IT LOOKS like any other women’s magazine but the publication of Gellara in Afghanistan is proof that female journalists are prepared to risk their lives to defy taboos.

The content of the first issue would be seen as anodyne in the West but in a country where many women’s access to knowledge is extremely restricted it is almost revolutionary.

Arranged marriages are still strictly enforced in many areas yet there is an article about dating app Tinder, as well as features on yoga and breast cancer. There is also an article on a proposed family law which has been opposed for years by conservatives who are against the safeguards it would bring to women.

Modelled on Western magazines like Vogue, with articles on fashion and culture, it seems designed to antagonise the Taliban — which is why it doesn’t carry any office address.

Editor Fatana Hassanzada is young at 23-years-old but fearless about the reaction the new magazine may provoke from hardliners who will see it as an attempt to lead women astray by exposing them to topics they consider decadent.


HASSANZADA is well aware that at least some of the first 2000 copies may be burned but she appears unfazed by the prospect.

“Our view is that without agitation, we won’t reach an equilibrium,” she said.

The first edition was the result of five months of hard work by a group of female volunteers after Hassanzada was inspired by a mostly female book club she had attended at Kabul University. As well as novels like Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns and Alice Walker’s A Color Purple, the discussions covered broader issues and Hassanzada saw the need to increase women’s knowledge about all sorts of topics.

“When larger subjects have been discussed, it has remained limited to a small class of elite,” said Hassanzada, adding that there was a thirst for knowledge amongst young, educated women.

Many young women in the country are prevented by the men in their families from being online or owning a mobile phone.

“We know our shared pain,” Hassanzada said. “And it becomes a social responsibility to get the basic information that those women need, for their lives and thoughts, into their homes.”


THE target audience is the hundreds of thousands of educated women in the country who will have access to the magazine, if not at home, then at dentists’ and doctors’ surgeries and beauty parlours.

It is hoped that the first issue will be popular enough to attract subscriptions and adverts so that the staff can be paid a salary.

The cost of the first run was covered by a company that advertised in Gellara with the cover price the equivalent of about £1.20.

Even the cover, however, is relatively controversial as it features Afghan-Canadian singer Mozhdah Jamalzadah with her head unveiled.

“We want to show that a woman can have a pretty face and be well dressed. We are trying to teach society not to be shocked by these things,” said content editor Aziza Karimi.

Added Hassanzada: “We try to target everyone. There is something for the cities and something for the villages.”


HASSANZADA is well aware of the dangers of editing the new magazine. Up to 60 female journalists reportedly fled the country last year alone because of death threats and last year was, according to the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee, the deadliest for all media workers, male and female, since 2001.

Hassanzada herself was forced to flee her home town of Mazar-i-Sharif with her family after a gang ambushed and stabbed her brother, warning him that his sister had to give up her job as a TV presenter.

Even in Kabul she is not safe, and Hassanzada said she would not go back to the university after students from the Islamic Law faculty disrupted the magazine’s promotion.

She is determined to carry on, however: “We are the second generation of democracy in Afghanistan. In a revolution, there will always be sacrifices.

“These issues are not dangerous. It’s society that’s dangerous.”


THE first TV channel dedicated to women has also just been launched. Women presenters are not uncommon on Afghan TV but Zan TV is the first to have only female newsreaders.

“Some people in the provinces believe women on TV are destroying the unity of the family,” said 25-year-old presenter Mehria Afzali. “But we wear proper hijab. We are an Islamic channel.”

If the new TV channel steers a conservative course it could escape the wrath of hardliners — unlike the first female-run radio station in Afghanistan which was wrecked and looted in 2015 when the Taliban took over the northern city of Kunduz.

The director of Radio Shaista, Zarghoona Hassan, was forced to flee after a date for her execution was announced. She was accused of attempting to convert her listeners to Christianity but she says the Taliban’s anger was sparked because of the station’s attempts to empower women with discussions about women’s rights.

She has shut down the station twice since 2015 during Taliban advances.

“When we started, women flocked to the radio to work, even for free. But when the Taliban came closer, around 2012, people’s attitude changed,” said Hassan. “Many women in Kunduz want to work in media but their families won’t let them.”


ATTACKS on all journalists have rocketed in recent years according to Human Rights Watch.

“Female journalists face particularly formidable challenges,” a recent report stated. “Social and cultural restrictions limit their mobility in urban as well as rural areas, and increase their vulnerability to threats and attacks, including sexual violence.”

Dozens of female journalists have been intimidated into stopping working, agrees the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee.

Afghanistan’s current president Ashraf Ghani has vowed to protect journalists from abuse and uphold freedom of expression.

However, the Afghan government’s control or influence only extends to around 60 per cent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts with around three million Afghans — almost 10 per cent of the population — now living in areas under insurgent control or influence.

Even Kabul is unsafe with a bomb blast last week killing at least 90 people and injuring more than 400.

With such instability, the situation for all journalists, particularly female, continues to be extremely risky.