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Hashtag feminism in Afghanistan

The global wave of feminism has engulfed Afghanistan. Urban cities like Kabul have seen sharp increases in campaigns geared towards reducing gender-based gaps in the employment and education sectors, as well as in sport venues, just to mention a few. Women make up about a third of the president’s cabinet. The Afghan parliament boasts above 25% women, and the presence of women is felt more widely across civil society. The rise in public awareness campaigns is largely due to the active participation of young graduates over the past 16 years, and the active support of the Afghan diaspora spreading their message via social media. The movement is gathering force despite struggling to survive amidst war and severe gender-based discrimination and violence. While official figures reported increased violence against women and warn of an alarming increase in illiteracy among two-third of the girls, a sliver of hope is permitted into the otherwise depressing position of women’s rights in Afghanistan. Afghan women have succeeded to break through the glass ceiling and shine in several fields such as art, cinema, science and literature. 2017 could perhaps best be marked as a year of a silent awakening in the history of Afghan feminism.

For women, last year culminated in achievements for the Afghan Girls Robotics Team. They were initially denied visas to participate in the first Global Challenge Robotics competition in Washington, DC. They made history by being the only all-girl team who attended the event, thanks largely to a global campaign calling for the team to be permitted to attend the competition. The girls not only won trophies, but also offered the world an insight into the potential of Afghan girls. This potential is often denied due to a lack of opportunities domestically due to the patriarchal system that favours sons.

The impact of this triumph can be felt more closely through speaking to women in Kabul. Women were inspired. Tahima Rasiq is a women’s rights activist, but her first priority is to complete her degree in civil engineering. ‘In order to be equal, we have to take the same risks and opportunities as men,’ she said. ‘Equality can only be gained if we work as hard as men. I want to be able to do anything inside Kabul that you guys do in Europe’, she emphasised. With the rise of popular TV shows, and other media flourishing, despite the continuous state of war, women have made strides to break free from outdated traditions and raise their voices. Afghan women refused to bow down to pressure from hardliners and held a music concert for the popstar Aryana Sayeed, a self-styled Afghan feminist who often challenges traditional norms and goes head to head with the clergy.

Another woman, Roya Sadat, made waves in Hollywood after her movie A Letter to the President was nominated for an Oscar, a first by any Afghan citizen. Her fellow feminists compare her to a deaf Beethoven, a painter without hands, a marathon runner without feet. For them Roya was a talent, a metaphor, an impossibility who made it possible by competing and standing tall amongst the world’s best.

Above all, the year 2017 was the year of successful hashtag campaigns. Afghan women have found cyber-activism to be a practical platform to raise awareness of the issues that affect them. Female activists, their voices amplified by social media, targeted a colonel who demanded sexual favours from his female colleagues in return for promotion. He was fired immediately after video of his vile, salacious conduct went viral – thanks to the persistent activism of women who refused to be appeased by token concessions.

One of the first feminist hashtags to gain popularity was #WhereIsMyName. A team of feminist volunteers from Herat city established the hashtag which challenged the taboo of revealing women’s identity in male-dominated Afghan society. It became the top hashtag in Afghanistan, and consequently became a worldwide trending sensation, supported by activists, singers, celebrities and feminists all over the world. Many men admitted they barely know the names of their mothers. A countless series of hashtags followed that. They have not only empowered women but brought visible changes and remarkable results. One such successful initiative was the hashtag #BanThisUniform, which was a protest against the restrictive school uniforms proposed for girls. The uniform was withdrawn shortly after the campaign.

Another hashtag #WomenAgainstWoman focused mainly on violence against women by other women within the family (such as mothers and mothers-in-law). Malalai Bashir, a dedicated feminist, tweeted to call out an outrageous Facebook post by an advisor to the Afghanistan’s cricket team shaming men for letting their girls play football. Within minutes, a serious discussion spread like wildfire across the Afghan Internet. Women’s rights became a national talking point. Supporters changed their profile pictures to show solidarity with female athletes in Afghanistan, forcing the advisor to redact his post and the board to issue a statement distancing themselves from his views.

Some feminists made headlines in December after accusing President Ashraf Ghani of misogyny. #ScarfPoliticalHumiliation forced the president to issue an instant apology. The president explained that he did not mean to offend anyone with his poor choice of words. It is worth noting that the government of President Ghani contains three female ministers, ten deputy ministers and five ambassadors with executive powers, not merely symbolic roles. The President aims to increase the number of deputy ministers to 20. This will be a huge step to empower women. Also, by allowing registration using ones mother’s name in biometric identity cards, President Ghani showed the willingness to entertain a demand that many female activists had lobbied for since 2015. The registration of maternal specifications was a response to women who had campaigned under the Persian hashtag, Register my mother’s name in my ID card. This shows a clear commitment by the current government to implement long-term sustainable reforms in order to address issues relating to women’s rights.

It seems that with the right approach, Afghan women can achieve a lot. Afghan women have created a network of feminist volunteers from all layers of society. Radical, liberal, Islamic or atheist, feminists are all gathering their force to make change happen.