Mar 19

Taking it to the Streets; Protesting Pakistan

by Abigail Drane 

‘Let’s take it to the streets’ isn’t just some cheesy line from a 00’s hip hop battle film. In fact, Pakistani women have been taking it to the streets long before Step Up 2 hit cinemas. Women’s right activist Leena Ghani recounts the famous demonstrations during military dictator Zia ul-Haq’s martial law in the 1980s, “many women before us have paved the way for us. There is a tradition of women being politically progressive in Pakistan.” International Women’s Day 2019 was no different; the streets across Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad were filled with a rallying cry, as women with bright sloganed placards marched along them. Under the banner of ‘Aurat March’, women gathered to show solidarity with their fellow women to push for accountability and restorative justice against violence, harassment, and injustice.

In Pakistan, women face discriminatory laws in many aspects of life, including child marriage, divorce, law of inheritance, while often vulnerable to violence such as acid attacks or honour killings, which are practiced in parts of Pakistan. Of the 22 million children who do not attend school, the significant majority are female, while the World Economic Forum ranked Pakistan as the second worst in its 2018 Global Gender Gap Report, with one of the lowest rates of female labour market participation in the world. Such discrimination has led to a wave of social media safe spaces for women, those identifying as women or non-binary. “Given the issues the average Pakistani woman faces – sometimes with nowhere to go – creating a space that recognises a woman’s right to be there is integral,” says Kanwal Ahmed, the founder behind the Facebook group Soul Sisters, with almost 150,000 group members.


IWD 2019 marked the second Aurat March, yet it took place among a tense geo-politcal backdrop. In February a suicide bombing took place in Kashmir, setting of a series of military and political escalations amongst India and Pakistan. Therefore, in addition to advocating for the rights of women through the march, and while ensuring not to detract from this, another call of the march was added to end tensions between the two countries, invoking a feminist opposition to war.

Subsequently, in the days leading up to IWD, Sehyr Mirza, a peace activist based in Lahore, began using a hastag #AntiHateChallenge to challenge terrorism and conflict within the region, and soon it went viral. “The #AntiHateChallenge campaign was solely led by women from Pakistan to express solidarity with Indian friends. We were the first ones to break the silence and talk about peace,” says Mirza. “We mostly get to see such campaigns initiated and led by men.” The use of social media allowed those involved in the movement to share their protest and thoughts directly with the government, but also crucially, connect with the other side; India. In fact, Mirza found many Indian women who were just as vehemently opposed to the escalation of conflict as she was.


Social platforms during such a tense time helped bridge the divide between feminists seeking peace; a divide which the diplomatic reasoning seemed to be unable to do. The digital platforms have also allowed for a fostering of dialogue amongst likeminded women; a channel which has not be used prior. Furthermore, it is a tangible representation of women able to occupy both the physical and digital space to promote and give a voice to their values. Immediately, Pakistan’s IWD march went beyond advocating for women’s right’s within the Pakistani public sphere, giving means to inject a women’s voice into diplomatic engagement; a voice that is not heard often enough.

Mar 19

Peace, Politics and Pens

by Abigail Drane

Afghanistan at peace. Can you imagine it? If you are anywhere near my age range (hovering ambiguously around the 30 age bracket), your first understanding of Afghanistan may have been when two towers went crashing to the ground in 2001. Suddenly, Afghanistan, and the prominent figures in it, were thrust to the forefront of my worldly knowledge. Since then, scores of photos from war photographers have become synonymous with a google search of modern-day Afghanistan, while stories of Taliban insurgency and rule have become both the reality for war rooms across the world, and the plot lines of numerous Hollywood films. But imagine for just a minute, headlines void of suicide attacks and threats, and instead, Afghanistan’s Band-e Amir topping the ’10 Places You Must Visit In 2020’ list.

Afghanistan’s Band-e Amir National Park

‘Can I imagine it?’ I ponder while sitting in Afghanistan, scrolling through todays messages on my phone; security alert after security alert. No, I can’t imagine it right now.

But some people can imagine it, and they are making sure we know about it. “We want to see an end to the war” says Farahnaz Forotan, a female journalist and activist for women’s rights in Afghanistan. After 25 years of civil war, peace talks between the United States, Taliban and Afghan government are under way, and never before has the promise of peace has never been so tangible. Splashed across international and local media outlets are the latest Peace Talk updates, while in tea houses, men sit and discuss the potential for change. They have lost family, friends and much of their youth to the ongoing conflict. Some cannot see another way from what they have always known, but many of the younger generation have hope. Yet, amongst the public debate, a key voice is missing; Afghanistan’s women, like Farahnaz.

Activists at the People’s Peace Movement urge the Taliban to denounce violence and seek peace.

Activism for peace in Afghanistan is not a new concept. While demonstrations and social movements have been a well-documented, though targeted, part of civil society since the ousting of the Taliban from political power in 2001, much was relegated to geographically specific locations, gender restrictions and ethnic boundaries. Social media activism has allowed for the bridging of these divides, most popularly seen in the People’s Peace Movement (PPM) from Helmand to Kabul in 2018. The movement gained significant traction on social media, given the route which the subsequent march took, through Taliban held areas. Providing updates through a Facebook page with 40,000 subscribers, activists ‘won the hearts and minds’ of a nation tired of war, as more and more people learnt of the movement via social media and joined alongside. While women were physically present at the sit in events, they were discouraged from joining the march to Kabul due to gender restrictions, subsequently rendered silent yet again in the ongoing national peace debate. If women couldn’t show up physically, it was time to take on an online presence.

Women in Helmand were only allowed to take part in the sit in, not the ongoing march

“In no other time since I was born, has peace ever been so close. And in no other time have I felt the urge to take part in shaping the future of a country that knew only war for as long as I know myself, the country I call home – Afghanistan” says Farahnaz. “But at what price will this peace come? Will women still have to pay a price? Isn’t once more than enough?” Amongst the ongoing Peace Talks, which have only notably featured two women among a sea of men, the term ‘Red Line’ has been regularly referenced; a point of which the negotiating party is unwilling to compromise. In response, just last week Farahnaz launched #MyRedLine, a social media acitivism movement to to inject the voices and desires of herself and other women into the negotiation process, to represent Afghan womens rights.  Where women can not have a physical presence (40 women were denied visas with no explanation to attend the Peace Talks), Farahnaz is using social media to create an online presence for a collective women’s voice)

“This is what “MyRedLine” is about, voicing collectively what we are not going to go back to, regardless of the regime that will rule this country. Because I only see Afghanistan peaceful and prosperous if its future is built on social justice for everyone. And I am not alone. In the face of atrocities, we, the people of Afghanistan stand for our rights. We decide on our future. We will remain here to shape the future where all of us can live together. The time to be louder as ever, stronger as ever, united as ever and supported as ever is now”.

Social media activism provides an alternative avenue for those forced out of a physical representation. In Afghanistan, this could radically change the cultural and political landscape, and with activists like Farahnaz representing the voices of those who have been disregarded, the future is an exciting one.

Mar 19

She For Us?

by Abigail Drane

One viral video: Check

One catchy hashtag: Check

One likeable celebrity activist: Check

Ready to launch a social movement online? Yes.

Ok, ok, I know this may sound incredibly cynical, but please let me play the devil’s advocate (excuse the pun) for just a moment. When Emma Watson, famed British Actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, took to the stage 2014 at a UN event for the newly formed HeForShe, she charged men and boys with actively participating a solidarity movement for gender equality. In case you were sleeping under a rock at the end of September 2014, or were not engaged on any social platform (cue Millenials gasp of horror), then chances are you caught some of Emma’s speech and those that followed, or at least the reactions of others blowing up across the internet.


The pulling power of celebrity is something that has been used and some may argue, exploited, by both humanitarian and for-profit sectors for many years. Celebrities continue to front campaigns and advertisements for a plethora of reasons, from Comic Relief to the UN to Revlon. New media platforms have offered organisations and companies the celebrity’s pre-established social network, instead of relying on solely their own also resulting in the rise of online ‘influencers’. While marketing or raising awareness via celebrity is not a new concept, the use of new media platforms is consistently reshaping the process of and providing new avenues for engagement with the public.

So why does celebrity matter when talking about activism? In my previous post, I noted how social media and other online platforms have provided a virtual space for women to debate, challenge and advocate for their rights in Afghanistan, and in essence, in virtual arenas around the world. These are sometimes-organic, grassroots, local level discussions born out women experiencing events or seeing an issue in their every day and determining to resolve it through being a catalyst for change. HeForShe was about gender equality for all women, in all places. So where were the voices of the global south in this movement?

The most predominant faces associated with the HeForShe movement, as were plastered across social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, included actors, politicians and recognised social leaders. While Emma is an activist for gender equality, and has been on the receiving end of inequality, her speech highlighted her noticeable privilege and in doing so, consequently noted her difference from many other women around the world:

My life is a sheer privilege because my parents didn’t love me less because I was born a daughter. My school did not limit me because I was a girl. My mentors didn’t assume that I would go less far because I might give birth to a child one day.”

So where are the voices of other female activists who have been loved less, unable to go to school, or were undervalued? Well, it turns out they have been there all along, on the same media platforms but without the same reach.  Furthermore, as also seen with cases of celebrity humanitarianism, Western celebrities mainly appeal to Western spectators, hence the style of production is catered for the intended style of Western consumption.

Reflections of the #MeToo movement pin point Alyssa Milano as the key instigator for the global phenomenon it became, but often fail to mention Tarana Burke’s founding involvement. Are we to assume that social media + celebrity activist = the only way to develop a successful movement? I sincerely hope not. Social media activism provides a means to negate traditional power structures, state boundaries, and political institutions. Time and time over we have seen this – particularly in the global south – continue to challenge the norm. However, there are limitations, and regardless of the scope for social media activism to take place, the preestablished networks which celebrities hold certainly help grow and build momentum often far more so than any other individual. The intentions are the same; both voices are trying to form collective action on the same platform, yet the power structures are the different. Perhaps it’s time I changed who I’m following on social media?

Mar 19

#WhatIsMyName and Other Questions

by Abigail Drane

What do you think of when you think of Afghanistan? It is war? Osama bin Laden? Explosions making headlines, or not making headlines anymore as the case may be? Maybe it’s the heavily photographed blue burqa; a small strip of mesh allowing the wearer to look out upon the world yet stops the world from looking in? Or perhaps it’s a younger generation rising up against traditional gender norms entrenched in Afghan society?

As I travel the across Afghanistan, at times from behind a strip of blue mesh myself, it becomes apparent that after the Taliban regime was brought to an end in 2001 and access to digital telecommunications became a reality for many Afghans, parts of the country began embracing a social shift to engaging in socio-political discourse in response to growing communications infrastructure. Buzzing mobile phone stores selling credit line the bazaar streets as we pass through, reinforcing a 2017 survey which found an estimated 67% of the total population now carry mobile phones. In remote villages, tucked into Afghanistan’s famed sweeping mountainsides, satellites dot the rooves of mud houses beaming television channels and providing internet access into homes reliant on solar power.

Yet amongst growing access to information and seemingly progression, gender relations in Afghanistan remain a source of tension within society. Hussain and Amin (2018) argues that women in Afghanistan are experiencing both the expansion of opportunities as a result of the technological shift and entrenched resistances due to traditional societal roles. For those who advocate for a change to women’s roles in Afghan society, such as Tahmina Arian and Laleh Osmany of the #WhereIsMyName movement, access to social media has provided a means to do so.

Activism for women’s rights, against a backdrop of ongoing violence, is often too dangerous within the public arena, as demonstrations are often targeted by those fundamentally opposed. It is therefore clear that social media, as a mobilizing platform for socio-political discourse, is an asset for activists within Afghanistan. Social media provides an opportunity to express opinions, converse with others around the world, and mobilize others all with potential anonymity of the internet; actions which could be life-threatening in an off-line world.

In the Afghan context, it is rare that women can join together outside their homes to express themselves. Even the minority of women who were able to attend, who are in the minority, were rarely given space to reflect more broadly on the consequences and further implications of unequal gender norms. While humanitarian and other iNGO actors have actively worked to mobilise women to advocate for their rights through peer support groups, social media has provided a means for women to empower themselves via existing structures.

#WhereIsMyName was developed by Arian, Osmany, and other new university graduates in the summer of 2017. The campaign began online, fighting for a woman’s right to have her own individual identity rather than only being identified in relation to their spouse or male relatives. Considered dishonourable, men avoid saying the names of their mothers, sisters, daughters and wives; rather they are called “sister of” or “wife of”. The group behind #WhereIsMyName says it believes “giving women back their names is the first important step in encouraging them to assert their rights in a society where violence and abuse against women remain major problems”.

The hastag #WhereIsMyName doubled not only as the name of the movement, but also as online marker on Facebook and Twitter, which gained substantial traction both in Afghanistan and overseas. “We launched the campaign in cyberspace and we made good use of it,” Osmany said. “The issue is now being debated in the real world — people and media are now talking about it.”

As an activist movement raising women’s awareness gender inequality and the denial of rights, #WhatIsMyName demonstrates fundamental feminist theory. Hooks (2000, p7) argues that “feminists are made, not born. Like all political positions one becomes a believer in feminist politics through choice and action”.

Almost two years on, gender inequality with Afghanistan continues to spark debate across political and public spheres. Has #WhatIsMyName brought about a drastic change to traditional gender norms? I would argue not. Afghanistan is still remains one of the most dangerous places to be a woman, with many confined to responsibilities for the home and family. However, it has exemplified something important; women are no longer restricted to their immediate physical circle, they are able to engage in discourse online, mobilize one another and proactively challenge such gender norms peacefully against a background of violence. In essence, every woman with a social media account has the possibility to be an activist; a possibility that did not exist 15 years ago. It is this possibility, coupled with the growing new media infrastructure, that suggests there is a hope Afghanistan’s future narrative does not have to be about war, Osama or burqas and rather, about a group of young Afghan women who defied the odds.