CNN chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward has a well-earned reputation for bravely reporting from some of the world’s most dangerous and precarious places. However, in recent days, concerns for her and other female journalists in Afghanistan have grown exponentially following the fall of Kabul and the Taliban taking over the country.
Speaking to The Daily Beast on Tuesday, Ward said that while she personally feels “pretty safe on the streets the last couple of days,” it is a “different story” for Afghan female journalists now that the Taliban is in charge.
The optics of Ward’s live reports literally changed overnight once the Taliban—notorious for its overt misogyny and violence towards women—entered the Afghan capital and regained control amid a frantic withdrawal of American personnel.
Reporting from the streets of Kabul on Monday, Ward notably wore an abaya and hijab while speaking with Afghan citizens and Taliban fighters. “Certainly the dress code for me has changed,” she said during her on-air report, later noting that she’s regularly worn a headscarf on the streets prior to the Taliban’s takeover, but not in this manner. At another point, she told CNN viewers that Taliban fighters “told me to stand to the side because I’m a woman.”
Standing on a street corner with militants brandishing firearms behind her in the background, Ward reported that there were countless people “who aren’t out on the streets, who don’t feel safe, who are petrified, who are wondering what the future will bring, who are hiding out. There are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of them across this city.”
And yet the Islamist group has actively sought to portray itself as a non-threatening force. It’s a deliberate public-relations strategy, Ward told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
“The Taliban is very keen to showcase that they can be a more diplomatic and an effective political force at the moment they know that the world is watching,” she said. “And so they want to make sure that they behave in a way that’s in accordance with international norms so to that end they’ve been quite cordial with the media, and I haven’t had any problems on the street.”
(Similarly, during her Monday report, Ward noted for viewers how “utterly bizarre” it was to watch Taliban fighters chant “Death to America” yet “seem friendly at the same time,” smiling and posing for photographs. A deceptively edited clip of her comments quickly made the rounds among right-wing media and politicians, who smeared her as a “cheerleader” for the Taliban. CNN, and many others, roundly rejected such attacks.)
Asked about the dangers Afghan female journalists now face under the Taliban, Ward applauded the women who have continued to do their jobs amid dire uncertainty. Their bravery, she said, is heightened by the fact that they face a greater threat than she ever would as an American woman.
“We saw some of them at [Kabul-based network] TOLO TV actually go back to work today… I was just in awe of their courage because they face a very different situation on the ground than I do,” Ward told The Daily Beast. “As a westerner, I’m allowed to get away with all sorts of things, but they’re held to a different standard, and the threat for them is much higher so I think they are just tremendously brave.”
However, she added, “the Taliban has said over and over again that they will respect the rights of women, that it will allow women to work, but then they’ve also said that it must be within the realm of their interpretation of Sharia law, which means that men and women can’t work in the same place together, women must wear a full veil that covers even their face.
“So I do think it will become incredibly difficult for a lot of these female journalists to do their jobs.”
According to Karin Nazich, co-founding director of the Coalition for Women in Journalism, female journalists in Afghanistan are particularly in danger. “Every day we’re hearing varied stories of women who are being threatened directly, being tracked down at first and then reached out by different Taliban,” she said. “So we’re very concerned about women journalists and their safety in particular.”
The Taliban’s attempts to portray a softer public image of themselves on the international stage, Nazich added, is “part of their PR. I don’t think it’s going to be run peacefully.”
“Journalists who are trying to flee are doing so because they believe they are in grave danger. Some know that they are already on lists, some have had the Taliban come to their homes. They fear for their lives and those of their families,” added Elisa Lees Muñoz, executive director of the D.C.-based International Women’s Media Foundation, which is “working with a number of groups to get as many journalists as possible out of the country who are trying to leave,” she said.
Sabur Shah Dawod Zai, CEO of the Bin Dawod Foundation, an Afghan fundraising group for children and women, agreed, going further to make more dire predictions about women journalists in the country. A Taliban media representative’s sitdown with a TOLO female news anchor was “just for show,” he warned, adding that the Islamist group “will kill all the journalists and government workers once they’ve fully established power.”
Ward told The Daily Beast that while she had not “personally been confronted with stories” of militants raiding homes and targeting Afghan female journalists, she has “heard of searches” already underway—though she has not verified who has carried out such actions. While Ward “would be surprised if in the near future these women were physically harmed,” she “would absolutely be concerned for their security” in the future.
“If the tone is set as one in which women should not be seen in the streets and women should not be working in front of the camera then, of course, that will really give others the sense that they can come out and attack women who are doing these types of work,” she said.
As for whether or not Ward and her crew are concerned for their own safety and have made any plans to exit Afghanistan, the CNN star told The Daily Beast that because the situation is so fluid, all she can do is continue to report.
“The priority on the ground for our crew is always our crew’s security and making sure that we all get out safely when we need to do that, and we’re constantly reassessing the security situation on the ground, and constantly making sure that we have a plan in place should we need to get out,” she said. “That plan is always changing as the security is changing, but it’s something that we watch very closely.”
She concluded: “For now though, I think we feel privileged to be here and to tell this story.”