Online and On the Ground, Afghan Women are Empowered by Global Feminism

The global feminist movement has taken Afghanistan by storm.

Urban cities like Kabul have seen a sharp increase in campaigns geared to reduce gender-based discrimination in employment, education and sports. Women make up about a third of the president’s cabinet and 25 percent of Parliament, and the presence of women is felt more widely in civil society. Despite persistent violence against women and wide gaps in literacy for girls, Afghan women have also been breaking through glass ceilings and achieving success in several fields such as art, cinema, science and literature.

2017 could perhaps best be marked as the year of a silent awakening in the history of Afghan feminism. A rise in public awareness campaigns is largely due to the active participation of youth graduates over the past 16 years—and the active support of diaspora percolating their message vis-à-vis social media. The movement is spreading, even if it is struggling to survive amidst war, gender-based discrimination and violence nationwide.

For women, last year’s major breakthrough came when the Afghan Girls Robotics Team, initially denied visas to participate in the first Global Challenge Robotics competition in Washington, D.C., made history by being the only all-girl team to join the event—thanks largely to a global campaign supporting them. The girls not only won trophies, but also offered the world a closer look at the potential of Afghan girls, who are often denied as much by a patriarchal culture that favors sons.

The impact of this triumph can be felt more closely by speaking to women in Kabul. More women were inspired. Tahima Rasiq is a women rights activist, but her 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 says. “Equality can only be gained if we work as hard as men. I want to be able to do everything inside Kabul that you guys do in Europe.”

With the rise of popular TV shows, and media flourishing despite continuous war, women in Afghanistan have also made strides to break free from outdated traditions and raise their voices to decide for themselves. Afghan women proved that by refusing to bow down to pressure from hardliners to hold a music concert for the pop star Aryana Sayeed, a self styled Afghan feminist who often challenges traditional norms and goes head to head with the clergy. And Roya Sadat made waves in Hollywood after her movie Letter to President was nominated for Oscars, a first by any Afghan. 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 “impossible” who made it possible by competing and standing tall amongst the world’s best.

Above all, last year was one overflowing with hashtags in Afghanistan. Women in the region have found a practical platform through cyber activism to bring awareness to the issues that truly affect them. One of the earliest feminist hashtags that gained popularity was #WhereIsMyName, launched by a team of feminists from Herat city to challenge the practice of hiding women’s identity and calling them by the names of the men in their lives in Afghan society. It became the top hashtag in Afghanistan—and consequently became a worldwide trending sensation. Many men admitted in its wake that they barely knew the names of their mothers. Another, #WomenAgainstWoman, focused on inter-gender hierarchy, and the perpetuation of violence against women by other women—like mothers and mothers in law.

A countless series of hashtags and social media firestorms last year not only empowered women and spotlighted women’s issues, but brought about tangible changes with remarkable results. Activists made sure a colonel who demanded sexual favors from his female colleagues in return for promotion was fired immediately after a video of his vile and salacious conduct went viral. The hashtag #BanThisUniform was sparked as a protest against the Restrictive School Uniform Proposed For Girls—which was withdrawn shortly after the campaign. After Malalai Bashir, a dedicated feminist, used Twitter to call out an outrageous Facebook post by an advisor to the Afghanistan’s cricket team shaming the men for letting their girls play football, a serious discussion about women’s rights took hold on the Internet—and profile pictures across the region changed to show solidarity with women athletes in Afghanistan. The advisor eventually redacted his post, and the board issued a statement distancing themselves from his views.

In December, feminists made headlines after accusing president Ashraf Ghani of misogyny when he used the phrase “head scarf” to degrade some of his political opponents. #ScarfPoliticalHumiliation forced him to issue an apology. And by registering mothers’ names in freshly-distributed biometric identity cards, Ghani showed willingness to entertain a demand that feminists lobbied for over a span of years—under a Persian hashtag. (It is well worth noting that Ghani’s government includes three women ministers, 10 women deputy ministers and five women ambassadors with executive power, and that he aims to increase the number of deputy ministers to 20—a huge step to empower women.)

It seems that with the right approach, Afghan women can achieve a lot. Afghan women have created a network of feminists across all layers of society—radical, liberal, Islamic and atheist feminists now gather their force to make the change happen, on the ground and online.

An earlier version of this piece originally appeared at sister-hood magazine. Republished with permission.

About and

Zarlasht Safy Sarsam is a biomedical research analyst by profession, a woman rights activist and a writer.
International Civil Society Action Network is a U.S.-based nonprofit whose mission is to support civil society activism in promoting women’s rights, peace and human security in countries affected by conflict, transition and closed political space. ICAN aims to support women’s efforts through bridging the divisions between activists and the policy community, elevating the voices and experiences of women activists, building skills and ensuring the exchange of knowledge and resources.