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    How Afghan Women Connect and Learn in the Face of Taliban Restrictions

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    How Afghan Women Connect and Learn in the Face of Taliban Restrictions

    Social media has become a lifeline for many women and girls in Afghanistan but not all can afford it.

    The prevalence of social media usage among Afghan women and girls has surged since the Taliban assumed control of the country in August 2021. Faced with restrictions confining them to their homes, many women find solace in the messaging app WhatsApp.

    The Taliban’s prohibitions on women attending school, university, and work have spurred an increased reliance on WhatsApp for maintaining connections with friends, sharing thoughts and information, engaging in discussions, and even participating in foreign language online classes and accessing online libraries.

    Farhat Obeidi, 23, lives with his parents and two brothers in Kabul. She was a fourth-year psychology student at Kabul University when she was banned from attending university by the Taliban.

    “After we were banned from university, I couldn’t meet my friends anymore. I kept in touch with my friends through WhatsApp. We created groups, and our professors shared all the course materials with us through these groups. Even our friends who could not afford to have smartphones were in contact with us using the cell phones of their families, and they were able to take part in our online study groups”, Farhat says.

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    Farhat says that the use of social media has helped in reducing the pressures and psychological problems caused by the unemployment of women and girls. Since the apps have no time and place restrictions, the women can stay connected also with friends and relatives who have immigrated. Using the app is safe and messaging is possible even when the internet connection is poor.

    Nilab Noori, a resident of Kabul, says that the easiest way to be in touch with a large number of friends and colleagues at the same time is to create groups on messaging app.

    “Although virtual communication can never be as effective as being present in the community, school and university, this method has helped women and girls to communicate with each other.”

    Power outages in Afghanistan prevent young people who study online from continuing their education. Another obstacle is the high price of the internet connection or its poor quality.

    “Since the majority of women have lost their jobs and income, and most Afghan families live below the poverty line, women can hardly afford the internet access”, Nilab says.

    Tamna Alkozi had to quit her online studies, because she could not afford the fast internet connection. She used to study at Coventry University of England online via Zoom.

    At the same time, Tamna was working as a volunteer in one of the non-governmental organizations. Her task was to run online educational programs related to the mental health of adolescents and young people. The organization paid for her internet usage.

    “After finishing my work, I couldn’t continue my studies because the Zoom program requires a fast internet connection which I couldn’t afford”, Tamna says.

    Sara (pseudonym) was a first-year student of a fine arts faculty who was banned from going to university.

    “Our professors left Afghanistan after the political changes and opened an online class for us from abroad. I had one online class a week, but I could not participate because I did not have internet access”, Sara says.

    The lack of security in cyberspace causes concern among women, especially activists. Those who live inside Afghanistan cannot express their opposition to the Taliban group even through social media because it will cause their account to be shut down and even get them arrested.

    Marina (pseudonym) is a journalist who works online under a pseudonym. “I used to share my reports with the media through WhatsApp, but my number was blocked and my account was deleted”, Marina says.

    When she asked the telecommunications company why her number was blocked, they told her that they had received an order from the Taliban, and they could not activate the number again.

    Marina says that several women’s rights activists who are imprisoned by the Taliban have been traced and arrested through social media. She says the Taliban is violating people’s privacy by checking people’s personal mobile phones and WhatsApp messages at checkpoints.

    Sexualized online abuse and hate speech targeting women in Afghanistan has significantly increased. Afghan Witness, an open-source project run by the non-profit Center for Information Resilience, collected and analyzed over 78,000 posts written in Dari and Pashto — two local Afghan languages — directed at almost 100 accounts of politically active Afghan women between June-December 2021 and the same period of 2022.

    The number of abusive posts tripled during that time. Afghan Witness said it found the online abuse was “overwhelmingly sexualized,” with over 60% of the posts in 2022 containing terms such as “whore” or “prostitute.”

    Some politically active women have decided to deactivate their social media accounts.

    Despite these challenges, the use of social media has seen significant growth in Afghanistan. A recent survey indicates that over nine million of the 40 million Afghan population use the internet and engage with at least one social media platform. The majority of young Afghans prefer Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and TikTok.

    The author is an Afghanistan-based female journalist, trained with Finnish support before the Taliban take-over. Her identity is withheld for security reasons.

    Image: Learning Together

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