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Neutral journalism is not possible in the time of the Taliban: An interview with Fatima Roshanian

Fatima Roshanian is the editor-in-chief of Nimrokh Media. It was one of the very first women’s publications created during the republican era and it courageously and committedly addressed issues that broadened the horizons of its readers. In the patriarchal and misogynistic society of Afghanistan, where women’s perspectives and views are given lower roles in the production of media content, Nimrokh consciously addressed critical and taboo issues in advocating for gender equality. 

One of the commendable aspects of Nimrokh is that it has a historical perspective and has paid attention to women’s roles in history, an issue of which few other media in Afghanistan paid attention. Nimrokh has questioned and criticized the patriarchal and traditional structures and laws of Afghanistan in order to shed light on dark corners of Afghanistan’s history, in which the role of women has been neglected. This work was by no means easy, and as you will read in this interview, Nimrokh has faced many obstacles. The last print issue of Nimrokh was published on August 14, 2021, a day before the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. 

Roshanian left Kabul for Albania two months after the Taliban takeover. She lives now in Canada, where she runs the online publication of Nimrokh. 

She talks to Zan Times about her experiences, from Kabul to Canada. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Zan Times: What has been one of the most formative experiences of your life so far?

Fatima Roshanian: It was an experience of discrimination against women. If I want to talk about the events of my 12 years of childhood in a village, I can only remember five years. Prominent are memories of wars between political factions, opium cultivation, elections, and starting school with UNICEF notebooks and a bag. My father was an attorney and we always had the blessing of having books and pens at home, but I officially started school from the third grade, and my sister Nilufar was our first official teacher. After one or two years of studying in the village, my family decided to move to Herat in search of better educational opportunities for us. When I arrived in Herat, I was an 11-year-old girl, and I did not even know how to wear a chador. Before that, my mother would cut my hair and I would wear Punjabi clothes. My hands were always henna [dyed]. 

Village life was pleasant for us, but in the winter of 2005, when we went to Herat, we suddenly encountered a closed space. The first restriction imposed on me was that I had to wear a headscarf. I still remember well that, in Herat, we went to my uncle’s house because we would have our house for a few months. My uncle’s wife asked me to wear a chador and to not play in the street, especially with boys.

I was in Herat for four years. My concerns started from there. I wanted to participate in social and cultural programs. I wanted to roam freely and be with my friends. I hated the chador. This experience ignited a desire to work to change the situation.

In 2010, I went to Kabul and received training for 15 days. Then I went to Badghis province and my interest in social and cultural issues began from there.

I worked on a survey for mothers. I went from village to village and listed all the members of the families. In every village, I saw how many girls and women did not have access to health services. In four or five years, I traveled to 27 provinces of Afghanistan. When I visited a place where there were no teachers, or doctors, I would tell myself that I would return to Kabul one day to go to university and become a teacher or a doctor and go back to one of those deprived villages and work for women. But, at the end of 2014, during elections, there was a lot of insecurity, and it was difficult to go to the provinces, and I returned to Kabul. I enrolled in a private university in Kabul for a bachelor’s degree in law and political science.

 My mother always asked why I studied political science when I wanted to become a doctor. But I believed that if I become a doctor or a teacher, I might be able to help a few people, but if I studied political science and become a politician, lawyer, or minister, I will be more effective, and can provide services to more people. With this purpose, I went to study political science.

Before starting university, I joined a cultural association. We went to the street, protested, staged sit-ins. Our association had a magazine. In this journal, I wanted to write my observations about the villages and towns of Afghanistan. Most of my observations were about women’s issues.

I wrote about a trip to Baghlan province. The village elder did not talk to me because I am a woman. He only spoke to my driver. The association magazine did not publish it. Then I established Nimrokh in 2017 to cover topics of concern to women.

ZT: How did you choose the name of the profile and with whom did you first talk about it?

Roshanian: I wanted the name of the weekly to be both political and strong and give an empowering image of women. I chose different names, each of which represented the strength of women and women’s struggles, but none of them were accepted by the Ministry of Information and Culture. Finally, a friend suggested “Nimrokh.” Nimrokh meant for me that we will be complete when women and men live a human life together, without discrimination and prejudice. I said that we will talk about Nimrokh [half face] until we have become a full face. This is how we chose the name Nimrokh.

The first managing editor of Nimrokh was Maryam Shahi. We worked with Shahi on some very good issues of Nimrokh. We started with writing about our experiences. I wrote an article about street harassment. There was a shop near our office where we always bought water and the shopkeeper always asked us what we were doing? I told him that we have a magazine and he said that we should give him a printed copy. One day, after reading that article about street harassment, the shopkeeper said to me, “Do you girls get upset when catcalled in the street?” He said that “every time the girls pass by my shop, I shout at them. I just realized how badly it affects girls. So I won’t catcall girls anymore.”

This was interesting for me. Little by little, we saw the impact of our work. Every week when the magazine was published, I posted its first page on my Facebook. Sometimes people sent me messages through Facebook and asked if I would continue with Nimrokh. I was telling them, ‘Why are you expecting its collapse?’ But we have continued until now.

ZT: Tell us about the difficulties of sustaining Nimrokh?

Roshanian: Our number one issue was financial. But since I was very determined and wanted to continue, I continued. It was a very pleasant experience to write about myself and other women and publish their stories. We wanted women to come out from the kitchen and get socially and politically engaged. It was interesting for me to write the narratives and experiences of successful women who had overcome obstacles. We wanted to be a bridge between women in big cities and women who are students and live in different provinces.

In the beginning, we did not have an office. Sometimes we would gather in the cafe and design an issue, and sometimes I would send it to my friends via email. The design of each issue took a day or two, but since I had a passion, I took on all the problems and found a solution. I didn’t want to compromise on principles to find money. I was happy to reduce publication, but not to lose control. I didn’t want someone to support me and say that we should publish whatever they want. So, I always tried to be independent.

The printing press that printed the Nimrokh was very kind to us. At one time, we had not paid the money for six months. One day when I went to their printing house, the head of the printing house told me, “Every week that your magazine comes out and we print it, I read one of them. You can pay me the money in two or three years, and, if you can’t, there is no problem.” There were also friends who supported us. A friend gave Nimrokh 5,000-10,000 afghani per month, and encouraged me not to stop. These were the things that motivated us and made it easy to continue.

We published ten special issues and 152 regular issues in Nimrokh. Regular issues were published every week and I think the last issue of Nimrokh was published on August 14, 2021, a Saturday. On Sunday, August 15, Kabul fell to the Taliban.

ZT: How did you handle the 2019 social media campaign against you and how did you manage to cover taboo topics?

Roshanian: I think it was 2010 when I created a Facebook account for the first time, one of my friends asked why I don’t use my own picture on my profile? It was still very scary for me to post my photo on Facebook or social media, but little by little, after some time passed, I dared to post my photo. One day I took a picture  without a headscarf, and I posted it on Facebook. A little later, Khorrami, an Afghan diplomat, took the photo from my Facebook page and posted it on his page and wrote that “Ms. Roshanian used to be a very good girl when she worked with us, but now democracy has made her shameless.”

On the day that Khorrami posted my photo, my friends and I had gone to a park. So that no one would harass us, we had asked our friends’ mothers to come with us. On the same day, Fatima Madadi published her photo with a Pashtun man on Facebook and wrote a Pashto love poem. Controversy was starting. A Messenger group was created where they talked about us. People had a problem with Fatima Madadi because she had organized a divorce party, and they had a problem with me because I had published a report on her divorce party.

In Nimrokh, we had an exclusive interview with Fatima Madadi about why she got divorced. In short, all of these issues became a disaster when my photos and my friends’ photos, most of whom were not in the media and Facebook, were published on Facebook and they wrote whatever they wanted. In the same two-week period, WhatsApp groups were created against us. Some supported us and others cursed us.

I was in the office when a friend of mine came to delete the Facebook application from my mobile phone and said that, instead of worrying about these issues, let’s go write a proposal. During those two weeks my friend made me stay busy with that proposal and away from Facebook. While others were cursing us and our photos, we wrote a proposal about a two-year project for Nimrokh. 

Apart from the photos, more serious controversies were started against me on social media because of some of the headlines and interviews that were published in the Nimrokh. One of our controversial interview with Yalda Royan, who said that she was happy that she did not give birth to a boy so that she would not be the cause of violence against women in the society. We had published another controversial article by Humaira Qaderi, the title of which was “Women have the right to decide whether to give birth to a child or not.” We had another interview with Wida Saghari who said that “marriage in Afghanistan is a shelter for women and sex for men.” 

In short, all of these together caused the people to write whatever they wanted against us. Now,  the only thing that is interesting and important to me is that we were able to resist and do our work, and all the insults, humiliation, and repression we received could not stop us from doing our work.

ZT: Despite all the humiliation, insults, and repression, I want to know if you were afraid that something could happen to you or your colleagues?

Roshanian: It was not easy. Among other problems, one of the difficulties was that I was completely rejected by my family for a period. Of course, not from my immediate family, but my active presence in society and social media earned the ire of many of my close and distant relatives, and received strange messages from them. On an Eid day, I went to the house of one of my relatives and none of them greeted me. It was a difficult period for me, but I had a group of friends, both women and men. All of them supported and encouraged me, and they constantly introduced me to literature and books about the struggles and challenges of other women around the world. They encouraged me to persevere. They talked about women who had changed in their society and had overcome all the challenges.

We distributed Nimrokh in Bamyan, Maidan Wardak, Parwan, and Daikundi. It did really well in Daikundi and Bamyan. Many organizations cooperated and everyone was interested in reading Nimrokh, and, if we did not send it for a week, many people would send messages asking why Nimrokh did not reach them. But we faced many threats when we sent it to Parwan.

The Nimrokh articles were mainly about forced marriages, family violence, and harassment of women in government offices. For example, in the cases of women seeking divorce, getting harassed in government offices. I had a program in Herat and talked with women. Women said that they do not even trust the men of their family. They said that they have awareness programs for women, instead we should have awareness programs for men. They said that they understand their rights. They understand that they have the right to go to school and have the right to be treated humanely, but it is men who do not understand.

They said that they were subject to violence at home, but cannot file a case against their husbands or their families. In all judicial and judicial institutions of Afghanistan, women’s cases were not followed for up to a year, and if a woman wanted her case to be investigated faster, she had to pay hundreds of people to get someone to move the process forward. With all these problems, in the end it was not clear whether they would succeed or not. In addition to those confusions, women also received threats.

One day, someone called me and asked me where our office is. He seemed like a decent person and I decided to give him the address of the office. But when I asked who he was, he told me that he was calling from Parwan and that he saw our magazine and that we have written against Islam and blasphemy, and we create fights between couples, and we drive women on the bad path. He threatened me a lot. I had to change my office location. There was constant harassment on social media, and, if we had distanced ourselves from social networks, street harassment. But now that I see, with all its hardships, all of them have passed.

ZT: After the Taliban takeover, what problems has Nimrokh encountered?

Roshanian: We had gathered in the office early that morning with all our colleagues. Our concerns were what to do. At around 10 a.m., I was going to get my nephew’s ID card. When I left the office, my hair was free and my pants were short. Near the door of the office, a stall owner told me that when the Taliban came, they would “collect you.” That day, I realized that life is going to be bitter. I went to a friend’s house and stayed there until dinner. I didn’t even have an internet connection that day to check the situation. When I wanted to go home, I first went to the office to get my computer. On the way, I saw the Taliban and understood that Kabul had fallen and the Taliban had taken Kabul. I felt that the city did not belong to me anymore.

During my work, I travelled to different countries. Every time, I thought of returning to Kabul because the base of all my interests, plans, and work was in Kabul. When I saw the Taliban, everything was over for me and I felt that I did not exist and that I did not belong anywhere in this city, alley, street, or market. Everything in the office was left and everyone had gone to save their lives.

After the fall of Afghanistan, I stayed in Kabul for two months, and in those two months, I left only once to remove the printed issues of Nimrokh from the wall and my books. When I first established Nimrokh, I only had a laptop and a desk in the office. Because the weather was cold, we would flatten the blanket and sit on top of it to workt. I still have the photos from that time. With the passage of time, I was able to buy things for the office until our office was considered a “working office.” After Kabul fell, I went to the office and found it a ruin.

The Taliban arrival created a strange environment of fear but they still did not bother women that much. We could go out or to a restaurant. But, all in all, the fear caused many changes. For example, the Taj Begum restaurant was shut down. The tailors who sewed coats and pants started producing hijabs. The girls all wore black hijabs. Strange changes happened in the first months after the fall of Afghanistan. It was such a horrible and depressing atmosphere and I had never cried as much as I did in those two months. I cried for everything, even for the alleys and streets where I had been harassed. 

I think that it was November 15 when I left Afghanistan and went to Albania. I was in Albania for six months and then I came to Canada. Tomorrow it will be two years since I have been in Canada.

ZT: Regarding the lessons you learned and the experiences you have, can you help girls who want to become journalists?

Roshanian: My experience is that when we start something in Afghanistan, we should expect that we will face resistance from all directions. We must make ourselves strong to overcome all insults and address our thoughts and concerns independently. 

I have learned something from every stage of my life. Now I have become pessimistic about those who attend meetings and talk about Afghanistan. I have a negative opinion about them and I consider most of them to be the main cause of the situation that women are experiencing now, but they do not accept responsibility at all.

Not long ago I was asked to nominate myself for an award. I asked why and for what? Everyone said, “You don’t want Nimrokh to be celebrated with an award?” I said it is true that Nimrokh has been a media for the voice of Afghan women, but that I would stand as a candidate to win an award when all Afghan women have the freedom to go to school and the freedom to live a human life. Of course, I respect all those who win awards. They work and try, and this is a very good encouragement and motivation, but my inner sense does not allow me to receive an award in this situation that the women and girls of Afghanistan are in.

Currently, women cannot earn a living. We had reports that even some women suffered severe allergies and infections because they did not have money for their sanitary napkins. No one supported them financially and they did not have the ability to treat themselves. Previously, a large number of Afghan women and girls had jobs and income. And they used to provide everything by themselves, but now there is no such thing. 

This torments me and has kept me isolated for these two years. A lot of the meetings and programs seem somehow fake and unreal to me. I was invited to several events in Toronto, but I didn’t go to any of them because I thought to myself that these are only useful when we change the narrative. We should not mingle with both sides, be with civil society and Talib at same time. In my opinion, the lines should be clear. If we are against the Taliban, we must be completely against the Taliban, without compromise, and defend civic and democratic values. 

ZT: In your opinion, what is the responsibility of a media organization? You said that we should have a specific line. But what do you think about the fact that a reporter should be impartial?

Impartiality and professional work are important to us. In the current situation, we as Afghan women cannot be neutral in front of the Taliban. For this reason, my argument was that the Taliban is considered a terrorist group for Nimrokh, as it has brought all the misfortunes to the people of Afghanistan in the last 20 years. They killed our people and our women in the streets and alleys of Afghanistan, and now that they have occupied Afghanistan, they are committing all the crimes they can against the people of Afghanistan and against the women of Afghanistan. 

At this point, as the person in charge of this media, who works with seven or eight other people, I don’t want to be neutral. We are facing the Taliban, our enemy is the Taliban, and we report the crimes, killings, and aggression of the Taliban as much as we can. In this way, we work in support of freedom of speech and democracy and people’s interests and freedom. So, under these conditions, I think that neutrality is not possible.

For example, if the Taliban paves a road or distributes a package of food to a woman who has no identity, no name, under a burqa, and other media reports that the Taliban gave food to so many women, then that is an insult to me. Today’s women in Afghanistan should be behind the school desk and the office desk with their identity, knowledge, and name. She should participate in the decision-making process. It is true that Afghan women had many problems, but Afghan women brought many serious changes. There were women who went to different countries and had education, and a group of women were in positions of power and were known. 

When it comes to media management, there are many problems. On the one hand, we have serious work concerns, and on the other hand, we have to continue according to the wishes of the donors. But the main problem is the threat of the Taliban. Experienced journalists cannot work because of the fear of the Taliban, and it is difficult to work with inexperienced people.