Exclusive: Women in Afghanistan feel increasingly harassed in online arena

KABUL (SW) – In an interview with Salam Watandar, 17 women in Kabul city say they have been repeatedly harassed through social networks and their safety in the social pages has been compromised.

Among the interviewed women in this report, eight of them said that harassment on social networks has had a serious impact on their personal lives and harmed their social status.

These women say that facing harassment and insecurity has led them to refrain from using their real identities and images on social networks. Among the 17 women interviewed in this report, the user accounts of five of them have been targeted for cyber-attacks, and 10 others have received harassing messages and calls.

Two of the interviewees said that after posting their images on social networks, they have been subject to desecration, 14 others have been harassed or cyber-attacked by anonymous individuals, and three others by individuals with identifiable identities.

Zainab, a resident of Kabul who has been using social networks for two and a half years, says that three months ago her account was targeted by unknown individuals, and her image was distributed on social networks after making changes. “The last harassment I saw was when my site was hacked and entered. They are very happy to hack your sites. With my site being hacked, my family was angry and put a lot of pressure on me.”

Zainab emphasizes that after this incident, she was ridiculee by her family, friends, and relatives, which has now left her severely depressed. She adds, “I was afraid to leave the house. When I left the neighbors looked at me as if I had done something very wrong. When I went to my neighbors’ houses, they whispered to each other; I understood that they were talking about me. For a while, I did not want to pick up the phone. I was depressed.”

Hasina Mohammadi, another Kabul resident, also says that two weeks ago, when she was trying to register online for language learning at an online school, her Facebook account was targeted after clicking on a link. Hasina adds that the hacker, in exchange for handing over her account, made various requests. “When I clicked on the link, I received a message that someone wanted to enter my privacy, I was shocked; when I woke up in the morning, and I saw that my Facebook didn’t open; I tried a lot but my Facebook didn’t open.”

The interviewed women in this report say that the culture of harassment, sexual frustration, and the lack of proper culture in the use of social networks are among the reasons that have led to their harassment on social networks. According to them, taking a stance against various social events is also another reason for the harassment of women.

Humaira, another woman who has consistently been targeted for harassment via social networks, says: “A few days ago, I received a threat from someone on Facebook; judging by the post, I was insulted and humiliated. If we are harassed in such cases, of course, we no longer post and talk about anything, or it makes us unable to be active in the online world.”

Most of the women interviewed in this report have said that after being harassed and having people intrude into their privacy, they were forced to use aliases or delete their accounts.

Dina Fazli, another resident of Kabul, says that a few months ago, someone with complete information about her, was repeatedly harassed her from various numbers, which prompted her to change her number; however, changing her phone number did not yield any results, and she eventually deleted most of her social media pages. “I deleted all social pages except WhatsApp. It can be said that one of the reasons was harassment; for example, lately, I received various messages from different numbers, all of which belonged to one person. He knew me, while I had no idea about his identity,” she added.

Medina Habibi, who has a similar story to dozens of other women, also says that she wants to be active on social networks with her real identity; however, due to harassment, she has been forced to use an alias. “I always use another name. I have been harassed a lot; even warnings have been sent via Messenger and this makes us feel discouraged.”

These women add that harassment via social networks leads to negative social and familial consequences, which in most cases results in the loss of family trust, marital life, and even suicide and self-harm by women.

Tamana Andarabi, who has experienced harassment through social networks, says: “Some girls have committed suicide because of these lies that have been fabricated, or their accounts have been hacked, or their photos have been taken from somewhere and spread with fake IDs. This caused them to be harassed and even many of them have gone to the extent of death and suicide.”

Khatera Faizi also states, “The very bad impact this online harassment can have on a woman’s dignity is the decrease or loss of family trust in their daughters and wives, which creates problems in families.”

On the other hand, some women’s rights activists say that the lack of control by responsible authorities over the management of social networks has led to an increase in harassment of women in the online world. Yalda Azizi, a women’s rights activist, says: “Currently, these harassments have increased. Many girls have committed suicide, because their families doubted and suspected them, or their photos were spread on social media.”

Officials at the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, however, say that after the change in the regime in Afghanistan, communication with social networks has been cut off, and they cannot control these networks.

Enayatullah Alkozai, spokesperson for the ministry, says: “The problem that currently exists, is that social networks do not cooperate with Afghanistan after the conquest of the country, and they do not have any representatives with whom we can work together; as was the case in the past, it is not existed now.”

Hayatullah Muhajer Farahi, the Deputy Minister of Broadcasting of the Ministry of Information and Culture, also says that so far, no one has filed a complaint about harassment through social networks with this ministry. He adds: “So far, no one has contacted the ministry about this issue to file a complaint. In this department, there are various directorates; the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice has a complaints section where if someone complains about this issue, they can register.”

Harassment and intimidation of women and girls through social networks in Afghanistan occur at a time when in most countries, the online world has become a means for education, work, income, and greater fame.