Male Journalists in Afghanistan Are Wearing Masks to Support Female Colleagues, Protest Taliban

After the Taliban ordered all women on news channels to cover their faces, their male colleagues are masking up in support.

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Male Journalists in Afghanistan Are Wearing Masks to Support Female Colleagues, Protest Taliban
Nilofar Ayoubi, an Afghan journalist, tweeted this image on May 24 with the caption “The overwhelming oppression makes it hard to breathe,” alongside the hashtag #freeherface. Photo: (Other)

On May 19, the Taliban ordered every female television presenter to cover their face while on air. This followed an earlier decree that all women must be concealed from head to toe in public. Now, in a viral protest on social media known as #FreeHerFace, dozens of men—including newsroom leaders—from major outlets across Afghanistan are standing in solidarity with their colleagues by wearing face masks of their own.

One male journalist told the Guardian that he wept upon seeing his colleague put a mask on her face. “I then decided to wear a mask myself and protest,” he said, adding that it made him realize how difficult it is for women to live in a place like Afghanistan. Another said he felt as if he was being grabbed by the throat:

A 29-year-old male anchor on a private television channel, who did not want to be named due to security concerns, told the Guardian he and other male colleagues had put on masks to work in the past two days. When the Taliban order reached their office, he said, female colleagues were clearly dispirited. “Performing while wearing a mask is very annoying,” he said. “When I perform with a mask, I feel like someone has grabbed me by the throat and I cannot speak.”

The order came from the Taliban’s Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice—an entity feared for its merciless public beatings and imprisonment even for women bearing their wrists, hands or ankles in public. It was first formed by the Taliban in 1996 but was dissolved after the U.S. invasion in 2001—and reinstated almost immediately when the Taliban returned to power in 2021.

In November, three months after their takeover of the Afghan government, the Taliban made it mandatory for all female journalists to wear a hijab, the scarf that covers a woman’s neck and head. Ever since, many have either lost their jobs or left voluntarily due to security fears. There are currently fewer than 100 female journalists still working today, according to a report by the Guardian.

And those that remain are now being forced to wear a niqab, which is the scarf that covers a woman’s whole face except the eyes, or a burqa, which is the scarf that covers a woman’s entire face. (Unsurprisingly, the Ministry’s latest order says they prefer a burqa. It also says any woman without “important work” can just stay at home.) Not only does the rule violate a woman’s bodily autonomy, but it also poses unnecessary complications for viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing, especially if they rely on lip-reading or visual cues to comprehend the information. Not to mention it effectively eliminates any remaining comfort female Afghan journalists had in their newsrooms.

If a woman violates the new order, punishments vary by recurrence. On the first offense, the Taliban will reportedly “advise and guide unveiled woman.” They will be “summoned” after the second offense and both her and her guardian will be imprisoned after the third and fourth offense.

“Male journalists have been wearing face masks. It’s a great act,” an Afghan feminist activist employed by the Human Rights Watch, told the Guardian of the protest. “It’s one of the few instances where Afghan men are doing something symbolic because all the resistance and protests against the veil so far have been by women.”

This order is just the latest example of the Taliban’s continued oppression of women and girls. They’ve barred girls’ secondary education, edged women out of workplaces, imposed a host of limitations on women’s healthcare, and generally thwarted the success of any women’s liberation movement in Afghanistan.

As life under Taliban rule continues to worsen for women, this will hopefully be the first of many actions that Afghan men will stage in solidarity.

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