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Zahra Nader briefs the Security Council at UN Headquarters in New York, 20 October 2022. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Echoes of the first Taliban regime

The first time the Taliban were around, I was a child. I was very young, maybe six, when I left Afghanistan, but I could understand that the food was scarce. Our neighbors didn't have anything to eat. Sometimes my mother would give them a bowl of flour to help them eat that night. And I really couldn't understand those things as a child. I was just wondering why these people didn't have food. That was the first time that I heard about the Taliban—[when I heard] “the Taliban are here”.

It was very tough. My family fled in a lorry to Iran, where as an Afghan refugee, I did not have the right to education. All my childhood I longed for education—my biggest dream was to get an education and to go to school.

And that's why the education of girls in Afghanistan is very personal to me. I feel that what I experienced 20 some years ago is happening to another generation of Afghan women. And that is the reason that I'm working: I'm doing what I can do as a journalist to resist this, to at least do something to change it.

Reliving the Nightmare

The takeover] was so emotional and so real for me because my family, all my friends and everybody was in Afghanistan. My phone was ringing every second. I was just watching live on Al Jazeera how the Taliban entered the presidential palace. And that brought up so much emotion—I felt that the Taliban were past, that that nightmare the generation before us lived was past. But it wasn't.

That was also the collapse of my hope for the future. I was studying for a Ph.D. and my hope was that I would go back to Afghanistan and teach in Kabul University, on the new faculty of gender and women’s studies.

I had dreams of writing women's political history. When I grew up as a young woman in Afghanistan, there wasn't a history for me to look back on and see my roots—how women before me fought for their rights. That was a big void in my life. [I felt] I needed to write women’s political history to be able to show this new generation that the generation before us fought for our rights very hard, the way that we are doing, and we are the continuation of their struggle for equality.

But when August happened, it was the collapse of that hope for me.

The world should hear this

For so long I had this feeling of guilt, of me being unharmed here and being able to go to school. I have a responsibility as a woman who grew up in Afghanistan post-Taliban—who studied, who went to school, became a journalist: I have a responsibility to my sisters in Afghanistan to fight for their rights.

As women journalists, our role is to be there and to report, to make sure that the world can hear the voices of Afghan women, and especially to understand what it really means when a girl cannot go to school—when she cannot see the future, what's going to be next for her.

She will lose the purpose of living. And we are hearing a lot of cases of suicide coming from Afghanistan, of women killing themselves. And why is that happening? You are living in a situation where the de facto authority has denied you basically the right to be a human. What kind of human are you when you cannot get education, when you cannot go to work, when you cannot even leave your house without a male chaperone?

Zan is the word for woman. And Zan Times is our way of saying that this is our time, that we will fight, that we will speak our truth, even if nobody's listening, even if nobody is doing what we really need them to do. We are there and we will speak our truth. And that's what we are doing at Zan Times: a group of mainly women journalists coming together and supporting each other.

And our sisters, our colleagues in Afghanistan are working. You don't know how powerful they are. When I talk to them, I talk about security: like, you are on the ground. I am concerned for your safety. How do we protect you? And one of them just told me, look, the risk is already there. I am living the risk. My brother, my father was arrested because of what I did as a journalist. If there is no job for me to do—I don't have food to eat, I have nothing; and then I don't have a purpose to live. That is most important for me, that I can continue my work: even in this oppression, even in the corner of my house. At least I have a hope for the future. At least I feel that I'm fighting for my rights and the rights of my sisters.

And when I get those kinds of messages from my colleagues, I say, no matter what, we must do this work. We must make sure that your voice and the voices of the women that you are bringing should not be silenced. The world should hear this. If we don't have women journalists on the ground, bringing these stories, we are missing most of the picture of what's happening in Afghanistan, especially for women.

Even before the Taliban, 95 per cent of violence against women was taking place inside the house. And at that time, we had the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. We had police, who did have some systems to register these cases. And we had the Ministry of Women's Affairs and we had shelters for women who were fleeing domestic abuses. They could go somewhere. And what now? All those systems are dismantled. How are women living inside their homes now? Do we really have a picture of that? I think we are missing so much.

Survivors not victims

Afghan women are fighters, they are survivors. Most of the time the mainstream media frame Afghan women as victims, and we have been living in that framework for so long.

Women are being denied the right to education, to work—basically all fundamental, basic human rights—but they stand face to face with the Taliban, who are armed to the teeth, and these women are empty handed and they just shout, “Bread, work, freedom.” Those women should not be called victims. Those women are fighters.

Afghan women are fighting for their rights. And they need support from the world to echo their voice, to amplify and to really see what is happening in Afghanistan—if the world is not going to do anything about it—it sets a new standard for other countries; what they can deny to women. We are moving backward.

The situation of women in Afghanistan should be a warning to the world: that this is a threat to women's rights everywhere, not only in Afghanistan. And media has a role to play in it. Media can really bring those stories in, really open up what it means to deny 20 million women all their basic human rights only because they are women.

Calling for accountability

[Afghan women] want a mechanism for monitoring and accountability for the rights abuses that are happening in Afghanistan. Crimes that are being committed against women in Afghanistan should be documented. And also the crimes against other marginalized groups like LGBT people and ethnic groups like the Hazara people, who have been under systematic attack for so long.

[Before the Taliban] there were some measures; there were services that they could be using when they came under attack. But now we have the Taliban, who are themselves responsible for most rights violations, as the de facto authority in charge of providing security.

The Taliban themselves committed crimes against Hazaras in the 1990s. [Now they are] the de facto authority, and they are supposed to be in charge of protection and providing services to these communities. But what we are seeing is discrimination and violence, if not direct attack, on the basis of ethnicity and religion.

So this is the situation: they are being attacked. And they have been attacked before. But at least there was some way of trying to pressure the government. There was a system that we were pushing to make it accountable. There was systematic discrimination then, too, but not to the extent that we are seeing now. Things are very bad. And as the people are calling, there should be measures taken to prevent genocide.

We don't get really to talk about LGBT people in Afghanistan. Even in the past 20 years, there wasn't much work done—nothing was done to bring LGBT to the broader spectrum of rights in Afghanistan. We never talked about gay rights. We never really acknowledged their presence.

And the common idea, or the belief, is that they don't exist. They do exist. And we are in contact with them. We regularly talk, we try to cover their situation. And they say, look, at that time [before the Taliban] our rights were not acknowledged, but we had our own community. We could survive, we could live. Survival was possible for us. How our life has changed is that our survival has become impossible. When we are going outside to get food, we are being detected by the Taliban. And once they get us, because of our gender identity and sexual orientation, we are being detained, tortured, raped and sometimes killed.

This is one of the marginalized communities who doesn't really have a voice in media, especially in Afghan media. At Zan Times we say we are covering human rights violations with a particular focus on women, LGBT people and environmental issues. And we really see these three as underreported and underrepresented.

Interconnected crises

I think [climate change and conflict in Afghanistan] are very much connected. First of all, we don't really acknowledge that the environmental crisis is a huge thing and humanity is going to face this crisis very soon. In Afghanistan, there is no discussion of how the environment affects our lives and the displacement of people.

We have had so many environmental crises in the past years. We have had an earthquake. We have had flooding in many provinces. We are moving in a direction where some parts of Afghanistan are not livable for people, and they have to move to cities like Kabul. And these are overpopulated.

When the people whose lands are destroyed have to immigrate or are displaced in cities, they have to survive without their means of survivals. That’s how they become poorer and poorer. That's what we are seeing in Afghanistan. It’s all interconnected: the environmental crises that we are having and the political and humanitarian crises that we are living in.

Afghan women must lead the way

What I can say from what happened in Afghanistan is that the voices of Afghan women, the real voices of Afghan woman, were never heard, were never part of the negotiation, and were never part of any peace deal. What happened was all behind closed doors. A decision was made for Afghan women and they were not part of making that decision.

And what we are seeing right now in Afghanistan is the result of a peace deal that didn’t include women. Afghan women from the very beginning said that the Taliban is not to be trusted, that we lived under the Taliban and we know who they are. But the rest of the world and the men who made the peace, they didn't listen to Afghan women.

And what we are seeing right now is that Afghan women were right, and they are the ones, now, living the consequences of decisions they never made.