When I arrive at the north London café where I’ve arranged to meet Zahra Joya, I realise I’ve got the time wrong: I am there at midday instead of 2pm. I send her an email and she immediately calls back. A kind, soft voice tells me she can’t come now as she keeps Afghanistan time and has another two hours’ work left to do at Rukhshana Media, the company she created to give Afghan women a voice.

Waiting for her in the café’s swanky, brick-walled basement, I spend the extra time arranging my questions in chronological order. But when I reread my notes on Zahra’s extraordinary life, starting from her childhood in a central Afghan village cradled by the Hindu Kush and Koh-i-Baba mountains, I realise a chronological account of the odyssey that led her to this great metropolis perhaps isn’t the best way to approach her complex story. I decide to let the conversation flow whichever way she wants to channel it.

I recognise Zahra immediately as she walks down the stairs. She’s wearing a long, red, check flannel shirt and black leggings, a scarf loosely draped around her shoulders and her jet-black hair held together with a band.

We hug.

In Afghanistan it’s 6.30pm, she tells me as we sit down. “I start working at 5am, take stories from my colleagues, edit and upload on our Rukhshana Media website. I’ve just finished and let my colleagues go home.” Having had to close the Kabul office she was running before the invasion, she now coordinates virtual bureaux run by women all over Afghanistan from her London office – in her bedroom.

She tells me the flat she shares with her three sisters, a brother and her niece, is just a fifteen-minute walk from here. They were evacuated from Kabul after the Taliban came to power, along with thousands of foreigners and vulnerable Afghans, particularly women and members of the ethnic minority Hazara community – to which Zahra belongs.

“All of us were airlifted here in August 2021.”
“You’ve been living in the flat since you arrived?”
“No. When we first arrived, we were put in a hotel. That was hard. Imagine being airlifted from Kabul and landing in a hotel room, the six of us. But after one year, we found the house where we are now. My brother is eighteen. He’s preparing for A-levels. My sisters [aged 20 and 21] are going to college, studying computer science and business. The difference between them is just one year, they look like twins.”
“You were catapulted from your familiar surroundings and overnight dropped off on another world.”
“Not another world – London was like another planet for us. If you told me even a week before it happened, I would not have believed I’d be living here.”
“When did you first realise you were going to be airlifted?”
“Well, it was kind of a shock for all of us. When the Taliban were marching towards Kabul, we didn’t think the US-backed government would fall so quickly.”
Zahra is still coming to terms with the shock of this violent transfer from her familiar world to refugee status in the West. “If you could just imagine the airport scene. We were queuing to get to the plane. Everyone pushing and trying to get to the front.”

I was in the BBC newsroom when that happened, reporting the hasty withdrawal of the US and NATO forces when the US-backed government in Kabul was toppled by the Taliban. The evacuation of foreign nationals, and some lucky Afghan citizens with Western contacts, followed in the weeks after the Taliban declared victory on 15 August, 2021.

Zahra was part of one of the largest evacuations in history. More than 120,000 people were airlifted by 30 August – a day before the deadline that Taliban leader Mullah Omar had given to retreating western forces.

She tells me that living under the Taliban wasn’t new to her family. Her childhood was spent almost entirely under the first Taliban rule that began in 1996, when she was four. She lived in a remote province where no girls had ever attended school. Bamiyan lies at the western end of the Hindu Kush mountains, at the heart of the Silk Road, in the valley of the same name.

If it sounds familiar, Bamiyan was in the media spotlight in 2001, during the last year of the initial five-year rule of the Taliban. The Buddhas of Bamiyan – gigantic sixth-century statues set into a sandstone cliff face – were dynamited by them over several weeks. As South Asia editor in the BBC World Service at the time, I remember my feeling of impotent helplessness as I reported from the London newsroom on the destruction of this magnificent specimen of Greco-Buddhist and Gandhara art. The Taliban were toppled eight months later, by a US-led invasion in retaliation for their collusion in the 9/11 attacks.

This was also the year Zahra decided she wanted to go to school, but there were no schools for girls in the valley, not even in faraway towns.

“I’ve read that when you were nine, you dressed up as a boy to go to school,” I say. “You passed as a boy to be educated?”
“Oh! That time!” Zahra sighs. “It makes me nostalgic. I think I have a picture of that Zahra in boy’s clothes.”
“Yes. I’ve seen it.”

“That picture reminds me every time I look at it that you have to do something for your gender. We need to find equality. My two uncles – who were a little older than me – were allowed to go to school but I wasn’t. I was upset. I asked my mum: ‘Why can’t I go to school like my uncles?’ And she said: ‘You’re not allowed. There’s no space for girls in the school.’ My uncles then came up with the idea that I would wear their clothes and go to school as a boy. I became Mohammed. So I went with them and registered my name. It was very far away. We had to walk two and a half hours each journey. From nine to thirteen – I was there for five years.”

When her female identity was finally revealed, Zahra says the kind teachers didn’t throw her out. “I was a smart student in the class. And my teachers, they loved me. So that was it,” she smiles.

Pleased with her performance, her teachers allowed her to continue until the family moved to Kabul. Zahra points out the significance of this: that in most areas of Afghanistan there isn’t a taboo on girls being educated. In fact, most people send their girls to school if they can, she says, and not all Taliban men agree with the dark policy their rulers have imposed against girls’ education.

“Honestly, it was not in our culture before the Taliban became a political and religious force in Afghanistan with their anti-western policy,” says Zahra. “The Taliban who are in Doha, they send their girls to school and university. But I think it’s difficult for the Taliban in Kandahar to do the same because of the Taliban administration. The Taliban rulers’ religious fundamentalist ideology is not cultural but, rather, an international movement with support from other extremist groups and political players.”
“Who are they, the political players?”
“Pakistan, for example, and before that it was the US. The mostly illiterate Taliban were used by various outsiders to [achieve] their own goal.”

The picture Zahra paints of Afghanistan’s traditional and historical attitude to women and women’s education is not so different from that of other conservative societies in the region. So long as secondary-school girls and women covered their heads and led a traditional life, they could study, work, go to parks, travel on their own – all of which are now banned under the Taliban.

Why then, I ask Zahra, does Afghanistan have such a misogynistic reputation? And how have the Taliban managed – not just once but twice – to impose strictures on women that effectively eradicate half the population from public life?

Everything we’d rebuilt is gone. Do you see any future for us?

She believes the western stereotype of an Afghan woman in an all-covering burqa, hidden away from public view, is not a true representation of Afghanistan. To reinforce this, she has invited women from all the provinces to document own experiences for Rukhshana Media. “We ask women to write their personal accounts, what they want and what they need to say. We are giving them the platform.”
“Are you getting lots of responses?”
“Yes. Every day. We hide their identity, we publish their stories. They are strong stories. Afghan women still have some tools of resilience. One of them is media communication. I want to keep that tool accessible to them. They can speak up, raise their voice, share their thoughts and challenge the social norms.”
“Did you always know that you wanted to be a journalist?”
“When an Afghan girl wants to become a journalist, it is like a taboo. My relatives told me it was not a job for girls. I went to a private university, Gawharshad. It was expensive, but I got a scholarship. I did law. But in university, a classmate who became my friend was working with a local news agency. I was asked to go there to see how a newsroom worked. Very soon I realised this was the job that I wanted. So I started working there – I worked there for three months. I learnt how to file a report.”
“You did it alongside university?”
“Yes. And continued after university. After five years, I joined a famous newspaper, Etilaat Roz (Daily Information). I was doing investigative reports. In 2020, I left and started working as head of communications for Kabul municipality.”
“When did you decide to set up your own media company? What gave you the inspiration?”
“Working for Daily Information, I was most of the time the only female journalist in the newsroom. So I decided to create a channel for female journalists. That was how Rukhshana Media was born.”
“Why Rukhshana?”
“It’s a common name in Afghanistan. But I chose it after a nineteen-year-old woman called Rukhshana, who in 2015 fled a forced marriage in the remote Ghor province in western Afghanistan which was under Taliban rule. The Taliban still ruled some faraway provinces, despite being toppled in 2001. We had freedom in Kabul. The Taliban arrested Rukhshana and then in front of hundreds of human rights organisations she was stoned to death. They did nothing to stop it.

I saw a short video of Rukhshana being killed. There was not a lot of coverage about her death. And I wanted to find a channel through which we could at least talk about the difficulties that women were facing. [Through] Rukhshana Media we were challenging the authorities and social norms.”

She used her own savings to fund her news agency. “It was a difficult time but a meaningful one. Soon, we started our partnership with the [UK] Guardian, and then Time magazine. Our agency was noticed by the world.” This connection and partnership with western media organisations would help Zahra and her immediate family members escape the Taliban in August 2021.

Zahra recounts the first days following the fall of Kabul. Her parents knew what was awaiting the women and girls of Afghanistan; they had been there before, during the Taliban’s first rule between 1996 and 2001. But “for me, it was so difficult to stay at home. One day I told my mum I wanted to go outside. She told me I hadn’t the black clothes, the burqa. We didn’t have the burqa in our house. Because my mother, like everybody else, removed all of that after 2001. My mother told me if I went outside in the wrong clothes, I would get into trouble. But I went out anyway.”

“Kabul, the whole city, was so quiet, not a soul in the streets. I took a taxi. When I got off, I saw a lady with a man crossing the street. They looked at me, and started shouting: ‘Are you crazy to come out in these clothes?’ It was summer. I was wearing leggings. I had a scarf, but not enough. We had to be fully hidden in a head-to-toe burqa.”

Zahra was so scared, she didn’t go out at all after this encounter. Instead, she started thinking what she could do to bring this to world attention and wrote an eye-witness article for the Guardian.

Then, one night, “a colleague, a friend from the Guardian, called me. She said: ‘Zahra, we have a question. Are you willing to leave?’ And it was like so sad news for me. I said no at first. I could not leave my family behind. But then I started making a list: of my colleagues, former colleagues, and my sisters.

I asked my father: ‘Would you like me to put your name on the list? Would you like to go?’ He said: ‘No, you can go with your sisters. I will stay with your mum and your big brother. I will stay here because I’m tired. I’m old. Can you accept that?’ I said: ‘Yeah.’ The next day I sent the Guardian the list.”

In the end, Zahra’s parents and the rest of her family moved to Pakistan. But it’s a dangerous time in Pakistan too, particularly as the Islamabad government has started cracking down on Afghan refugees without papers in recent months and those without them have been forcibly sent back to Afghanistan. There are also the Tehrik-i-Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, who are hunting down Afghans.

“My family in Pakistan are living on six-month renewable visas, and each time they have to pay a huge fee. They can’t go back to Afghanistan. It’s not safe for Hazaras. We are Shias and persecuted by the Sunni Taliban.”

Zahra says the Hazaras in Afghanistan were never fully safe under Sunni majority rule. “Before the fall of Kabul, I had a nice time. I had my friends, I worked as a journalist, I went to university. That side was good. But I also grew up with a lot of troubles. It was the reality of the Afghan life. There were a lot of suicide attacks on our community and places of worship.”

Rukhshana Media has become all the more important since Zahra has been based in London because, she says, world interest has turned away from the plight of women in Afghanistan, who have vanished from sight under the Taliban. Even the secret home schools, where secondary school girls were being educated, can no longer function because of lack of funding.

Our women have disappeared, all because of the Doha accord that the Trump administration signed in 2020 with the Taliban

“Everything we’d rebuilt is gone. Do you see any future for us? [The repression of women] is a shameful sign in our history. The Taliban have time and time again stolen the beauty of this country. And they are now back in power, but the world has lost interest in Afghanistan. Our women have disappeared, all because of the Doha accord that the Trump administration signed in 2020 with the Taliban, and which the Biden administration carried through, pulling out American forces. That was a shameful agreement that the US signed.”

In Bamiyan, where the Buddhas once stood, the two gaping, giant-shaped cavities on the cliff face can be seen by travellers along the ancient Silk Road, a reminder that no western allies could stop Mullah Omar’s men from committing irreversible vandalism to what Zahra describes as the symbols of the 2,000-year-old “historical continuity of Afghan pride”.

The West’s failure to intervene on behalf of Afghan girls and women – banned from education and denied ordinary pleasures, such as visiting a park or going for a walk – is also gaping hole. It’s not etched in stone, but in the hollow of the West’s collective conscience, in our accountability, in our stance as “morally superior”. Other world conflicts may have displaced the Afghan tragedy from international attention, but its girls and women continue to suffer.

“If you had the power to rule Afghanistan,” I ask Zahra, “what would you do to the Taliban?”
“I’d put them in a free environment, without guns, without harmful objects, give them a lot of books, a lot of movies, a lot of freedom, and tell them: go and enjoy!”
“What if they don’t know how to enjoy themselves?”
“Some of us who know will teach them. Honestly, the Taliban need to learn to enjoy freedom.”
“Why didn’t they learn anything in all these decades?”
“Because they have guns, money. If someone could take all the harmful things away from them and tell them: you have this space, go and have fun… We need to tell them: go educate yourself. Most of them are illiterate. They don’t even read the Quran properly. Because the first word in the Quran is iqra – which means learn – but they don’t learn!”
“And you’ll put men and women together in that space?”

Lipika Pelham is a historian, journalist, filmmaker and the author of  “Passing: An Alternative History of Identity” (2021). She currently works for the BBC

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