When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan, Zahra Joya dressed as a boy and called herself Mohammad, allowing her to avoid the group’s ban on girls going to school.
The journalist’s unusual childhood not only allowed her to receive an education, but gave her a taste of the freedoms denied to most girls in Afghanistan, where many families only celebrate the birth of children.
An outspoken feminist, Joya founded Rukhshana Media last year – a news service reporting on the lives of Afghan women, including the economic hardships and violence that many suffer.
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Joya, 29, is among hundreds of journalists who fled the country after the shock of the militants returned to power on August 15.
Today she is staying in a London hotel – a stone’s throw from the Tower of London – after being evacuated from Kabul after the Taliban took over.
From her room she continues to report on events 5,800 km (3,600 miles) away, relying on six female journalists working clandestinely, and her network of contacts.
“Our work is now more important than ever because most media outlets have closed,” she said, adding that more than 150 stores in the country’s once vibrant media outlet have closed since August, and most female journalists have stopped working.
“Afghanistan is the only country where half the population does not have basic rights. It’s important that we show what’s going on, ”said Joya, who will speak on Thursday at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Conference Conference.
When the Taliban last ruled from 1996 to 2001, they banned women from work and imposed severe restrictions on their lives, whipping or stoning those who broke the rules.
This time they said that girls and women will be allowed to study and work according to Islamic law, without explaining exactly what that means. Most women and high school girls stay home.
Joya said technology and social media helped journalists control the Taliban in a way not possible when the group last ruled.
But she said extremists also use social media to spread propaganda and incite hatred.
Joya is from the predominantly Shia Hazara community, which has long been targeted by extremists including the Taliban and ISIS.
“I’m a woman, a journalist and Hazara – three things the Taliban don’t like,” she said.
Joya started Rukhshana Media last year with her own savings to give Afghan women journalists a platform to discuss issues neglected by the mainstream media including sexual harassment, child marriage and economic empowerment.
“Male journalists decide what is newsworthy in Afghanistan,” she said. “They don’t understand the value of telling women’s stories. For example, they report rape, but do not discuss the consequences for survivors. “
In August, Joya launched a $ 20,000 appeal to further Rukhshana. Within weeks $ 300,000 in donations poured in from all over the world.
She has since set up an English-language service and plans to hire more reporters across Afghanistan.
“I was overwhelmed by the response,” she said. “It is a huge responsibility to repay the faith of all these people.”
Rukhshana Media is named after a young woman who was stoned to death in 2015 after fleeing a forced marriage.
Joya said her fate illustrated the misogynistic violence and inequality that pervade society.
Growing up a boy
When Joya was born in Bamyan province in central Afghanistan her grandfather cried because she was not a boy.
“This is a big issue for Afghan feminists,” she said. “No one celebrates girls. It’s hard to know that when you were born, you had no value. It’s like a wound that never heals. ”
Flipping through photos on her iPhone showing the bright blue lakes and steep brown peaks of her home region, Joya described a childhood running in the mountains and playing football with her classmates.
She laughed as she recalled their confusion when, at the age of about 13, she first appeared in school dressed as a girl. Reluctant to leave her former identity, she became Mohammad Zahra – a name some relatives still use.
After studying law at university, Joya attempted a stint in writing and was immediately hooked.
Her father, a prosecutor, wanted her to become a judge, believing that journalism is too dangerous for a woman in Afghanistan, but is now extremely proud of her.
Joya left Kabul on August 25 with four siblings and her niece in the midst of an international operation to evacuate tens of thousands of people considered at risk of Taliban retaliation.
After boarding, Joya was looking for a window seat for a last glimpse of his homeland. But it was a military aircraft. There were no windows.
“I couldn’t even say goodbye,” she said, wiping away tears.
Joya only packed a few clothes and her computer in her backpack.
“My computer is my weapon,” she said. “With my computer I will continue to … stand up against the Taliban.”
When she feels overwhelmed by the frustrating stories that consume her day, she consoles herself by playing with her one-year-old niece Ellaha.
“I’m very happy that she’s growing up in a country that knows the value of girls,” Joya said.
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