Violence behind a screen: rising online abuse silences Afghan women
Social media has provided a crucial platform for Afghan women since the Taliban takeover, but a new investigation by Afghan Witness reveals how those who dare to speak out are facing a torrent of abuse online. The impacts are devastating for women’s political participation – both online and off.
19 Nov 2023
Below is a summary of our findings. Scroll to the bottom of the page to download the full investigation (PDF file).
Since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, Afghan women have faced severe restrictions on their rights, from their access to education and employment to their freedom of movement and dress. With street protests often suppressed, social media platforms such as X (formerly Twitter) have emerged as increasingly vital spaces for Afghan women to express their views, establish communities, and campaign for their rights. Crucially, these platforms have enabled activists and members of civil society to communicate causes to an international audience.
But these digital spaces are not risk-free: this rise in women's online advocacy is accompanied by an increase in online abuse and harassment which is impacting women's online participation and – even worse – their lives. This is just one of the findings of a recent investigation by Afghan Witness (AW) into online gendered hate speech targeting politically engaged Afghan women.
Building on expertise gained from similar research in Myanmar, the AW team collected and analysed over 78,000 posts written in Farsi/Dari and Pashto which targeted politically engaged Afghan women between June 1, 2021 – December 31, 2021, and in the same period in 2022.
The team also carried out interviews with Afghan women to gain deeper insight into the nature of the online abuse they experience, and the impact it’s having on their lives. The report’s findings reveal how online abuse is having a “chilling effect” on women’s online participation and is impacting women “on a personal, societal and professional level.”
A tripling in abusive posts
The investigation reveals a staggering rise in online hate against these women, citing a 217% increase – or a tripling – in posts containing gendered hate speech and abuse terms and the names of prominent Afghan women from the June – December period in 2021 and the same period in 2022.
The abuse was also overwhelmingly sexualised: investigators found that over 60% of the posts in 2022 contained sexualised terms used to target Afghan women, with an 11.09% increase in such terms from 2021 to 2022. Afghan women revealed to investigators how they received direct messages including pornographic content, sexually explicit photos and threats of sexual assault, rape, and death.
Investigators saw how women were frequently targeted with narratives of prostitution and promiscuity, as well as accused of being ‘agents of the West’, or of fabricating claims to secure asylum abroad. Online abuse “creates false narratives and mindsets” about politically engaged women, one interviewee said, adding: “if you are an active woman and have a presence on social media, you are seen as a prostitute.”
As well as gendered and sexual abuse, the investigation revealed how politically engaged Afghan women were targeted with religious, political, and ethnic abuse. Investigators frequently saw ethnic slurs amongst the abusive comments, as well as false claims and examples of gendered disinformation – spread with the intention of humiliating, discrediting and undermining the women.
While investigators identified examples of perpetrators from a range of political affiliations, ethnic groups, and backgrounds, they found that low-ranking Taliban and pro-Taliban social media users were most often behind abusive posts. Since the report’s completion, AW has also uncovered more recent examples of this, such as when exiled Afghan women’s rights activist Tamana Paryani – now based in Germany – was targeted with online abuse by seemingly pro-Taliban social media accounts after she organised a hunger strike calling for recognition of ‘gender apartheid’ in Afghanistan.
Offline events driving online abuse
A qualitative deep-dive into the data led investigators to notice that spikes in abuse corresponded with several political developments and real-world events. Analysis indicates that before and during the Taliban’s takeover, spikes in gendered hate speech coincided with major advancements the Taliban were making in the country, while spikes during the second half of 2021 and 2022 were usually connected to the group’s restrictions on women’s dress, access to public spaces and educational rights. When Afghan women took to the streets to protest for their rights, investigators detected a surge in abuse online, with female protesters and campaigners often the main targets.
This association between the online and offline is also true when it comes to the impacts of online abuse. Interviewees mentioned that they feel their online and offline worlds are intertwined, with some telling AW that they avoided real-life interactions as they feared their physical safety was at risk. One interviewee told investigators, “I think the hatred they show on social media does not differ from what they feel in real life, and if they face you, they will show the same hatred.”
Online abuse was also found to impact women’s family relationships, including strengthening male family members’ authority over women’s behaviour and clothing, with concerns that online abuse could lead to “inter-familial violence”.
This abuse is having a devastating impact on women’s mental health – interviewees said they felt fear, anxiety, stress and low self-esteem after experiencing abuse online, with one woman describing such messages as “psychologically traumatic”. Women told investigators how they minimised or self-censored themselves on social media to reduce the risk of backlash and negative comments. For some women, this had consequences for their professional lives – for example, one female journalist told AW how she had to close some of her social media accounts and stopped reading comments, resulting in less access to online sources and information than her male counterparts.
Who to blame?
Pinpointing the exact cause of rising gendered hate speech against Afghan women is difficult – though there is likely a combination of factors at play. The Taliban have severely curtailed women’s rights and freedoms since returning to power, likely contributing to a culture of impunity when it comes to gendered violence – both online and offline. However, the investigation also notes that even before the Taliban’s takeover, online abusers acted with impunity as the former government lacked the institutions and procedures to counter online abuse and violence against women – in some cases, women were even ridiculed for complaining to the police.
Others will instead point fingers at social media companies. Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter in 2022 has been contentious; Musk promised to turn X (formerly Twitter) into a safe space where people can talk freely, but according to AW’s investigation, this promotion of “free speech” could mean some users have become “more inclined to spread gendered hate speech and abuse against women.” Researchers looking into other forms of hate speech, such as antisemitism, came out with similar findings.
AW’s investigation notes that weak moderation could also be to blame, however – media reports have detailed how the platform is leaning heavily on automation to moderate content, with an emphasis on “freedom of speech, not freedom of reach”. This means the platform might not be removing posts that violate the company’s policies but simply making them harder to find.
Looking to the future
To address this rise in online abuse, investigators held a focus group with the women interviewed for the research. A recommendations paper published alongside the investigation offers several recommendations to address online abuse and gendered hate speech. These recommendations include further research on online gendered violence, increased education and awareness to strengthen women’s digital safety, and the creation of a network or alliance so that women have a safe space to speak out about their experiences of online abuse and can collaborate on initiatives to promote a healthier online environment.
The paper also highlights a need for social media platforms to take more steps to protect women online, however, emphasising that platforms need to be more responsive in tackling hate speech and the broader culture of impunity, as well as in deactivating abusive accounts. The recommendations paper also underlines a need for platforms to expand capabilities when it comes to dealing with language blindspots, so that hate speech in regional languages and dialects can be monitored and dealt with more efficiently.
AW’s findings signal a need to address online violence against Afghan women. Without change, such abuse threatens to become an even bigger obstacle to Afghan women’s political participation and their engagement in public life. As interviews with Afghan women reveal, the abuse they face online has offline consequences – such rhetoric helps encourage and normalise violent attitudes towards women, both behind a screen, and in real life.
The investigation is comprised of the following parts:
Part I: Qualitative report
Part II: Quantitative report