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Afghan women journalists and activists forced into hiding

Shabnam von Hein
March 4, 2021

A wave of violence against female journalists and human rights activists is rocking Afghanistan. As the government seems unable to protect them from attacks, many are hoping for support from the international community.

Afghanistan Anschlag auf Richterinnen
Image: Rahman Gul/AP/picture alliance

The women's activist Maria Makrami has been forced into hiding, seeking refuge in a safe house. She is the director of the Afghan Women Network (AWN), a nongovernmental organization that has fought for years to empower women and ensure their equal place in Afghan society.

"I know I'm on the death list," she said in an interview with DW. The well-connected activist has received several threatening emails and messages in recent months. 

"Our situation is frightening. Many women in our networks no longer leave their homes and are completely demoralized. After what happened yesterday in Jalalabad, I’m also completely devastated." 
On March 2, three women were murdered: Mursal Wahidi, Sadia Sadat and Shahnaz Roafi.

They worked as announcers for Enikass, a private television station in the city of Jalalabad. On Tuesday, while walking home in broad daylight they were attacked by two armed men and shot dead in the street. Jalalabad, with a population of about 240,000, is the capital of the Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. Provincial police confirmed that one of the suspected perpetrators had been arrested.

Afghanistan drei weibliche Journalistinnen bei Jalalabad ermordet
Three female journalists were shot dead on March 2 in JalalabadImage: Sadaqat Ghorzang/AP Photo/picture alliance SS

Extremist attacks on women journalists

The suspect confessed to being a member of the radical Islamic Taliban, although Taliban spokesman Zabihollah Mojahed promptly denied the claim.

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani condemned the act. A statement from Ghani’s office read: "Such attacks on our compatriots, especially women, contradict the teachings of Islam, Afghan culture and the spirit of freedom. They aggravate and prolong the current crisis and war." 

Shortly after, the jihadi militia "Islamic State" (IS) claimed responsibility for the killings. An IS statement confirmed that IS fighters had killed the female journalists "for working for one of the media outlets loyal to the breakaway Afghan government."

In December, IS also claimed responsibility for the killing of another female journalist working for Enikass. The 26-year-old Malalai Maiwand, whose mother had also been murdered for activism five years earlier. After the shooting of Malalai Maiwand's mother, the situation for women's rights activists and journalists improved slightly, until late last year. Maria Akrami and other activists who helped with these advances can only watch as their achievements are reversed. 

Support of international community needed

"The world community cannot just stand by and watch. We need support. This wave of brutal violence against women is unprecedented and shameful," Akrami stressed in an interview with DW.

But even she is unsure who is behind the wave of attacks, as there are many armed groups and extremists in Afghanistan. Despite the start of the internal Afghan peace talks in September 2020 between the radical Islamist Taliban and the government representatives, the situation has deteriorated.

Extremists have killed 11 journalists and human rights activists between September 2020 and mid-February 2021, according to data released by the UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) on February 15. According to the report, the targeted killings lowered the expectations of society as a whole for the peace process. 

 Afghanistan Journalist Autobombe Anschlag Taliban
Targeted killings of journalists and human rights defenders increased significantly since end of 2020Image: Abdul Khaliq/AP/dpa/picture alliance

"The voices of human rights defenders and media professionals should be heard more than ever. Instead, they are being silenced," said the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons.

The result is self-censorship and flight, with many journalists and activists already having left the country.

"The government has done nothing for them," journalist Aniseh Shahid told DW in February. 

The 34-year-old journalist, who works for the TV channel TOLO, was lauded by Reporters Without Borders in July 2020 for her "courageous" reporting during the coronavirus pandemic in Afghanistan. She is currently alarmed about the attacks on press freedom in her own country. Her colleague Yama Siawash, one of the best-known TV presenters in Afghanistan, was killed by a car bomb explosion on November 7.

Aniseh Shahid has also received death threats in recent months.

"The situation is so dramatic," she said. "Every day you have to be prepared to die."  

This article has been adapted from German.

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