Fear over dystopian change to nation’s shop windows: 'Erasing women'

Despite the government crackdown, women are fighting back.

Female mannequins have been censored across Afghanistan following a decree by the ruling Taliban in January.

“Dystopian images” taken in the capital Kabul show tin foil, black plastic bags and cloth used to obscure their plastic faces. Laws now require women and their likenesses to be covered in public, and clothing store owners were given the choice between shutting down, chopping off the mannequin heads or covering them.

Speaking with Yahoo News Australia on Friday, 27-year-old Afghan woman Sara Wahedi described the decree as part of a Taliban’s strategic push towards a “complete erasure of women from society”.

Mannequin faces covered in tin foil in a shop.
The Taliban has forced shop owners to cover the faces of mannequins. Source: AP

Prior to August 2021, when the Taliban took the capital, women had been able to attend coffee shops, study and go to work. Ms Wahedi left Kabul for the United States in May, but friends who remained behind now fear the regime’s next step will be to prevent women from leaving their homes.

An expected wave of international condemnation of the Taliban has not materialised, leading to what Ms Wahedi describes as “huge wave of misogyny” across the country, and that’s led to increasing dread, depression, anxiety and anger amongst women.

“I’ve had friends who have been harassed in taxis and asked to get out,” she said. “Things are getting worse. Any movement by women is being monitored to finite detail.”

Taliban issues 'death threats' on social media

Despite having left the country, threats from the Taliban continue to plague Ms Wahedi’s social media accounts. “I definitely have a target on my head,” she said.

She rose to prominence after developing an app called Ehtesab that provides real-time alerts to people in the capital about risks including electricity outages, explosions and gunfire. Her team is 50 per cent female and they are now working anonymously in Afghanistan to develop features to specifically help women under Taliban rule.

Rows of mannequins with their faces covered in cloth in a shop window.
Shop owners were given a choice between covering the mannequin faces or chopping off their heads, according to reports. Source: AP

One new option will likely be a separate text alert system for women that allows information to be shared and then obscured from view should authorities seize their phones. Alerts could include an alarm that soldiers are in a specific area searching for child brides, or news that the Taliban are preventing women from working in a certain town. Ms Wahedi's challenge now is to incentivise women to trust her and the app, so they feel comfortable sharing their number and receiving texts.

How women use technology to speak out against Taliban

As a software developer, Ms Wahedi believes technology can be a force for good. In Afghanistan, women are using it to circumvent persecution and share poetry, songs, and art.

“They’re crying, screaming, saying, 'This is my life, I want to get my word out',” she said.

Ms Wahedi believes international observers often make the assumption that Afghanis aren't ready to utilise complicated technology for protest, but she says "they're wrong". Women in Kabul just have different methods to share their struggle.

“In the West, there's an obsession with the showing of the face, but for Afghan women (on the internet) it’s showing their backs with their hair open, or having a hijab or even using the burqa as a sign of protest,” she said. “It can be singing a song under a burqa and saying, 'I’m trapped'. These are ways that women are using technology to free themselves and to speak out.”

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