Editors’ note: Hollie McKay’s latest special report for Deadline finds the veteran foreign affairs correspondent and Only Cry for the Living: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield author negotiating the sometimes contradictory new realities for female journalists in Afghanistan since the Taliban’s return to power.
“What do you really do?” the Taliban commander seethed from inside their police station holding cell last week. “How do I know these aren’t fake?”
He sneered at my press card and the permission letter issued to me by the Taliban Media Office — officially termed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — giving me legal authorization to continue working in the conflict-plagued country that suddenly fell into Taliban control in mid-August.
However frustrated I was growing inside the suffocating space, I drew a deep breath and remained calm.
Hours in detainment had already passed as more and more high-ranking Taliban security and intelligence officials entered the small interrogation room in Spin Boldak, which borders Pakistan, all armed with American-made M4s and the veiled accusation that my photographer and I surely had to be spies. It’s an unfortunate tag that these days befalls almost all journalists working in nefarious places, and one that needless to say ratchets up the danger level of the profession.
Eventually, after much arguing and then the coveted clearance from the Taliban top brass, we were released back into the wild to continue covering the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian crisis unfurling at the international crossing.
I realized how many governance challenges lay ahead for this new regime of fighters from the mountains, now swept into running a country of 38 million virtually overnight. I also realized that this experience marked the first time in my month of working behind Taliban lines in Afghanistan that their officials had treated me exactly the same as my male photographer, Jake Simkin.
These Talibs had looked me dead in the eyes. They had made no effort to shield me from the stress of the situation. That in itself was a rapid departure from the newly empowered Taliban I have come to know, which for the most part treats girls and women as property along with land or gold or a ladle from a kitchen drawer.
But I believe the more women that continue to operate as journalists inside this new epoch, the more we can continue to plant a seed that we will not and cannot be ignored.
Over the past six weeks, I have talked to dozens of Taliban members, from the senior echelons in cushy couches in Kabul to the rank-and-file foot soldiers with flowing turbans and kohl-rimmed eyes in dusty, remote villages. I have no qualms approaching them on the street or in a stuffy office or village mosque. I am almost always the lone woman in a room with all bearded men carrying weapons the way some fathers would cradle their child.
When I walk into a meeting, I am rarely ever acknowledged. Meanwhile, Jake and our fixer, a local named Naweed who has quickly become part of our close-knit unit, are generally met with enthusiasm and guttural greetings in Pashto.
Almost all the Taliban members do not look at me. If they happen to accidentally make eye contact, they immediately drop their heads or avert their gazes. During an interview, the Taliban interviewees always politely welcome me and proceed to answer my questions, never glancing my way.
I have grown accustomed to this. In just a few short weeks, I adapted to such treatment without protest as the norm for me to continue working as a foreign journalist in the new Emirate. Perhaps that is what is most terrifying, how quickly I — someone who has long sought to highlight human rights abuses around the world — pragmatically accepted my new reality to be heard when convenient, but never seen.
Under the Taliban’s draconian scope, which isn’t all that different from the deeply conservative pockets of Afghanistan even throughout the 20-year U.S occupation.
There is a strange commixture of coddling that comes with being a working woman in the new — albeit old — Afghanistan too.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited the re-instated and much feared Ministry for Suppression of Vice and Propagation of Virtue. During the last Taliban rule, the department brutally enforced its interpretation of Shariah Law replete with stoning for adultery, public executions for murder, and the severing of the hand for those convicted of stealing. The top tier has made it clear those haunting punishments for “major sins” will return.
I was not allowed to join my male colleagues inside the induction ceremony. Instead, the religious Taliban guards shielded me away inside a private room, constantly bringing me tea and fruit and then finally an official. He would only do the interview away from the eyes of the other imams milling around the garden, knowing he would be judged for speaking to a woman.
Nonetheless, I also ventured out this week to the dim, tiny village mosque in the antiquated Sang-e-Sar in Kandahar province. It was the single room in which Mullah Omar founded the Taliban movement and rallied his troops to the cause back in 1995. It was filled with the most conservative religious leaders upholding their late founder’s legacy. Yet, they had no problem sharing bread and even probing me with questions pertaining to my own views and personal life, a significant departure to the instructions given to the young Taliban generation of whom I am non-existent.
There is no one-size-fits-all. In western media circles, we too often attempt to skip the nuanced realities for a black-and-white image in which all Taliban is lumped into one.
This meeting came on the heels of the winding 10-hour journey from Kabul to Kandahar. Such a trek was unthinkable just five weeks ago, deemed one of the most dangerous stretches given the intensity of fighting between the Taliban and government forces.
We traversed through the blown-to-bits army bases in Logar province, that U.S taxpayers spent billions to bolster with the Afghan Special Forces and then into the notorious crime haven of Ghazni province, teeming with ancient ruins and raw, untouched old quarters that evoke trading life on the Old Silk Road.
We arrived after dark and the only place to stay was a reeking cluster of rooms with no running water. Heavy-set Talibs came into the eating area, again never acknowledging my presence. Yet I learned the next morning, after hearing muffled noises throughout the strange and sleepless night, that the men had decided to stay the night in a squished room downstairs, apparently to protect me as woman having to sleep in my own area, away from my male driver, fixer and photographer, as per cultural customs.
What is also a remarkable change since the Taliban takeover is the flagrant lack of security surrounding women altogether. Some Talibs told me that they have been issued orders to not stop a car at a checkpoint if a woman is inside, and that has mostly rang true through all my journeying across the beautiful, blood-laden Afghanistan.
A glimpse of me in the backseat is met with a nervous ushering to keep moving. And of all the official buildings, ministries and bases I have now traversed through, not once has anyone stopped to thoroughly search me or my bag. The reasoning is obvious: there are no women working. The days of being beckoned to a side room where a woman security officer would pat me down in privacy immediately dispersed as the Taliban seized the full reins in August.
That in itself is a glaring security hole for a nation long wrecked by violence and mayhem, where groups like ISIS-K, the Afghan affiliate of the brutal terrorist outfit, have been known to disguise suicide bombers as women and use children as human shields.
Moreover, I often get asked a lot what I wear now, keeping in mind that the Taliban enforced heavy-handed dress codes during their previous rule in the 1990s and deployed morality police to the streets to flog any violators who dared show an ankle, a naked hand, a hint of flesh on their face.
But as it still stands, the Emirate has not formed a full Parliament and there is no judiciary, meaning that a jirga — a team of what will no doubt be all male Islamic scholars — is yet to determine what is acceptable clothing for a woman, and if she can publicly expose any bodily part beyond her eyes.
Until that chilling moment — which could be weeks, months or even years away — I still don what I have always donned in the country I love deeply: a loose dress below my knee, pants and a simple hijab with a hint of color. If I am in an especially uncomfortable situation, such as walking through the Kandahari markets where the sight of a woman at sunset is unfathomable to the mobs of men, I cover my mouth and nose with a trusty Covid mask for my own personal comfort.
Yet, I know full well that I possess a little blue passport that provides me a special status that is not afforded to my Afghan colleagues and friends. In Afghanistan even under Taliban, as was also the case in the previous Islamic government and most of the countries where I work across the Middle East, the foreign female journalist is considered something of a “third gender.” I don’t have the stature of a man, yet I am not necessarily expected to obey every thread of cultural custom inflicted on a local woman.
This limbo-like label enables me to traverse the two worlds in a unique way, sitting with the men but then having the ability to go and spend time with women in their homes and kitchens, accessing half the population that my male counterparts cannot.
But as the weeks go by, more and more of the women I have come to know and love in Afghanistan have disappeared. They have fled to safer shores abroad, or gone into hiding in their dank basements, changing safe houses frequently and deleting their social media accounts.
The future of girls’ high school education hangs in the void of the unknown, with the Emirate only announcing that boys and male teachers should return to the classroom. Much like the Ministry of Women’s Affairs that dissolved last month without explanation, there is no mention of re-opening girls schools. When I press Taliban officials for answers, I receive vague statements that classrooms will re-start when segregated facilities are established and transport can be guaranteed, away from the eye of the opposite sex.
To cap a frenetic week, we hit the road once again on Saturday, bouncing over potholes to the eponymous Sangin district in Helmand province, which supplies some 95 percent of the world’s heroin exports. I sat inside a small mud hut to escape the searing heat, interviewing a group of weathered poppy farmers and a Taliban minder sent to follow us from the local governor’s office.
The all-male room was served tea. I was not. I resisted the urge to walk out, as my fixer gently passed me his brimming cup. I sipped and look up, for the first time noticing a tiny girl milling at the entranceway staring at me, half-smiling, afraid to enter and already understanding that her place was to remain in the background.
In that moment, my practical compliance of remaining something of the second-class because of my gender fast fragmented.
We should not and cannot embrace this as the norm.