Afghan women’s faces disappear online and in the street after Taliban takeover
NEW DELHI/LONDON — From
television screens and universities to the national parliament,
Afghan women spent two decades battling to have their voices
heard and their faces seen. In a matter of days, they are
disappearing from public view.
Following the Taliban’s lightning fast takeover of
Afghanistan this month, some rights and aid organizations have
been removing pictures of female beneficiaries, staff and other
local women from their websites, officials and employees said.
“Our utmost priority … is to ensure the safety and
security of our teams … (and) of the women and girls with whom
we are working and for whom we are working,” said Mohammad
Naciri, U.N. Women’s director for Asia and the Pacific.
“(Content) will be uploaded again once we see a reassuring
sign on what’s happening on the ground,” he said, describing the
current situation in Afghanistan as a “gender emergency.”
Naciri said the move to remove photographs was temporary and
did not mean the organization was abandoning Afghan women, but
rather taking precautions as it seeks to ensure the Islamist
militant group keeps recent promises to protect women’s rights.
Some rights campaigners expressed concern that deleting
women’s pictures could inadvertently bolster the ideology of
removing women from public life that was strictly imposed during
the Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule.
But amid fears that any digital footprint could be used to
target people, at least five international agencies told the
Thomson Reuters Foundation they were taking down photos that
identified Afghan women, children and staff.
A spokesperson for Oxfam, who asked not to be named, said
they were “proactively removing (content) as a precaution.”
The charity restored a revised version of its Afghanistan
page on Friday after the site briefly went offline last week,
while U.N. Women replaced its local page with a statement and
removed the country from a list of places where it operates.
Gone into hiding
Amnesty International has said thousands of Afghans –
including academics, journalists and activists – are “at serious
risk of Taliban reprisals” since the militants’ seized power
just over a week ago.
One aid worker, who declined to be named, said many
colleagues had gone into hiding.
Representatives of most charities – working to boost women
and girls’ access to healthcare, education and work – declined
to be identified as they did not want to draw the militant
group’s attention to themselves or their websites.
Thousands of people have been scrambling to delete their
digital history since the Taliban took control, fearing the
content could be used to track and target them.
Individual Afghans and advocacy groups have reported harsh
retaliation against protests, and roundups of those who formerly
held government positions, criticized the Taliban or worked with
Former officials have recounted hiding from the Taliban in
recent days as gunmen went from door to door.
Although the group has sought to present a more moderate
face since its takeover, saying women’s rights will be protected
under the framework of Islam, the Taliban ruled with an iron
fist when previously in power.
It enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law that
included public flogging and stonings.
Women had to wear a burqa – a garment that fully covers the
face and body – and were barred from school, work or leaving the
house without a male relative.
Two human rights organizations, including Amnesty, said that
while they understood the risks, women must remain visible in
“Women’s presence and their contribution should not
disappear,” said Samira Hamidi, Amnesty’s Colombo-based South
Asia campaigner and an Afghan national.
“It will be very disappointing if everybody were to address
this issue in a way that because women are in danger, we will
shut down everything about them … That would actually promote
or support what the Taliban want.”
A senior member of another human rights organization, who
asked not to be identified, said the group was carefully
evaluating the risks.
“We don’t want to endanger people … but we also don’t want
to do the Taliban’s work for them by erasing women
unnecessarily,” the campaigner said.
UNICEF spokesperson Joe English said the U.N. children’s
agency was reviewing Afghanistan content to identify potentially
risky material but was stopping short of a blanket removal.
It is not just online that images of women are being
In the capital, Kabul, business owners have whitewashed or
removed pictures of women from beauty salons and tailors’ shops
in fear of possible reprisals.
Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch, who has worked with
women in Afghanistan for more than six years, said a new
generation of Afghan women who have made major strides in work
and education would not tolerate being purged from public life.
“This was intolerable in 2001, but in the last 20 years
women’s lives have changed a lot,” she said.
“Trying to remove them from public space is to deny their
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