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Women journalists’ escape from the Taliban into a hellish life in Pakistan

For three years, Noorbakhsh* worked as a reporter for a private TV channel in Afghanistan before the Taliban regained power. Now, she works as a seamstress in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. She and her three children were forced to emigrate to Pakistan due to the anti-women policies of the Taliban, including regular harassment of former journalists by their intelligence agents. (Her husband, an officer of the Afghan National Army, had been killed in a battle with the Taliban about ten years ago.)  

Now, 35-year-old Noorbakhsh works day and night in the rented home she shares with her two young sons, aged 12 and 13, and her daughter, 18, who contributes to the family budget by recording and publishing entertainment programs on social networks. “If it wasn’t for my sewing job and my daughter’s Tik Tok, we might have died of hunger in this country,” Noorbakhsh tells Zan Times. None of her children are allowed to go to local schools in Pakistan.   

She came to Pakistan hoping to find refuge in a third safe country, but after two years and three months of waiting, she still hasn’t achieved that goal. Noorbakhsh believes the endless waiting  has caused her depression. “I am suffering from mental problems. I suffer my misfortune,” she explains. “The fact that my children are out of school is painful for me. I have visited the doctor many times and I am still using a sedative.” 

These days, her biggest worry is that her children may be forcibly deported back to Afghanistan due to Pakistan’s ongoing crackdown on migrants. Although all of the family entered Pakistan with valid visas, Noorbakhsh says that she was unable to renew her children’s visas, which are now expired (her visa is still valid) as she can’t afford to pay the fines of between US$400-800.  

Noorbakhsh is not the only female journalist struggling to live in exile in Pakistan. About eight months after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in 2021, Yasmin*, 33, had to leave Afghanistan. She had worked for 10 years with a Mobi Group radio station in Kabul. “After the fall of Kabul, all my colleagues went into hiding,” she explains, adding, “We knew the Taliban’s view about Mobi Group employees.” 

Now, this reporter, her husband, and their one-year-old child share a house on the outskirts of Rawalpindi, Pakistan, with relatives of her husband as well as the owner of the house. As neither she or her husband can find work, they are surviving on financial help sent by relatives living in the West, for their expenses. The poverty and poor living conditions have affected her physical and mental health, says Yasmin. 

Though she’s grateful to be out of the reach of the Taliban and not living in the suffocating society that they are constructing in Afghanistan, she, like Noorbakhsh, worries. In particular, she’s concerned about the amount of official harassment against migrants, especially from the police. And like Noorbakhsh’s children, she and her family have visa issues. Yasmin and her family paid US$1,000 for each one-year visa. “Our visas are not always extended on time. Our visas have been invalidated for some time,” she tells Zan Times. “Twice the Pakistani police stopped my husband and my child and took money from us.” Yasmin says that Pakistani police extort from legal and illegal immigrants with a variety of pretexts and that her husband once paid 2,000 rupees to get out of the hands of Rawalpindi city police. Another time, it cost 1,500 rupees.  

Although there is no data on the exact number of Afghan women journalists in Pakistan, Reporters Without Borders believes that about 200 journalists, both men and women, at risk of forced deportation from Pakistan. 

The Afghanistan Journalists’ Support Organization addressed the problems of women journalists inside the country and in exile in a report published in March. They noted that women journalists living in Pakistan are having difficulties obtaining and extending their visas, and are facing a lack of work opportunities, economic problems, harassment by the Pakistani police, as well as mental problems.  

Pakistani journalists also confirm the restrictions that the Pakistani government has imposed on Afghan immigrants. Journalist Qamar Yousufzai tells Zan Times that the Pakistan Media Centre helped free at least 850 Afghan citizens, including journalists, civil society activists, former soldiers, from Pakistani police custody after being arrested in recent crackdowns on refugees. According to Yousufzai, these people were detained for the crime of not having a valid visa or having expired visas.  

The government of Pakistan has already expelled more than half million Afghan refugees from Pakistan and has warned that a second phase of its deportation plan will begin on April 15.  

This increases the concerns of Afghan women journalists living in Pakistan. Not only do they fear the Taliban, who continue to threaten, intimidate, and arrest journalists, but they know that it may be impossible for them to even find work if they are deported back to Afghanistan. Recently, the acting minister of the Taliban’s ministry of vice and virtue warned media representatives that the regime may impose a complete ban on women’s involvement in the media.  

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees. F. Amin is the pseudonym for a journalist from Afghanistan living in Pakistan.