The first-ever all-female TV news station there runs a lot like any station in the U.S., with one big exception: These journalists are risking their lives.
It’s 4:00 A.M., and Kabul is dark and still. Shabana Noori wills herself out of bed to drink a cup of hot tea. The 22-year-old news anchor and fledgling star of ZAN TV has to get to work by 6:00 for her Friday-morning shift. ZAN, whose name means “woman” in Dari, is the first and only TV station in Afghanistan for women, made up of an all-female team of journalists, most of them in their early twenties. Launched in the Afghan capital in May, the station sheds light on everything from cosmetics (once banned under the Taliban) to women in sports (also previously banned) to domestic violence (tragically still commonplace). Until now there has never been a show—let alone an entire station—focused on women’s issues. The fact that the women of ZAN are openly talking about them on national television is revolutionary.
Sleepy-eyed, Noori isn’t thinking about how she’s a role model; she’s focused on her daily morning dilemma: what to wear. Normally she’d choose a formfitting outfit in shocking greens, deep reds, intense blues. But today Noori’s in mourning; her aunt has recently died. She picks a dark ensemble—a long black skirt, a black headscarf, a black choker necklace, and a navy T-shirt. Still, she shows her rebelliousness. Her tee reads, “What in the funk do you see” in white block lettering, and her nails are painted glittery gold.
By 5:00 she’s running late. Grabbing her purse and an apple, Noori heads outside, shimmies into a pair of black stilettos on the front porch, and proceeds to gracefully navigate the rough road outside—the cracked pavement, the open sewer. Her father, Ghulam Mohammad, waves goodbye, proud of his daughter, the youngest of his five children, and the career she’s built for herself that helps support her family.
“I want her to achieve her goals,” he says. “I want her to be a tool for the truth.”
Ghulam is illiterate, as is his wife, Khanum Gul. But they believe their daughter—their outspoken, fearless, beautiful daughter—is going to be someone.
If she’s not killed first.
A New Image of Female Strength
On most early mornings Noori hurtles to work through Kabul traffic in a ZAN TV car. Women were banned from driving during Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001, and even now most women still don’t—or can’t—drive. On this late summer morning, a few days before Afghanistan’s Independence Day, she and her driver pick up her colleague (who asked not to be named to protect her safety) on the way to the office. It’s almost peaceful, and for a moment it’s possible to forget the fear that rules this chaotic, bomb-scarred city, with its weekly suicide attacks and ugly blast walls.
The car pulls up near the station—the street has been blocked off by security guards, but sometimes even road closures and armed officers aren’t enough to stop violence in Kabul. In 2015 gunmen stormed the hotel across the street from the station in an attack targeting foreigners, killing 14 people. Noori and her colleague, whose face is shielded by oversize sunglasses, get out of the car and walk the rest of the way, smiling as they dodge puddles of murky water. They go through a secure gate topped with razor wire and past an armed guard and quotations Noori and the team painted on the wall: “Violence against women is an insult to humanity,” and “With women’s empowerment, there is a better tomorrow.” Some of Afghanistan’s legendary roses, in pinks and whites, border the balconied green-and-burnt-orange building.
Once inside, the two young women are greeted by the friendly, tired faces of the early-morning shift. Noori heads upstairs to get her hair and makeup done, then joins her cohost, Shamla Niazi, for their two-hour morning talk show. They sit in front of a blue-sky background where they laugh, discuss recent events, and dig deep into potentially lifesaving and life-changing issues that matter to Afghan women. It’s a vibe similar to The View, with some Afghan flair. On this particular Friday the hosts talk about the importance of freedom in the developing world and compare those without freedom to caged birds. Afghans love to be poetic.
In the green room, a mother, Marzia, 39, watches the set with her two daughters. They usually tune in to ZAN at home, but today they’ll be on air themselves, showcasing their tae kwon do moves. In America it would be a typical feel-good segment. But it’s quietly bold in Afghanistan, where women’s bodies—and their strength—are often hidden, not celebrated. “As a child, I wanted to be in sports, but I didn’t have the chance,” Marzia says. “I tried to give that opportunity to my children.”
A song ends just before a commercial break. At the end there’s a dedication to Nadia Anjuman, a 25-year-old Afghan poet beaten to death by her husband in 2005. It’s one way ZAN regularly and subtly introduces sensitive issues casually into the conversation.
A Life Full of Risks
Born as the Taliban came to power, Noori understands how fragile her freedoms are. Under that hard-line Islamic leadership, Afghan women like her mother were forced into billowing head-to-toe burqas and largely barred from studying, from working, or even from venturing outside their home without a male family escort. Women’s-rights advocates were driven underground, risking their lives simply to teach girls how to read and write.
“ ‘It was difficult to keep you alive,’ ” Noori recalls her mother saying when she was younger; “ ‘it was such a struggle.’ ” Now Noori knows she’s made her mother proud: “My mom loves to watch me on TV,” she says. “My mom always says, ‘Because I’m illiterate, what you do has so much value.’ ”
The U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan to take down al-Qaeda was also touted as a way to liberate Afghan women, and it did help bring about some changes. Today women in the country are slowly but increasingly pursuing higher education, running for office, training for the Olympics, even building robots. But those gains have been limited. Despite three U.S. administrations’ pouring billions of dollars into the country in what is now America’s longest war, the Taliban continues to have a strong influence in large swaths of Afghanistan, and many Afghan girls and women are still kept home by their families, who view women’s advancement as an inappropriate Western notion. Even in 2018 an estimated 83 percent of Afghan women are illiterate; one third are married off before age 18. In urban areas women have some access to education and are better able to pursue careers and lives of their own choosing. But because of this perceived defiance of tradition, they are targeted by extremists and sometimes frowned upon by disapproving neighbors and family members.
And in rural areas, where the Taliban has gained ground in recent years, many women remain hidden away in homes, forcibly cloaked in burqas that cover their eyes and faces and even their hands, with little agency or ability to access health care, education, or legal support. In 2009 UNICEF said that Afghanistan was “without a doubt the most dangerous place to be born,” and the risks are particularly high for girls. Two years later Save the Children warned that Afghanistan was the world’s “worst country” to be a mother. All told, some 17 years after the Taliban was toppled from power in Kabul, the war-torn country is often cited as one of the worst places to be a woman.
“I know the situation is not good for us,” Noori says. But “I feel that whatever other women cannot do, I want to do—to be an example for those women, to be the voice of women who are unheard.”
A Star Is Made
Noori got her start as an actress, landing a role in a TV serial at age 13. With support from her family, she has worked in television ever since. It was two years ago when Noori learned firsthand how dangerous such a public career could be. She was a presenter at another TV station, where they occasionally made light of religious issues and current affairs. Soon after, her then-boss, the male director, was kidnapped and beaten by unidentified gunmen, who told them to stop their outspoken work. “Leave,” he told Noori. “If this can happen to me, it can happen to you.” She and her parents fled to India; one of her brothers risked death at sea to seek safe haven in Europe and made it to Germany. But in India, the family was unable to secure refugee status with the United Nations. Her mother fell ill—a brain tumor that would later be removed in Pakistan—and, facing the crushing difficulty of life as refugees and in need of medical care, they returned to Kabul at the end of 2016.
Noori was more determined than ever to carve out a future in her home country. Not long after they returned, she saw posters that said “ZAN TV: Coming soon.” She quickly applied and landed one of the top anchor posts. For ZAN founder Hamid Samar, an entrepreneur, launching the television station was about business more than equal rights: He sees an untapped market of female viewers that he hopes will propel the station to success. But Samar also believes in the mission of the work. “This is just the beginning,” says Samar of his crew of about a dozen women. He says he hopes to train the next generation of Afghan women in media and to provide a safe space for them to learn and grow.
As ZAN finds its footing—Samar says viewership is steadily growing, though GLAMOUR could not independently verify the numbers—they are slowly introducing more hard-hitting and controversial topics. On one recent segment Selay Ghaffar, a spokesperson for the small but vocal Solidarity Party of Afghanistan, voiced her anger over stalled progress for women’s rights. “Our women are still facing the same violence,” she said. “Our women and girls are being raped and gang-raped by the people in power.” The target of her criticism was clear: Afghanistan’s deeply patriarchal, and often corrupt, government officials.
With such outspoken feminist rhetoric, ZAN faces massive security concerns. The station has already received a direct threat from the Taliban. Most of the women working there have been targeted over social media and jeered at by strangers. “They told me, ‘If you don’t stop working in media, bad things will happen to you,’ ” says Najwa Alemi, 22, a news reporter at ZAN.
The staffers know to not dismiss things like this as shallow cyberbullying threats: In 2015 one of the most shocking acts of violence against women made headlines, after an angry mob killed 27-year-old Farkhunda Malikzada in central Kabul. The educated, vocal woman had dared to confront a fortune-teller at a mosque (authorities later found he had been selling Viagra and may have been acting as a pimp) who she felt was taking advantage of desperate women. The fortune-teller responded by claiming, falsely, that Malikzada had burned a Koran. It was a death sentence: The mob ripped off her black hijab, kicked, slapped, and punched her, and even bludgeoned her with a piece of wood. Even as police tried to save her, men grabbed her body and dragged her, limp and bloodied, to a dried river bed. They threw rocks at her and, finally, lit her ablaze. It happened in one of the most public areas of the city, and the persecutors were only lightly punished.
Journalists also face daily risks; in a devastating blow to the Afghan press, in January 2016 a Taliban suicide car bomber targeted a bus for the most popular TV news station in the country, TOLO News, killing seven staffers and injuring dozens more people, since it happened during evening rush hour.
Noori must endure even more concern about her safety than her colleagues. Not only is she a young female journalist shedding light on issues important to women; she’s also Hazara, an ethnic minority made up of predominantly Shia Muslims that has been persecuted and targeted by the Taliban and ISIS alike. “I don’t know what will happen to me,” she says. “[This work] is a risk for my family. But I’ve taken this risk. It’s who I am.”
Staying Focused on the Work
The taunting letters, social media posts, and phone calls can be wearying, but the staff just finds new ways to keep getting the work done. When people used photos from Alemi’s Facebook page to try to tarnish her reputation, she removed all pictures of herself from social media. After other women at the station faced similar harassment, ZAN staffers began patrolling Facebook, watching for targeted threats and deleting dangerous comments. The station also had to change course when it opened up call-in lines to some of its shows. Many Afghan men do not have contact with women who are not relatives, and male callers began dialing in to sexually harass female talent. The TV station quickly tasked male employees to answer the phones.
Home isn’t always a reprieve; some of the TV station’s staff face backlash for their work from parents, fiancés, brothers, and extended family. Noori is lucky; her family supports her career. But for Alemi, it’s been an uphill battle. “My father is worried for my safety,” she says. Yet she still wants to do more—most of the women work in the safety of the ZAN building, calling sources or interviewing them on camera in the studio because the risk of kidnapping climbs dramatically when they report in the field. But sometimes Alemi goes out anyway, as when she reported on Kabul graffiti amid rumors of a potential suicide attack that day. She takes the risk because she hopes that by broadcasting into the homes of Afghan women, many of whom are home all day and unable to work or study, she and her colleagues can change, or even save, lives. “Many women are illiterate and don’t know their rights,” Alemi says. “We give them the hope that their daughters are able to have rights.”
It’s this message that they want to spread to “every corner of Afghanistan,” says Noori. It’s what she hopes for in her own life. “All I want is to be independent,” she says. In Afghanistan it’s traditionally taboo to address women by their own names—women are often referred to as “wife of Ahmad” or “mother of Hassan.” “I want to be known for who I am, not Shabana, wife of someone else,” she says with a rebellious smile. And Noori is proud to have her name broadcast on television screens across Afghanistan: “I want society to get to a place,” she says, “where all women are recognized for themselves.”
Sophia Jones is an Istanbul-based writer and senior editor with The Fuller Project, a nonprofit dedicated to in-depth reporting about women’s issues around the world. Kiana Hayeri is a photographer working in Tehran and Kabul. Reporting for this story was also supported by The European Journalism Centre, a nonprofit media institute based in the Netherlands.