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Undertones: Taliban narratives about Afghan women

Image of Anisa Shaheed, a renowned journalist from Afghanistan. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Welcome to Undertones, the Civic Media Observatory newsletter! In each edition we'll analyze an event, emerging trend, or a complex story, identifying key narratives of urgent public interest, delving deep into the context and subtext of local, vernacular and multilingual media. Undertones also offers an entry point into the public datasets that underpin our Observatory work.

While Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership tries to persuade the world to recognize and financially support them, even after they took over the country by force, Taliban fighters and militants violently silence those who oppose them, especially women.

Dozens of Afghan women have publicly protested the Taliban’s gradual and systematic erasure of women from the public sphere since their return to power in August 2021. In turn, Taliban fighters beat the activists and banned public protests altogether in September.

Women continue to challenge online the new mandatory face and body veil, the ban on education for women and girls, the killing and disappearance of women activists, the requirement of women to have a “mahram” (a male chaperone), and the silence of the international community.

Activist women see this moment as vital. They believe that if they remain quiet now, the Taliban will slowly take away everything that they have worked for in the last two decades.

Since January, dozens of activist women have been kidnapped during night raids, and not all these abductions are public due to family honour and threats. Some were released and more were abducted in February. Human rights activists and diplomats believe the Taliban are behind the kidnappings, who deny it.

The faces of the movement

A short list of women who put their lives on the line for women’s rights in Afghanistan:

Clashing narratives

“Women who protest in Afghanistan have been corrupted by exposure to western values”

The Taliban argue that the women protesting against their rules have been corrupted by exposure to anti-Islamic Western values ever since they left power in 2001.

Many Taliban call for strong actions against female protestors and dub them “prostitutes” whose souls and minds have been “corrupted by the West” or foreign governments’ “spies”. Taliban leadership has frequently mentioned that they will not let women disrespect their values by “using the women's rights card”.

For example, a head-to-toe veil (a niqab or a chadar) is mandatory following Islamic rule, according to the Taliban. Women who protest the recent imposition to fully cover are labelled anti-Islamic.

How it plays out on social media

A Taliban supporter claims on Facebook that the laws which women protest are based on Islam. The tweet includes a photo of a woman in a man's traditional clothes holding a sign that reads “laws that are against women should be repealed”. She is wearing men’s clothing to highlight that she is her own chaperone and wears a tri-colored bracelet supporting the flag of Afghanistan, thereby rejecting the white flag of the Taliban. More analysis here.

Women's rights is not a priority right now

The Taliban’s earlier narrative, shared by supporters, is that the Taliban have other pressing issues to worry about than women’s rights, like security and the economy. The Taliban also had a similar narrative when they were first in power in the 1990s; women’s rights were not deemed to be a priority as the Taliban had to conquer all of Afghanistan first. 

This narrative was particularly popular when the Taliban again grabbed power in 2021. Since then, narratives against women’s rights have hardened.

How it plays out on social media

The #StandWithPeopleInAfghanistan hashtag emerged as a response to #StandWithWomenInAfghanistan, which aimed to pressure the international community to call on the Taliban to release female protestors and their family members. The new hashtag is aimed at taking attention away from women. This tweet by Taliban supporter Diva Patang with 112.5K followers on Twitter argues that people need to stand in solidarity with men and children of Afghanistan, not just women. More analysis here.

“The Taliban are afraid of Afghanistan's women”

Women's rights activists in Afghanistan and feminists in the diaspora assert that the Taliban's poor treatment of women is motivated by fear of vocal, independent women. Today, in particular, women are more organized than in the 1990s, have had a taste of freedom and rights, and make extensive use of social media. Some were born after 2001 and did not know the previous Taliban rule. In response, the Taliban would use extreme measures to ensure the women do not protest against their authority.

How it plays out on social media

Sweeta Sadat, a journalist based in Afghanistan, tweeted on February 22, 2022, that protestor Wahida Amiri, who had been detained by the Taliban in a safe house, might face charges. Sadat entails that the Taliban are now intimidating women by prosecuting them, and thereby going at great lengths to discourage resistance. More analysis here.

“Taliban govern with fear and continue to be as brutal as in the 1990s”

The Taliban – a predominantly Pashtun fundamentalist Islamic movement – were in control of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Women were denied access to work and education, and they were not allowed to be outside their homes without a male guardian or “mahram”. They were treated as second-class citizens. 

After the Taliban captured Kabul in August 2021, some foreigners and Afghans argued that since the Taliban are seeking international legitimacy, they would ensure that basic rights—particularly those of women, members of ethnic minorities, and other vulnerable populations—would be maintained. Others argue that the Taliban have not changed.

How it plays out on social media

On Twitter, former employee of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission Ramin Mazhar warns about the Taliban's future ability to export their suicide bombers to other countries. The Taliban used suicide bombers in the past to terrorize and kill people, government officials and international troops present in Afghanistan. In late 2021, the Taliban established the unit “Badri Command” as part of their army, which includes hardline fighters and future suicide bombers. More analysis here.


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Undertones archive

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Undertones is the Civic Media Observatory's newsletter, created collaboratively by the Observatory's researchers, coordinating editors, and project writer. Find out more about our missionmethodology, and publicly available data.

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