Cellphone snapshots of women cause stir in conservative Afghanistan
By STEVEN BEARDSLEY AND ZUBAIR BABAKARKHAIL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 11, 2014
KABUL, Afghanistan — Cellphones have become omnipresent here since the ouster of the Taliban. But connectivity comes with a downside in this conservative Muslim country.
As more Afghans take and store photos on their phones, private images of women are increasingly appearing online and being shared publicly, say ordinary Afghans, religious leaders and government officials. The trend has sparked outrage and embarrassment in a culture where women are largely hidden from public view, leading some to fear it might result in further isolation.
“It has a great impact on women all over,” said Nadera Nahrinwal a women’s rights activist in rural Baghlan province. “No one feels safe, and they feel the same could happen to them.”
Few of the images at issue would be considered scandalous or provocative by Western standards. Many are videos of clothed women dancing at private celebrations, including wedding parties segregated by sex. Others are private family photos with unveiled women.
Custom in much of Afghanistan calls for women to avoid all contact with male strangers and to associate only with relatives. Men enforce the separation by keeping even their friends from female relatives, a prohibition that extends to photos.
“If someone sees personal photos, everyone will look down on that family,” said 22-year-old Sediq Afgar, who was standing outside a wedding celebration in Kabul recently. “And the family will look for the person who did this and start a feud.”
Yet cameras and smartphones are popular in cities like Kabul, and families regularly hire wedding videographers for celebrations at the rental wedding halls downtown. Male and female revelers bring cameras to record the celebrations.
The images make it online through a variety of paths, Afghans say. Photos can be pulled from lost and stolen phones, some say. Others blame videographers for sharing or selling their videos. Someone may choose to surreptitiously film another person and share it.
The images wouldn’t go far by Internet alone in Afghanistan, where only 5.9 percent of households had online access in 2013, according to the International Telecommunications Union. Phone sharing is far more common, especially in rural areas of the country that have no Internet access at all.
Seven out of 10 Afghans had a phone in 2013, a significant increase from the one out of 10 in 2001, according to the ITU. Many of those phones have only rudimentary cameras, but smartphones are growing in popularity, a likely reflection of a society in which nearly 65 percent of the population is under the age of 25.
Even without the Internet, men can use their phones to access shared photos and videos. A cottage industry selling Internet uploads to phones has sprung up in cities and villages. A gigabyte of data sells for about $1 in Kabul. Pictures are uploaded by one of the dozen or so men sitting at a computer along a sidewalk near Pashtunistan Square. One man denied he sold the videos when asked by a reporter. Another agreed to upload videos of women dancing if the purchaser stood close to the computer to conceal the screen.
The owner of a nearby cellphone shop said the vendors have been in business for a few years. He shrugged when asked if the uploads were controversial.
“If someone is angry, what can they do about it?” the man, Shapoor Sediqi, 26, said. “It’s not in one computer, it’s not in two computers. It’s in all computers.”
But another nearby business owner said that the uploads were a problem and that they could bring violent reprisals if the person who shared the video was ever discovered. He claimed a member of his extended family was killed after it was discovered he had shared a private video of a relative.
“In Afghanistan, people kill each other for very small reasons,” said the man, Lali Mohammad Ahmadzai, owner of a TV shop.
The Afghan government created hot lines for complaints two years ago, one for women and another for men, said a spokesman for the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. Local governments have also been asked to deal with the problem.
In Baghlan, concerns grew after several high-profile incidents, Nahrinwal, the women’s advocate, said. A family was blackmailed by someone who snapped a photo of their marriage-age daughter riding in a car with a suitor and threatened to share it. In another incident, someone shared a picture of a woman breast-feeding her child during a wedding celebration. The family scolded the woman.
Some women told Nahrinwal their husbands had prohibited them from attending large wedding ceremonies for fear they might be recorded.
Religious leaders in Baghlan began preaching about the issue and women held a round table earlier this year to address the problem, Nahrinwal said. They requested the government stop men from selling phone uploads. The practice ceased for a day, she said, before the men returned and set up shop again.
“As long as young people are getting smartphones, this will be a problem,” she said.
For as little as $1 a gigabyte, vendors in Afghanistan- like this one in Kabul - will download photos, videos and games to cellphones. Such troves often include private videos and photos of women dancing, a breach of social rules that has led to anger and frustration among women and their families.
JAD SLEIMAN/STARS AND STRIPES