9/11 and Journalism Practice in Afghanistan: An Interview with Bahaar Joya

"I think that the only reason that the world would cover Afghanistan again would be if there's terrorist activity that would threaten the West or their interest. This is when Afghanistan will come back to the media's attention," Bahaar Joya

By Marianna Karakoulaki

When most people are asked ‘what were you doing on September 11, 2001’, most remember the exact moment. The attacks on World Trade Center in New York, USA changed the world in a unprecedented degree: they changed the USA’s global position, they were the beginning of two of the deadliest wars in modern history which were part of the ‘War on Terror’ and continue to influence international politics, they shifted the focus of whole academic fields.

This year, 2021, marks the 20 years since the attack and because of that Media Diversity Institute and Get The Trolls Out! wanted to explore the way 9/11 influenced the media in a broader context. For this reason, we interviewed several academics and journalists with expertise on the broader field of the media and diversity in order to look at the ways 9/11 and its aftermath impacted the media in general as well as journalists’ work more specifically.

The interviews were published before and after September 11, 2021.

9/11 and the British Media: An interview with Professor Elizabeth Poole by Giulia Dessi

9/11 and the Film and TV Industry: An Interview Dr Evelyn Alsultany by Giulia Dessi

9/11 and Video Games: An Interview with Michael Hitchens by Mikhail Yakovlev

9/11 and Journalism Practice in Afghanistan: An Interview with Bahaar Joya by Marianna Karakoulaki

Bahaar Joya is a Broadcasting multimedia Journalist at BBC (Persian) Afghanistan. One of the few women to fill this role since the establishment of the British leading news channel in Kabul. In her last position as Election Commissioner (Western Afghanistan), she shepherded the free and fair conduction of elections in the region. After this she went to India, for her Master’s in Political Science from Aligarh Muslim University. Bahaar has been working as a news reporter and journalist at a variety of media outlets in Afghanistan since 2006. She is an active member of the local Women Social Activists Forum in Afghanistan which struggles for getting rights of women in the war hit nation.

Marianna Karakoulaki: How did 9/11 influence journalism in Afghanistan?

Bahaar Joya: When 9/11 happened, I was nine or 10 years old, and the only thing I remember from that time was the news and the towers. We were living outside of Afghanistan at that time; in Abu Dhabi. Suddenly everything changed for my country, Afghanistan. After the Taliban were removed by the international community my father who was former military decided to go back to Afghanistan and serve his country so he brought us all to back. There was a hope in everyone’s heart that it was time for nation building. From that time I remember the first generation of journalists who entered the universities in Kabul and in other cities. I still have this one story from that generation of journalists:  that in 2002 when they went to university the only department that, in a way, was ‘sold out’ was the journalism department. Everyone wanted to become a journalist and suddenly it a very interesting and fun loving job for everyone. There were lots of things happening in Afghanistan and everyone wanted to become an expert and tell the story.

Apart from that however, the people of Afghanistan were suppressed for many years and they were not able to live their life according to their own will. So this impacted many, many youngsters: they wanted to become journalists, they wanted to tell their story about their past, about the present, about the things that were happening very quickly, very suddenly in Afghanistan. So yes, 9/11 actually impacted journalism aspects and story – telling in in that part of the world.

Marianna Karakoulaki: Did 9/11 impact you personally and did it impact your journey of becoming a journalist?

Bahaar Joya: Yes, very much. I was very young and don’t remember the time when the Taliban came to power; the picture is very vague for me. So the only thing I remember, is my grandma with whom I was living with and my father who took me away because I was in danger.  When 9/11 happened Abu Dhabi felt like a home as I was adapting as a kid. Then suddenly again, I was losing my country and I was losing my home because my mum and dad decided to make Afghanistan their home again.

For me, as a kid this adaptation process was very difficult. At the same time when I came back to Afghanistan, the country was devastated and poor. There was nothing, absolutely nothing. For example [I remember] the school, had no AC or fans and it was extremely hot and I fainted twice.

But I tried to understand the people, understand the culture and started liking it.I felt a sense of belonging: ‘this is my homeland, and we are here to build it’ as my father said.

[But even during] those days, I felt, something was wrong because, for me, as a woman, the society was very suppressed, very traditional, and fundamentalist. I was growing up in that society as a teenager, and I had so many questions which nobody was willing to answer.

For example, I had to start wearing scarves which I was against and because of the society; my father asked us to do that even though he was a communist. I never thought that one day he will ask me to wear a hijab; wearing it was really hard and unacceptable for me. But because of the society I had to wear it to protect myself and my sisters. This was a battle for me which started from a very early age.

So I wanted to speak to someone and I wanted to talk about this unjust society and what was happening to me as a teenager. The only way I learnt [how to do that was through journalism]. From my very childhood, I was listening to the BBC radio for the news to know a little bit about what’s happening in the world.

But there was also a music programme on the BBC at that time which I was listening to that. It was talking about rock and roll, about women who are singing and all that. At that time, I think it was educating people; and I, as a teenager, wanted all of that, but I had none of that in Afghanistan in 2003, 2004, 2005.

Our goal was nation building but there was there was still lots of resistance within the society. For example, the new government came with all this wisdom, [all these] values, [they] wanted education for women, political participation for women, women in the media. All these things were happening but again, there was an ongoing strong resistance within the society when it came to these aspects. So we were keeping us back.

For example, when I entered university, I studied Law at Herat University in 2006/7. At that time our teacher was forcing women and men to sit in different classes. So I was asking ‘why?’ ‘we are all human beings, we are all equal, why we should we not sit with each other?’, ‘why can we not socialize, why can we not talk?’. They [the teachers] were saying that ‘this is not right according to Islam, according to our culture’ and that ‘these are all American values, Western values and we don’t want them’. I was personally fighting against it so I decided to become a journalist but my father didn’t want me to do that because he had joined the military, so he was in the society and he wanted Afghani types of values as well as respect for himself and his family. He didn’t want to go against all of those things. So the easiest way was to ask us to adapt, rather than him trying to change the whole country, the whole culture. So he was not very happy about me joining the media, because he knew what I was going to speak about.

There were lots of arguments at home, but finally, I decided to join one women focused radio; the first one of its kind in western Afghanistan, in Herat, called ‘Sahar’. That radio was directly managed by women, Afghan women journalists; the first generation which are my seniors now. I started my training as a journalist at that radio station, because I was a law student, I was not a journalist. There I noticed a programme with the name ‘A Lost Place’ which focused on women’s current issues of that time in Herat. Each week, I was picking one subject and I was talking to experts, going to the field and gathering interviews.

For example, I remember that in 2007 there were a lot of women who were self-burning in Herat because of domestic violence, forced marriages, two or three wives – as men were able to marry as many wives as they wanted. But also because of education rights, girls who were running away from home and were forced back to their homes by authorities. So the only thing they could do at the end of the day was to kill themselves.

I decided that we need to show these things. So I joined, one of the private TV channels and gave them my proposal. Their response was that they needed proposals about entertainment programmes. I declined but decided to do that programme without being paid. So I started that programme at that TV channel and I was taking the camera myself, I was learning how to film because when you were covering women’s stories at that time it was really difficult to get a man inside, for example, a hospital’s safe house. So I was filming inside the hospital with women who were 50% or 80% burnt. When I was asking them the reasons they had burnt themselves and they were saying: ‘because I have no other way’. Most of these women were uneducated. Even though at that time there were lots of organizations in Afghanistan that were helping women, promoting women’s rights and empowering women, [these women] were not aware of that. With that programme I tried to inform women that for any problems they may have had at home they could go to these organisations; they could go to women’s rights organizations; ‘here are the numbers of the offices’, ‘you can go to the authorities, you can go to the Court and fight for a divorce instead of killing and burning yourself’.

That [program] was a blast because in Herat it was actually the only programme that was talking about and focusing on the deepest issues of different layers of the society for Afghan women. We received lots of calls, lots of criticism from the society. They didn’t want these kind of things, that these things will affect their women in a very negative way and [they were claiming] that many women who had a very good life they will file for divorce and will ask for more. But we still carried on that programme which continued for one year. After that, and after completing my Bachelor in Law, I went to India for my higher education in 2012. That was my journey of becoming a journalist.

Marianna Karakoulaki: What was your experience of reporting women’s issues in Afghanistan?

Bahaar Joya: The experience for me personally was joyful and very priceless because I grew up there, I knew where the problems were coming from, and I knew how to approach them; how to highlight them; how to bring them up to the eyes of the international community, to the world, to Afghans, to the authorities, to everyone. Although a lot of money were spent for Afghanistan and the country had the support of the world, and there are more than hundreds media actively working and advocating for women and there were a lot of organizations, there were still things that were happening that we could not avoid, so the only thing we could do was to highlight them more. Although there were a lot of issues in the society, the focus of the Afghan government, of women’s rights activists or of organizations was on main cities. However, there are not a lot of main cities in Afghanistan; there are only Kabul, Herat, Kandahar, Ghazni, Mazar – five cities – while the rest of the country is small towns and villages. This is where the problems are. Women there are suffering, they don’t have rights for education, for marriage. All these things were taking place during the Taliban but they were still was happening in these areas; nothing had changed for them. Nobody cared to go there because of security reasons as the Taliban were still active at that time, and they were refusing the rules in rural areas. [The Taliban] at that time had civilian support in those areas – sometimes by force, sometimes willingly because they were so-called Muslims and people were traditional and they wanted to support Muslims. [The people] were against these Western values, especially if [these values] had anything to do with women’s rights or with empowering women.

The soul and the roots of that society are against women’s rights. The only change, [organisations] could bring in women’s lives was in big cities so that they convince their donors to give them funds. For example, if you were looking at the private TV stations in Afghanistan they had women on the face of their media: women were doing interviews, they were news readers, anchors, presenters for entertainment programmes. But women on the ground who were doing investigative journalism, interviews about very important sensitive political issues were very little; each TV channel had only one or none. And when you were asking and questioning why they were saying:

‘Because we are investing on our staff. Training them, sending them outside of Afghanistan to get training and return. And then these women will get married to someone, and then they will quit their job. Why should we invest in them? Instead of that, we will invest in men, they will continue to come and they will get promotion and they will have a career with us.’

This is how things were [for women journalists] in Kabul when I started my career in the BBC in 2012. We had some resistance with the BBC as well, but because it was the BBC you could approach higher management, they [lower management] couldn’t keep you back even though they were trying so hard to keep your back. For example, my own manager was someone who was always keeping me back. So this is what was happening in Afghanistan and the experience was sometimes very hard and difficult. I was attacked by a man with a knife in Kabul, just because I was reporting without wearing my hijab properly according to his view and his perception of the hijab. For this reason, he attacked me and I was hospitalized. I was attacked in social media a lot and I was accused of having affairs with people and lots of other things just to bring me down. At the end I was receiving death threats by the Taliban as well which made me leave Afghanistan and leave the job I loved.

I started my journey as a storyteller with joy, excitement, anger as a teenager which then became mature with the BBC. I was able to travel to different parts of Afghanistan and cover different women’s stories: happy stories, sad stories, their achievements and their suffering. I was part of that, I was suffering with them, and I was excited when I was covering a good story about women’s empowerment, women in achieving seats in Parliament or women working on fashion shows and showing their beauty, and women’s concerts. These stories were joyful. When I was covering stories about women burning themselves or women being beaten to death by their husbands was really difficult.

Marianna Karakoulaki: Is there any story that is very close to your heart?

Bahaar Joya: In 2014 I travelled to the north of Afghanistan as there was a very big flood at the northern part of the country. People suffered a lot, they had lost everything: they had lost their homes, their fields and everything was completely gone. So I went with my cameraman to different provinces in north of Afghanistan to cover a story about how the government is helping out and how the international community is helping those homeless people. One evening, around 7pm while I was preparing for a live interview to London, a woman approached me and I thought she wanted to say something. I wanted to interview her, and I asked:

‘Do you want to go live with me?’

She said: ‘No, I am not allowed but I want to tell you something. You seem educated, you seem foreigner.”

I said: “No I’m not, I’m from Afghanistan.”

She said: “But it seems like you are working with foreigners.”

I said: “Yes I’m working with the BBC.”

She said: “Can you please tell everybody in the world that I don’t want them to bring us more food right now. I don’t want them to come and build up our house, because my husband can do that. Ask them to build a school in this village. I don’t want my children to be uneducated like me; I want to send my girls to school. I don’t want anything else, I can grow some grains, I can rebuild my home myself, but I cannot build a school. We don’t have any schools. I am uneducated, my husband is uneducated, and I want my children to have a different life.”

I couldn’t stop my tears at that moment. I covered hundreds of suicide attacks by that time but this story really broke my heart; it was a hopelessness with hope. Both of [these feelings] together. I thought that this woman, in that village knew the value of knowledge and education; she wanted that and she wanted her message to be delivered. At the end of my live interview I told that story to my audience and I wrote a piece on BBC about it just to deliver [what I promised]. I’m sure there’s no school there but I hope [there will be] one day.

Two weeks ago, however, when the Taliban came back and captured the whole country, I lost my hope. The international community and Joe Biden gave up on people’s hope when they said, they were not there for nation building but for countering terrorism. [They said] they didn’t care. Afghan officials were corrupt and they gave up, so the price is being paid by people who are left alone.

Marianna Karakoulaki: September 11 was the beginning of the so called ‘War on Terror’ which ‘apparently’ ended two weeks ago. We have seen all those pictures of despair and all those pictures of fear and we have also seen loads of analysis, primarily from the West about what is going to happen in Afghanistan now and what is going to happen for women, and specifically for African women journalists. What do you think the future holds for women who have remained in the country, and then more specifically for women who worked in the media?

Bahaar Joya: The picture at the moment is very vague for everyone. But we know one thing as a fact: this group ruled Afghanistan 20 years ago and people have the experience. Now Western countries, especially the USA, are trying to say that the Taliban have changed because they want to legitimize their exit and legitimise leaving people back to die. I don’t believe a word, they [the Taliban] say about changing. I know Afghanistan has changed in recent years, many things work well. We have a very young, new generation who are educated and they’re able to use technology, they’re able to use the Internet, they’re well connected to the world, they speak English. Then there’s the other side of the society, civil society, who are very much critical because the freedom of speech, we experience and last 20 years generates this generation who have been critical towards corruption, towards the government, the leadership, the politics and everything. So now the Taliban has been left with this generation who are not easily giving up everything. For example the days after the USA’s exit women’s protests took place in my city [Herat] and also in Kabul, and in Nimruz which is close to Herat. [These women] are demanding their rights, they want to be part of the political system of the Taliban in the future; not in the politics only but they want to be active in every aspect of the society. But the Taliban beat them and were violent towards them. There are pictures of women with broken heads. You can see how the Taliban approach them. The Taliban have a very clear message to the world and to the Afghan women – either in the media or wherever they are. They’re saying that ‘the government, we established is based on Islam’. Now, I studied Sharia law at the University and I know Islam very well academically because I spent four years studying Islamic law and I know what it is about and where my rights are. That’s why I started my fight against those Islamic values in Afghanistan 10 years ago. According to the Sharia law a woman’s place is very clear and very specific. You as a woman don’t have the right to be a politician; to be a singer; to be a newsreader; to be a musician; to be a model; to be in the leadership; to show your face to travel alone; to have the right off having the custody of your children; to have the right of divorce. None of these issues exist in ‘real’ Islam. Whatever women are practicing in other Islamic countries is a new interpretation of Islam which the Taliban are against it. That’s why they were fighting the previous government as they are saying ‘this is not Islamic’, ‘this had changed’, ‘this is very new’ ‘this is very modern’, ‘very Westernized’, ‘we want the real Islam is that; which ISIS was practicing and now the Taliban are practicing. There’s basically no place for women. The only thing they could do is be doctors and nurses, wearing their hijab in the hospital to help women or they can be mothers at home to raise up their children.

Basically, there is no right. [The Taliban] are very clever as they are saying that they respect women’s rights and that they give everything to them according to Islam, according to the Sharia law.

Unfortunately, I see a very dark age for women in Afghanistan. These women will keep fighting; they will die; they will be killed; they will be imprisoned; they will be raped. Because, according to [the Taliban], you don’t even have the right to say no, because from the age of nine your father can give you to anyone, they want. So you basically you don’t have the right to even say no to forced marriage.

But this time the Taliban will face more resistance from the society; from women.

But again, the society – the male dominated society – which I know very well that is accepting the Taliban.  The past few years I have been fighting against this male dominated society. The people who didn’t want me to be a reporter, the men who didn’t want to see me in the street reporting. So you can see that the Taliban has the support of this society, of the men. It is a sad battle for women. I’m really scared for them.

Marianna Karakoulaki: From the way you describe the situation in Afghanistan, it sounds like it is going to become even worse.  

Bahaar Joya:  Yes, because now the generation is more aware, more educated and they are not going to give up very soon. So there will be resistance, there will be bloodshed, there will be lots of problems for women. These women are demanding their rights they’re not giving in. [The Taliban] are shooting them.

Marianna Karakoulaki: Do you think the news media will continue covering Afghanistan, the way that they have been covering it since now?

Bahaar Joya: I don’t think so. We should keep in mind that this country is surrounded by land and is very isolated. It is surrounded by Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Afghanistan has now lost its strategic importance. Before [recent events] the Americans were there. They wanted their footprint in Afghanistan; it was important for them and didn’t want the influence of Iran. In addition, the fight against terrorism was in Afghanistan. So now they negotiate with these terrorists, they made a deal with them and are in the process of decriminalising them. So now the Taliban is not a terrorist group anymore. So the Americans went out.

I think that the only reason that the world would cover Afghanistan again would be if there’s terrorist activity that would threaten the West or their interest. This is when Afghanistan will come back to their attention. Otherwise the Taliban are not terrorists anymore so there are no interesting stories apart from the recent events. Now there is this whisper that ISIS is growing their routes in Afghanistan and the US military actually bombed some of the areas which, according to them, ISIS is active. This again will not be as big as it was before unless in another 10-20 years’ time these people will go too wild to come and blow up another place in the USA, in western countries. Then they will come back and counter them. This is a circle I think.

Marianna Karakoulaki: If we go back to the impact of 9/11 in a broader level and not just in Afghanistan. How did 9/11 and its aftermath impacted the way the media representation of Muslims and Islam?

Bahaar Joya: In the beginning, it was very negative. I was watching some reports and even some documentaries after 9/11 about Muslims’ lives in western countries and how they suffer. Muslim people were attacked by others on the streets, [those who wore] a hijab [were forced] to take it off, they were not allowed to enter some universities in France.  [The attacks] had an impact because they brought a shame to this religion and to the followers of this religion globally. This didn’t go away very easily, it still exists because you have these anti-Islamic feelings after 9/11 more than any other time and the still remain. For example, I, as a woman, am not facing those kind of problems but my fiancé who is coming from Iran, even though he’s been living in the West for 10 years, and working as a journalist for the BBC does. After 9/11 when he’s travelling around he’s being stopped by the police and being questioned many times. He was stopped twice at airports in the US and other countries in Europe. This is how people perceive Muslims, although he’s an atheist, he doesn’t believe in Islam and ran away from Islam. But he is still stopped and has to answer all those questions. People would always see him as that guy who came from a Muslim country with a Muslim background and as a person who should not be trusted. This is what he experiences and so do many other Muslims, especially men. And they cannot erase it, they have to live with it throughout their life. This was the shame that 9/11 brought to every Muslim person on this earth.

Marianna Karakoulaki: Were non-English speaking media, including BBC Persian, affected by 9/11?

Bahaar Joya: Speaking about the BBC in a bigger scale, before 9/11 the BBC did not have an office in Afghanistan. I think there was one reporter on the ground between Afghanistan and Pakistan travelling. After 9/11 we had a big office with 200 employees. BBC Persian TV, BBC Persian Radio, BBC Pashto TV, BBC Pashto Radio, BBC Uzbek. And all of them with their websites; so the BBC was a big operation in Afghanistan. For BBC Persia the news coverage focus was in Afghanistan. For example, I was one of the field correspondents and every day I had one or two reports from Afghanistan, some live interviews, details about explosions about everything in Afghanistan. It was not only about what was happening every day in Afghanistan, it was about the normal livelihood of Afghans. For example, women’s empowerment in big cities, compared to our audience in Iran, which was similar to the Taliban regime. What women had in Afghanistan, Iranian women didn’t, so we were comparing these two. This was really interesting for our audience because Iran had a civil society for 40 years now, but women cannot study or watch football, while in Afghanistan women were going on to stadiums or they were having concerts. So this was the difference and that’s why it was more interesting. So the focus went to uncovering more stories; good and bad, both sides.

After 9/11, media in the country operated. Money came to Afghanistan, nation building had started, the educational system was improved, and universities, schools and hospitals were built. Everything was built from scratch because during the Taliban there was nothing; few universities, organisations or institutions were functioning and they were functioning very badly. There was nothing.  

NB: This interview has been edited for more clarity

Photo Credit: Bahaar Joya