Zahra Joya was one of the 12 women selected by Time magazine as Woman of the Year for 2022. She was also honored by the BBC as one of the 100 most influential women. In addition to being a journalist and activist, her life changed after her interview with the famous actress Angelina Jolie.
In 2015, she named Rukhshana Media after a 19-year-old woman who was stoned to death by the Taliban. She was awarded the British Journalism Award. In order to tell the unknown stories of women and girls in Afghanistan to the world and to support women journalists, Rukhshana has carried out the ‘Women Report Afghanistan’ project in partnership with the world-renowned British newspaper The Guardian.
In the interview with Angelina Jolie, she narrated that she was 5 years old when the Taliban first came to power in Afghanistan and banned girls’ education and that she had to walk for two hours every day to go to school dressed as a boy.
We talked to Zahra Joya, a journalist in exile in the UK, about Afghanistan and her life in exile in the UK.
YD: The situation of journalists in Afghanistan is getting worse after the Taliban. What about women, what about women journalists?
ZJ: After the Taliban took control in Afghanistan, journalists and free media were unfortunately under attack, because hundreds of free media outlets were shut down. Subsequently, many experienced journalists left the country because of the high risks.
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), more than 80 percent of women journalists have lost their jobs. Women journalists are not allowed to work with a fellow journalist in Afghanistan. But a group of women journalists are still working, but they face a lot of restrictions. So, you know, they are forced to wear headscarves. Even television anchors have to wear a veil when they read the news.
And women cannot give interviews without wearing a headscarf and veil. Free media and independent journalists were a great achievement of the West in Afghanistan in the last 20 years. Unfortunately, we have lost this great gain.
YD: What was life like for women journalists before the Taliban, during this free and independent period?
ZJ: It was quite good, but then Afghanistan was a dangerous country for journalists, as it has always been. But it was still better than under the Taliban because we had laws. We had a unique law, a unique role for the media. And the previous government had a very good and protective organization for media freedom. We had a Ministry of Culture and Information in Kabul. This ministry was a special supporter for journalists. Now there is no independent organization to help journalists.
YD: There are still suffering journalists in Afghanistan. Women journalists can write news and articles by changing their names. Other journalists are afraid to write against the Taliban. What can and should journalists do to restore freedom of expression and press freedom in Afghanistan?
ZJ: After the Taliban seized power, even ordinary people inside the country have lost their freedom of expression. For example, they are not even allowed to post or write anything against the Taliban on social media. If someone posts, if they find out that he or she is in Afghanistan, they will definitely go and find him or her.
Unfortunately, I don’t remember the exact number, but many journalists are in Taliban prisons. So we are trying to protest this situation at least on social media. We are trying to ask the Taliban to release them, but there is no channel to talk to the Taliban. They are not listening.
YD: What are the journalists in exile doing about this where they are?
I talk a lot about exiled journalists in my speeches, because this is one of the few actions we can do from here. We have to at least work to document the behavior and actions of the Taliban against people. So at least we try to inform around us and give a voice to the people in the country. But it’s definitely very difficult. You know, when you work in exile you have a lot of difficulties. We have security issues that can make us targets. Also when we are in exile we have to follow the rules of these countries, you know, we have to integrate into this society and we are all refugees at the same time. We are struggling with financial problems. But I think if we want to be with those who are left behind, if we want to at least help, we have to at least face these difficulties for our people who are there alone with the Taliban.
YD: What was the biggest challenge you faced as a journalist in exile?
ZJ: I had problems with the safety of my family, my family left Afghanistan very quickly because of the pressure from the Taliban. I am also worried about the safety of my colleagues in Afghanistan and here and I have great concerns. Financial difficulties for a journalist in exile are a common problem for all of us. Our working time zone does not fit Afghanistan. We face a time difference.
I HAVE NO COUNTRY, NO HOME, NO FAMILY
YD: How did your life change after your interview with Angela Jolie?
ZJ: Not much has changed. Because I am a journalist, I have my own voice, my own platform, so I think it was a privilege to be chosen by Time Magazine and to interview Angelina Jolie. But sometimes when I see famous people around me who are interested in me, it gives me a good feeling. I have no country, no home, no family. On the other hand, I am surrounded by good and caring people. This is a happy feeling for me.
YD: Is there a chance for new journalists to grow in Afghanistan?
ZJ: Unfortunately, the chance for women journalists is zero. Because the Taliban has banned journalism education for women. Still, there is a chance for many of them. At least they can study journalism at university. But my advice to women journalists is not to give up yet. Be hopeful. Fight for your rights. Eventually, we will overcome these difficulties. Also Rukhshana Media, my organization, is a very unique platform for women journalists. We have this kind of privilege to give them a chance to become journalists.
Joya was one of the 12 women chosen as Time’s Woman of the Year in 2022. She was recognized for her journalism and interviewed Angelina Jolie.
On September 20, 2022, Joya received the 2022 Changemaker Award from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In December 2022, she was honored as one of the BBC 100 Women.
Rukhshana Media received the Marie Colvin Award at the British Journalism Awards 2021
Kristina Varaksina for TIME— Zahra Joya says it was a privilege to be selected by Time Magazine and to interview Angelina Jolie.