Sunday, June 26, 2022

The Afghan journalist who fled to Britain is haunted by the fate of the women and girls left behind

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Zahra Shaheer is grateful that her daughter can go to school in England, while in Afghanistan she would be excluded from secondary school and possibly forced into marriage

On the morning of August 15, 2021, news presenter Zahra Shaheer sat in a studio in Kabul, pondering that incoming Taliban fighters were pointing a gun at her head.

As she read the words on the autocue, her voice shaking, she imagined what would happen to her when the Taliban arrived in the city and searched her office building.

“I thought if they come to the studio, what should I do, my clothes are not appropriate for the Taliban,” Ms Shaheer said.

“I was thinking about my son, if they suddenly come, what will happen to him?

“If they find me, I don’t know what they’re going to do with me. Because I was a single mother with children, the Taliban will come to Kabul and force young girls, single mothers and widows to marry off. I was worried about that.”

She arrived at the studio at 9am that day to work her shift until the evening, but at midday, when she saw security guards and other colleagues running off, she followed and never looked back.

It was to be the last time she worked. Now, having arrived in the UK on an evacuation flight five days after Kabul fell to the Taliban, the 32-year-old lives with her two children in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.

They get by on Universal Credit, but Ms Shaheer, who has enrolled in an online journalism course and is taking English courses, is hoping to earn a master’s degree and revitalize her career.

Ms Shaheer said she was grateful that her 11-year-old daughter was able to attend school with her 10-year-old brother while she was excluded from secondary education in Afghanistan and possibly forced into marriage to a Taliban soldier.

“We’re glad we’re safe now,” she said. “If we were in Afghanistan, my daughter would not be allowed to go to school.

“I can get on with my life my way.”

However, Ms Shaheer said she had no idea what the cost of living would be when she moved into her new home in February. The cost of living crisis is eroding her income and she can only afford the bare essentials.

Vital services like free school meals, charitable donations and support from organizations like the Refugee Council keep her alive. “And it’s enough,” she said.

Her life in Britain is a far cry from the struggles she endured in Afghanistan before the Taliban took control of the war-torn country.

As a working, university-educated single mother of two, she was in constant “social danger” and had to exercise great caution when traveling through a country where prejudice against women is widespread.

Ms. Shaheer presented a program called peace and security who reported on Taliban bombings and terrorist groups which she said put them in danger.

“The security wasn’t good, even then we were in danger,” she said. “It got worse when the Taliban came.”

When Taliban and American negotiators met in Doha in 2020 to sign a peace deal – in which the US agreed to a full troop withdrawal – Ms Shaheer and her colleagues were skeptical.

“Ever since then, people have said that if the Taliban come, they will not change,” she said.

A friend of hers, a news anchor, brought a burqa to the office and put it in a closet. She told Ms. Shaheer that “if the Taliban come, you can have this.”

Ms. Shaheer said her colleagues also sometimes joked that Taliban fighters burst into the studio one night and forced her to break positive news of her arrival at gunpoint.

Those jokes of the past have now become reality for women and journalists in Afghanistan.

Just days after the Taliban took over Kabul, an Afghan news anchor appeared on TV surrounded by armed Taliban soldiers as he told viewers not to “fear”. to cover completely including their faces.

The Taliban have imposed a series of restrictive measures on civil society, many of which deprive women and girls of their rights. Women and girls are banned from sharing public transport with men, while taxi drivers are told not to drive women who are not fully covered or on long journeys without one mahram (a male family member).

Ms Shaheer said some girls ended their lives because “they have lost hope because they don’t go to school and are afraid of being forced into marriage with the Taliban”.

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