Selfies with the Taliban? Come on, let’s never forget their repression of women

Women queue to receive cash at a distribution point organised by the World Food Programme in Kabul on 20 November. Photograph: Petros Giannakouris/AP
Women queue to receive cash at a distribution point organised by the World Food Programme in Kabul on 20 November. Photograph: Petros Giannakouris/AP

In the days after the Taliban took Kabul, more than one correspondent shared clips from its streets, marvelling at how fast the city had returned to “surprisingly normal”, with shoppers back out and a sudden sense of quiet in a place that had been constantly braced for the next suicide bombing.

The correspondents were men, who apparently didn’t register one stark difference; it was also largely men in their videos. Most of the city’s women had vanished into their homes, terrified of what Taliban rule would mean for them.

It could have been a momentary slip of attention, at a time of intense pressure. But in the weeks that followed, this kind of blindness to the particular tragedy unfolding for Afghan women would play out again and again, first in male journalists’ coverage of the Taliban’s victory, and then in international organisations’ response to Afghanistan’s crisis.

Afghanistan was already the world’s worst country to live in as a woman before the Taliban took control. But with the group curtailing employment, and even trying to banish women’s faces from TV screens, it plunged to new depths, restrictions rarely seen in recent decades beyond the pages of dystopian novels, the short-lived borders of the IS caliphate, or the last time the Taliban controlled Afghanistan. This past week marked 90 days since the Taliban effectively barred girls from higher education, with no date for a return to high school.

Yet, particularly in the first weeks of Taliban control, that horror, and the unique shadow descending on women’s lives, seemed not to register fully with many male journalists in Afghanistan, or their editors back home in English-speaking countries, from the UK to the US, Australia to Canada (I haven’t followed other languages). It took one of the US’s leading papers four days to cover the Taliban announcement of a defacto ban on secondary school education for girls. On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on America, one prominent male correspondent in Kabul wondered on Twitter if “perhaps we can start today... to heal and move forward”. Afghan women were simply wondering if they would study or work again or even leave their house safely.

The specific restraints on women’s lives and public roles do not seem to be a priority either for many of the diplomats, UN officials and aid agencies that have begun flying into Kabul again, too often as part of all-male delegations. The UK sent two British men to discuss “the rights of women and girls” with two Taliban men, apparently oblivious or unconcerned about the message that decision sent Afghanistan’s new rulers, as they energetically exclude women from government and public spaces.

The United Nations appointed a man to lead the UN Women office in Kabul. When the Taliban brought in its bar on girls’ secondary education, Unicef – the UN agency that looks after children – put out a statement that first welcomed the return of boys-only high school classes, before raising “worries” about the future of girls’ schooling.

There have also been frequent calls from men in the international community to “give the Taliban time” on rights, as if women’s ability to feed and educate themselves are mere bargaining chips. This dovetailed with too much reporting that seemed to imply by omission that women’s rights are a niche concern, of interest to and best covered by other women, not an urgent human rights crisis.

Around three weeks after the fall of Kabul, I scanned the bylines of prominent male correspondents working in Afghanistan for papers on both sides of the Atlantic. It was an admittedly unscientific survey, but I couldn’t find a single standalone story by any of them about the systemic assault on women’s rights, beyond news coverage of protests by women.

Their papers did produce stories about the abrupt truncation of women’s lives, but they were written by women, mostly outside the country. Perhaps the men were oblivious, perhaps they were uninterested. Either way, it was lazy journalism, and a reminder of how much those who write the news determine what makes headlines, and therefore what becomes a focus of international debate.

It’s hard not to think this kind of approach makes it easier for the international organisations and diplomats to look at their delegate lists for trips to Kabul, and shrug off the fact that they are all or mostly men, or put out press releases that minimise abuses of women’s rights.

The selective blindness seemed to be illustrated, in social media feeds, by a glut of images of, and with, Taliban fighters, presented through a lens of uncritical fascination and sometimes almost giddy excitement. “Half come hither, half I’ll kill you”, read one caption, mulling whether the young Talib was trying to look “sexy or scary”. Another colleague recently shared pictures of himself essentially dressed as a Talib, wearing the black turban embraced by the group. A third, employed by a major international TV network, posted an image of his camera next to a Taliban RPG, with the quip, “I need to upgrade my kit”.

It is a strange approach to the footsoldiers of a government whose war crimes include the slaughter of media colleagues – and recent well-documented rights abuses go far beyond controls on women, including reprisal killings and forced displacements and massacres of minorities. Would selfies with the troops of other oppressive governments, from Chinese security forces in Xinjiang, or Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, be seen the same way?

There is an urgent need to understand the Taliban. The worldview and ambitions of those who fought for the new government, and implement its rule, will influence how we engage with them.

But the visually striking selfies with the Taliban and curated Instagram feeds of young militants at play do more to boost likes and followers (the pictures tend to be popular in the west) than offer any significant insight. For many Afghans at home and in exile, they prompt anger and despair; my phone regularly fills with incredulous screenshots and messages. “Are they suffering from Stockholm syndrome?” asked an Afghan female friend, sharing one of these images.

In the financial catastrophe that has followed the Taliban takeover, it is likely to be women who suffer most. Men may be reduced to manual labour or to selling their children, but many women cannot work at all, and it is always girls who are sold. For years, the international community and the media have claimed women’s rights were at the heart of the western commitment to Afghanistan. Never have those concerns been more urgent.

If the particular crisis facing Afghan women is not put at the heart of coverage of Afghanistan, and women are not at the centre of negotiations on aid donations and access, the price they and all of Afghanistan pay will be even greater.

Emma Graham-Harrison has reported from Afghanistan since 2009.

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