Afghanistan, under the control of the Taliban, has transformed into a focal point of physical and online violence. The Taliban have recruited hundreds as “Qalamwal Mobariz Emirati,” which translates to Warrior Scribes of the Emirate.” on social media platforms. These users, operating on behalf of the emirate of the Taliban, use offensive and vulgar language to insult political opponents, particularly female politicians and protesters, on social media platforms. Recently, the Afghan Witness organization has found through an investigative report indicating an increase in online violence against women following the Taliban’s takeover. The findings of this research indicate that instances of insulting posts in cyberspace tripled in 2022 compared to 2021. Researchers of this investigative report state that since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, social media, once a space for expressing social and political opinions, has transformed into a center for harassing and suppressing women, unleashing a wave of the most violent and ugly messages targeting women.
Afghan Witness reports an increase in online violence against women in Afghanistan. The report states that due to the Taliban’s misogynistic behavior and the weak management of social media platforms, female political activists in Afghanistan have been compelled to be pushed into silence. The report explicitly mentions a rise in violence and hate speech on social media against active women in Afghan politics.
The findings of the report indicate that insulting posts against women in the online space tripled from June to December 2021 compared to the same period in 2022. Researchers conducting this investigation have collected user posts from the X social media platform (formerly Twitter) and conducted interviews with women, similar to a study conducted in Myanmar.
These researchers have gathered and analyzed over 78,000 posts in Persian and Pashto languages. The report explicitly states that nearly 100 female political activists have been targeted through these posts, with some leaving Afghanistan after the Taliban’s takeover. It is noted in the report that the researchers at this organization faced challenges in straightforwardly identifying the location of all women affected by this behavior during the content analysis of the posts.
Meanwhile, Francesca Gentile, the senior researcher in this study, stated, “Since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, social media has transformed from a space for expressing social and political opinions into a specific hub for harassing and suppressing women. We have witnessed a wave of the most violent and ugly messages targeting Afghan women. These messages, often conveyed through private messages, are simultaneously violent, threatening, and of an obscene nature (pornographic).”
The senior researcher in this study has stated that the Taliban’s hostility toward women and their rights sends a message to online abusers that any woman standing up for her rights deserves to be insulted, and criticizing her is permissible.
The findings of the research indicate that women’s protests, both inside and outside Afghanistan, have faced hateful speech in the online sphere. Women in this study have expressed concerns about the lack of management of online violence.
Afghan Witness has asserted that, in addition to the tangible dangers threatening women’s security, women are forced into silence, and online violence has negatively impacted their mental and emotional well-being. The report notes that the ban on education and women’s access to public spaces since the second half of 2022 has increased online violence against women. Researchers have also observed instances of violence against women protesters defending their rights on the roads.
In a report dated November 1, 2022, Afghan Witness researchers have identified another wave of offensive posts. These researchers have obtained a video showing the burning of the veil by Tamana Zaryab Pariani, a women’s rights activist. Those who shared this post have been subjected to insulting comments.
Afghan Witness’s analysis of the nature of online violence indicates that 60% of user posts on social media pages in Afghanistan from 2021 to 2022 have used words such as “whore” and “prostitute” against women. The use of the term “bitch” against women has increased by 11%. Women interviewed by the Afghan Witness have stated that direct messages sent to them contain pornographic images, threats of sexual assault, and death threats.
Afghan Witness reports that, in addition to gender-based violence and sexual abuse, female political activists are also subjected to insulting remarks based on religious, political, and ethnic grounds. According to the report, women participating in this study have faced targeting with four common narratives. The first narrative suggests that these women are sexually promiscuous, while the second claims that they undermine cultural and religious traditions. Additionally, it is mentioned that these women are perceived as Western collaborators, and another narrative suggests their pursuit of asylum in the West.
The research findings indicate that the majority of perpetrators of violence against women are supporters of the Taliban. Afghan Witness researchers have found that individuals affiliated with the Taliban, including lower-ranking members and social media users sympathetic to the Taliban, are often behind offensive posts.
Afghan Witness researchers have conducted interviews with six Afghan women, including a women’s rights activist, a former government official, and a journalist. They found that online violence has had detrimental effects on the online participation of women, impacting their daily lives personally, socially, and professionally. The interviewees in this study stated that they have censored themselves or distanced themselves from social media platforms in response to online violence. According to the report, women emphasized that due to fear and concerns about their safety, they have refrained from in-person meetings with others, including avoiding encounters with friends and family.
One of the interviewees told researchers, “I believe the hatred they display on social media is no different from what they feel in real life. If they were to face you in person, they would express the same hatred.”
Researchers of this study emphasize that online violence affects the family life of women, reinforcing the control and coercion of male family members over the behavior and attire of women in the family. According to them, there is concern that online violence may lead to domestic violence.
The research illustrates how social media has played a role in the escalation of online violence. The report, citing Elon Musk, the head of X (formerly Twitter), states that he considers himself an absolute free speech advocate. The report suggests that such an attitude may have motivated users to be more inclined to broadcast hate speech based on gender and violence against women. It highlights potential changes in how X (formerly Twitter) responds to violent or abusive content, as finding posts that contradict the policies of this social platform becomes more challenging and they are not completely removed.
The suggested report proposes that more actions be taken by social media companies. Quoting women, the organization stated that they want social media companies to increase their monitoring of hate speech in non-English and local languages. Women interviewed in this research have emphasized the need for more serious measures in removing abusive content and accounts engaged in violence against women.
It’s worth noting that Afghan Witness is a project related to the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR). Afghan Witness is a non-profit organization based in the UK that utilizes open-source information and techniques to investigate human rights violations, war crimes, and misinformation in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Myanmar, and Sudan.