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Online abuse of politically active Afghan women tripled after Taliban takeover, rights group reports

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ISLAMABAD (AP) — Online abuse and hate speech targeting politically active women in Afghanistan has significantly increased since the Taliban took over the country in Aug. 2021, according to a report released Monday by a U.K.-based rights group.

Afghan Witness, an open-source project run by the non-profit Center for Information Resilience, says it found that abusive posts tripled, a 217% increase, between June-December 2021 and the same period of 2022.

Building on expertise gained from similar research in Myanmar, the Afghan Witness team analyzed publicly available information from X, formerly known as Twitter, and conducted in-depth interviews with six Afghan women to investigate the nature of the online abuse since the Taliban takeover.

The report said the team of investigators “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.”

The interviews indicated that the spread of abusive posts online helped make the women targets, the report’s authors said. The interviewees reported receiving messages with pornographic material as well as threats of sexual violence and death.

“I think the hatred they show on social media does not differ from what they feel in real life,” one woman told Afghan Witness.

Taliban government spokesmen were not immediately available to comment about the report.

The report identified four general themes in the abusive posts: accusations of promiscuity; the belief that politically active women violated cultural and religious norms; allegations the women were agents of the West; and accusations of making false claims in order to seek asylum abroad.

At the same 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.”

“Since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, social media has turned from being a place for social and political expression to a forum for abuse and suppression, especially of women,” the project’s lead investigator, Francesca Gentile, said.

The Taliban have barred women from most areas of public life and work and stopped girls from going to school beyond the sixth grade as part of harsh measures they imposed after taking power in 2021, as U.S. and NATO forces were pulling out of Afghanistan following two decades of war.

“The Taliban’s hostility towards women and their rights sends a message to online abusers that any woman who stands up for herself is fair game,” added Gentile.

One female journalist, speaking with Afghan Witness on condition of anonymity, said she deactivated some of her social media accounts and no longer reads comments, which affects her work when trying to reach out to online sources.

The report said it found the vast majority of those behind the online abuse were men, “from a range of political affiliations, ethnic groups, and backgrounds.”