4th October 2021
As Aaj TV’s Peshawar bureau chief, Farzana Ali is responsible for perhaps one of the most difficult areas in terms of access, coverage and safety. As a female journalist, Ali is undeterred and has been walking this line, uncovering stories of human tragedy and uplift in the province as well as the tribal belt for the past 24 years.
Her experience and her own personal interest in the lives and rights of people in the region has allowed her multiple opportunities to also travel to Afghanistan amidst its most turbulent and violent times. However, her most recent venture across the border saw a nation in the midst of picking itself out of the ruins of an incredibly disaster exit of United States forces, the dissolution of the elected Afghan government, skirmishes between the Taliban and rebel forces holding out in Panjshir, and the unceremonious Taliban takeover of the country.
Ali summed her experiences during the three-day journey from the Torkham border to Afghanistan’s seat of power, Kabul, in a three-part feature, giving insight on the fears and hopes of locals, especially women and girls, under the new regime.
In a conversation with Voicepk.net, Ali provided that her efforts as a journalist and bureau chief are to report on those stories oft ignored by or sanitized for mainstream media in order to preserve the true spirit of journalism.
“Because I mainly focus on human rights issues, I do my best to visit a concerned area, talk to the people there and figure out what is actually happening through their eyes,” she said, expressing her skepticism regarding armchair journalism. Reporting on events from the comfort of one’s office, regardless of how excellent one’s sources are, is simply news, according to the Aaj TV Peshawar bureau chief.
“There is a world beyond news,” she explained. “And that is why it is important to meet and talk to those characters.”
Following August 15, senior Afghan journalists had to flee the country or were cowed into silence due to threats from the Taliban, making it difficult to ascertain facts and get information on developments from Afghanistan. Coupled with the influx of confusing, often unconfirmed news trickling in from across the border, Ali resolved to visit Afghanistan for a few days and get stories from the ground.
“I talked to ordinary men and women there, and what I gleaned was that the economic crisis was perhaps the biggest problem for the citizens and their new rulers,” she said of the immediate fallout of the fall of Kabul. “And then as a woman, and when talking about the overall human rights situation, the violation of our rights was not a welcome development. Taking into account the Taliban’s past, people seemed to be living in fear.”
Ali’s goal was to meet with Afghani citizens now learning and trying to adjust to a life under the Taliban’s regime, however it was to be an uphill task due to a number of unprecedented restrictions.
“Our lives were at risk, and then we were not allowed to film with cameras. We had to use our mobile phones to record things,” the journalist listed. “The people we interviewed were also often too scared to talk – they would easily divulge information off-camera but were wary of appearing on camera because they did not want to be identified.”
Farzana Ali had to face one other obstacle that perhaps not many journalists from Western news outlets had to face in entering and reporting on developments in Afghanistan.
“In the Taliban’s eyes, what differentiated me from other journalists was that I am a Muslim woman,” she said, referring to how she and her team were intercepted at the Torkham-Jalalabad Highway and briefly held by the Taliban.
For the most part of her temporary custody, she had been kept in the dark about the reason behind the Taliban’s sudden objection to their appearance in Afghanistan. After they had been released, Ali learned that the problem had been her travelling without a mehram and for reporting in their country without permission. But she felt it was the former matter that had been the Taliban’s primary point of contention.
“I am Muslim and that was what was most important to them: what my responsibilities as a woman are and what the Sharia says about how I am supposed to live my life,” she explained, adding that it was subject to their understanding about Islam. “We can see that female students are being barred from going to universities. Girls in seventh grade and above, and working women are still inside their homes.”
There was also a stark difference in the ideology realized by the Taliban in Kabul, which consisted of mainly senior members now taking up offices left behind by the previous Afghan government, and the young, armed Taliban patrolling roads and rural areas. While the Taliban leadership is scrambling to maintain diplomatic ties in order to secure international aid and support, promising inclusivity and guarantee of rights to women, grunts on the outskirts are cracking down indiscriminately.
“The Taliban did not talk to me directly,” she pointed out the banality of the entire incident, seeing as she was Aaj TV’s Peshawar bureau chief and the one leading her team in Afghanistan. “They talked with my male colleagues instead, and indirectly mentioned that what we were doing, which was having a woman travel without a mehram, was not allowed and this was not open to argument.”
In Afghanistan, women constitute nearly half the total population – similar to Pakistan – and Ali understood that they had gained many strides in securing their rights in the past 20 years following the brutally misogynist and oppressive first regime of the Taliban. In their second stab at power, the Taliban are trying to project a “soft” image, assuring the international community that they have changed. However, with the scars still fresh, Afghan women are entirely unconvinced of being guaranteed their full rights.
“I had asked people in Kabul about the Taliban’s assurances that they had changed a long time ago, many of them would tell me to just wait and see,” Ali said. “The interviewees pointed out how the Taliban kept changing their stance on things, but they had practical knowledge of their true ideology.”