Over the weekend, around 300 women gathered at a university lecture theatre in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. Most of them wore layered black niqabs and burqas that covered their bodies and faces. Some wore black gloves. In some photos, even their eyes were not visible.
The fully-covered women criticised other women who were resisting the Taliban’s dress code and segregation rules. They told the media that the previous Afghan government was misusing women “just for their beauty.” Those not covering up are “harming all of us,” they added.
Their images and videos went viral, and were challenged almost immediately.
Afghan women wearing traditional colourful outfits, with intricate designs, embroideries and glasswork started trending in response. Some women wore make-up and Western clothes, and tagged their posts with the hashtags #DoNotTouchMyClothes and #AfghanistanCulture.
Ariana Delawari, an award-winning multimedia artist who has roots in Afghanistan and lives in Los Angeles, was one of the defiant women. She posted a photo of her family in the 80s, in which her mother, sisters and aunts were at a protest wearing colourful traditional clothes.
“I knew right away that there was nothing ‘real’ about the image [of pro-Taliban women],” Delawari told VICE World News. “After the awe-inspiring uprise of women on the streets throughout Afghanistan—chanting loudly, wearing whatever they wanted, and resisting the Taliban—there was no way they stifled themselves on purpose overnight.”
Delawari added that the so-called pro-Taliban women were “either forced, or were foreign women, or possibly even men.” “Whatever that black attire is, it is not the blue burqa or chadari,” she added. “It is totally alien to the land of Afghanistan.”
This online campaign started after many Afghans expressed shock and distress over the full-body veil. Nargis Azaryun, a civil society activist from Afghanistan, called it the “most absurd thing I have ever seen.”
“It is an insult to women across the world and should not get any more publicity. It is barbaric. They are not our women,” she said in a tweet.
The counter-campaign aims to take on the Taliban rhetoric on women’s clothes and the morality attached to women’s bodies. It was started by Dr Bahar Jalali, a former history professor at the American University of Afghanistan who also started Afghanistan’s first gender studies programme.
“This is Afghan culture. I am wearing a traditional Afghan dress,” she wrote in a tweet that went viral.
In another post, she shared a photo of her mother from 1958, in which she’s in a sleeveless, knee-length dress in Afghanistan. “Girls and women in our country once wore all kinds of beautiful garments,” Jalali wrote. She urged other women to “show the world what the real Afghanistan is made of.”
Delawari said the burqa wasn’t mandatory before the first Taliban occupation, and hasn’t been required since their fall in 2001. She added that Afghan women who did wear the burqa did it by choice.
Last week, the Taliban ordered women attending private universities to wear abaya robes and niqabs while attending classes. “[This is] oppression, not a choice,” said Delawari.
“Black is historically seen as a colour signifying mourning in Afghanistan,” Rostam, an Afghan who anonymously runs a heritage and history Twitter page on the region, told VICE World News. “But this is a very sensitive topic because Afghan women don’t wear colourful clothes every day either.”
Rostam added that the politicisation of women and their rights is not new. “We must be careful with political campaigns that do not aim to improve women's situation, but rather have political interests behind them,” he said.
Campaigns to resist repression by the Taliban, such as the one for women’s rights, have made an impact, Rostam said.
“If they were not useful, we would not have the Taliban bothering to stage counter-campaigns and protests, both online and in Afghanistan,” he added.
Delawari said such campaigns break a pattern of ignorance around Afghanistan’s realities.
“Somehow people still have this image of Afghanistan from the 1990s Taliban rule,” she said. “I guess it was the [U.S.] branding of the ‘War on Terror’ that did it – I'm not sure – but historically, our textiles have been vibrant and colourful, and our women have been strong and free.”
Afghan women on the ground in Afghanistan continue to lead the anti-Taliban resistance, Delawari added, while those like her who live abroad pitch in by amplifying them.
“Some women have gone silent due to their safety [concerns], but there are still many who are vocal in the face of the Taliban. Hopefully, a movement like this one succeeds in countering the Taliban's fake PR stunt. Begone, Taliban,” she said.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.