In March last year, 27-year-old artist Kubra Khademi drew international attention by walking the streets of Kabul dressed in metal armor that emphasized the female body, and included a large pair of breasts. The provocative march drew much attention, intimidation and even some stones. The walk lasted eight minutes before Khademi escaped from the angry crowd into a cab that whisked her away. The death threats that came afterwards drove her out of the country.In interviews, Khademi explained that she used the exaggerated armor as an unprecedented way of calling attention to the very real and serious problem of sexual harassment that women in Afghanistan face, in the workplace and in the streets.Global research shows that sexual harassment is one way to remind a woman of her “real place” and prevent her from sharing the public space. This may well be the case in post-Taliban Afghanistan, where the presence of women in the public sphere is relatively new and still controversial in the eyes of many. According to data from the World Bank, only 16 percent of Afghan women are part of the workforce.Despite the widespread phenomenon of sexual harassment in Afghanistan, accurate research on the subject is hard to find. In August, a local NGO called Rushd came up with the following statistic: 65 percent of the working women surveyed complained of harassment.But the public debate that is now emerging has yet to discuss two burning subtopics – phone harassment and photo blackmailing.In Kabul, it’s hard to find a girl who has not experienced phone harassment at least once – a stranger who constantly calls her on the phone, threatening and intimidating her. Although these types of annoyances exist in many places around the world, in Afghanistan “innocent” phone hassling can have severe consequences, especially if the stalker gets hold of photos of his prey, and many phone harassers will do whatever it takes to do so. Due to the cultural and religious sensitivity to photographing, this phenomenon is widespread.
FOR MANY Afghan women, being photographed is not a commonplace or inconsequential experience. Actresses and women who appear on TV are often exposed to threats from the Taliban, from neighbors and sometimes even from family members. In provincial areas, many women don’t have ID cards because their husbands don’t want the eyes of strangers viewing likenesses of their women. Taking photos in a restaurant with families is considered offensive if there are women in the room. This stance is usual when it comes to women who are veiled and dressed in accordance with customary Afghan dress codes.But what if a woman finds that her unveiled photos from an exclusively female party fall into the hands of a harasser? What can a woman do when someone threatens to publish these photos or send them to family members unless she fulfills his demands? “These mzahms (“harassers” in Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian) can cause real damage, and there are lots of rumors and stories surrounding this subject,” said Wahida (not her real name), who underwent this kind of harassment.“I heard of a high-profile person who paid huge sums to a blackmailer to prevent his daughter’s photos from being exposed. I even heard of a girl who committed suicide after her ex-boyfriend threatened to publish her photos.”Wahida chose to conceal her identity due to the sensitivity of this subject.“Girls don’t like to admit that this has happened to them,” she explained. “It’s an embarrassing and uncomfortable experience. I personally prefer to forget it.”I first came across this phenomenon during a visit to Afghanistan in fall 2014, when I crossed paths with Efruz (not her real name). She invited me to her home in an apartment building, a place for tenants from all sorts of backgrounds.Among her neighbors was Ghazma (not her real name), who was secretly dating multiple men. Efruz was engaged at the time. Although her fiancé was respectful and supportive, Efruz constantly worried about her reputation and the possible cancellation of her engagement, should it be tarnished. Being a good girl was not enough. She also had to keep some distance from her daring neighbor, whose lifestyle was different from what she expected when she moved into the building.At the same time, Efruz had to remain on good terms with her neighbor. “You don’t want to be on bad terms with anyone. A girl who’s angry at her friend can distribute her number to various men, who will constantly call and harass her.” Efruz also received phone calls from strange men.
DURING MY stay at her apartment, Efruz came home from work one day looking extremely upset. “My roommate told me that Ghazma secretly took photos of me in my room while bowing down in a way that reveals my cleavage,” she said.“If my husband’s family sees this, the marriage will be canceled! What’s the point of covering up in front of them, when they’ve already seen my cleavage on the Internet?” But, I wondered, if Ghazma herself is leading a controversial life and has a lot to lose, why would she do such a thing? “Oh, this would not stop her. It’s actually a good weapon, in case somebody decides to mess with her.”When Efruz called Ghazma the latter broke down in tears, claiming that she never took such photos, but that she herself was in great danger. One of her ex-boyfriends had stolen personal pictures from her cellphone and posted them on a fake account that only she could view. He took them off the next day, but the warning had its effect.“Next time, these photos will be public,” he told her, “unless you pay me,” and he quoted an amount she couldn’t possibly pay.“These things are common,” said Efruz. “Guys make money this way. Some of them pay girls to steal their friends’ photos and hand them over. Some girls are desperate enough to do this. This can happen to anyone, even if you have nothing special to hide."“There was a case of girls who danced unveiled at a wedding. They were in the women’s section and what they did was acceptable. The problem was that one of the men peeped into the women’s section and photographed them with his cellphone. He then blackmailed them. He told them that if they didn’t pay 50,000 AFN ($750), he would distribute their photos."“Girls can lose their marriage prospects this way. Reporting the offense to the police was not an option, because they would just harass the girls. So their mother turned to the local mullah, who knew the family. He knew the girls were of good character and not at fault. So he contacted the blackmailer and convinced him to drop it.”ALMOST A year later, there are no controversial photos of Efruz circulating anywhere, and no one knows if any were ever really taken. She married her fiancé as planned. Ghazma kept getting threats from her ex-boyfriend, until she decided to take the case to the police.“This time, the police did something about it,” Efruz told me. “They tracked down the blackmailer and imprisoned him. They found that he had done this many times and had dozens of girlfriends who later became the victims of blackmail.”Money is not the only motive for blackmailing a woman. Blackmailing can be a good means of stopping a woman from acting controversially in a traditional society. To make it worse, the blackmailer is not always a stranger.Since Efruz started engaging in human rights activities she has received numerous phone threats, one of them from her distant cousins.“They are ashamed of my activities, and they are angry at me for posting my photos on Facebook, even though I’m always veiled. Back then, it was uncommon for girls to post their photos on Facebook, and we were the first girls in our hometown who did so. My relatives said that if I didn’t stop my activities, they would Photoshop my pictures, put my face on a naked body, and post it on Facebook.” But wouldn’t people realize it’s Photoshopped? “Not everyone. Even a Photoshopped picture can cause damage.”Wouldn’t these photos add to your cousins’ embarrassment? “They feel that they were already shamed.”Would they be frowned upon if they do such a thing? “No one would know it was them.”
FOR SOME men, blackmail is the best way to get a date. Such was the case for Wahida (not her real name).“My friend was dating a psychologist for some time while we were in college,” said Wahida. “After he gained her trust, she showed him pictures of her with friends, and I was among these friends. He found out my number, and then one day I got this phone call from a stranger who told me that he had my photos. He threatened to Photoshop them and post them everywhere."“When I asked him what he wanted from me, he said: ‘I want to date you. I saw you on campus when I was in college. You never looked at me or the other guys, and you were always so arrogant. I always wanted to break you.’"“I called my brother and asked for his advice. He told me to meet the guy and call my uncle, so that he would come to the meeting, too. I called the harasser, and we scheduled a date in a hotel lobby. I then called my uncle and told him the whole story. At first my uncle thought I had an affair with this guy. I told him: ‘If I had an affair with him, would I invite you to the date?’ “When I arrived at the hotel lobby, I was surprised to see this well-educated, elegant guy in a nice suit. I chatted with him a few minutes; he spoke calmly and eloquently. I then called my uncle, who was waiting in the corner, and left the scene right before they started to fight, my uncle shouting: ‘Give me the photos, if they really exist.’ “ T h e guy said: ‘I won’t show you these photos because I’m a decent man, but I do have them. Your daughter had an affair with me, and we did things together.” He was so calm and eloquent, he almost convinced my uncle.“In the end he did not carry out his threats, but he kept calling me. This whole time he was in a relationship with my friend, and they stayed together for years. He even threatened to post her pics. I think she really did something with him; maybe that’s why she gave in. They recently got engaged.”But sometimes, private photos are posted online with no attempt at blackmail and no apparent motive.“I once found my photos on Facebook, in a fake p r o fi l e under my name , ” said another girl, whom I will call “Karimah.”“These were photos from a private family event; only a family member could have posted them – probably my cousins.”Did you confront them? Did you tell your parents? “I couldn’t do anything about it, because people would not believe that my cousins would do such a thing. They would blame me instead for letting this happen. Men always get away with these things; women don’t.”Keeping in touch with an Afghan woman on Facebook can sometimes be difficult. Among dozens of profiles with fake names and generic pictures, it’s hard to remember who is who. Many women are still hesitant to post their real photos and names, for fear of potential blackmailing.Fake profiles with half-naked photos of Afghan girls can be found on Facebook, together with lewd comments posted by viewers. It seems that these are victims of photo blackmailing.The way to cope with this risk differs from woman to woman. Efruz chose to ignore the threats and continued posting her covered photos on Facebook.Others take liberties and enjoy freedom of expression behind generic photos of bears, flowers, calligraphy and manga characters. There are women who see the burka in the same way – a shield from an insecure world.