A movement similar to #MeToo is taking shape in Afghanistan — one of the world's most dangerous countries for women — as more and more people are speaking up against sexual abuse.
In light of the recent sexual abuse allegations leveled by some members of the Afghan women's football team, women's rights activists in the country are hopeful that a broader conversation over sexual abuse in Afghanistan could take place.
There is no disagreement over the existence of sexual abuse in Afghanistan. In fact, a 2016 study revealed that 90 percent of the women and girls interviewed had experienced sexual abuse and harassment in public places, 91 percent in educational environments and 87 percent at work.
Also, the Thomas Reuters Foundation's 2018 poll labeled Afghanistan as the world's second most dangerous country for women. The country came seventh in the sexual violence category, which includes sexual harassment, according to the same poll.
Despite laws that make sexual harassment a crime in Afghanistan, victims are often shamed and blamed in the extremely male-dominated Afghan society, making it difficult for women to speak up. Nevertheless, every now and then, some women — mostly in big cities — raise their voices.
In the most recent case, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reacted soon after allegations against Afghanistan's Football Federation (AFF) officials were reported by media.
"I do not tolerate sexual abuse," Ghani said, ordering his attorney general to look into the claims. Since then, six football federation members — including the body's head Keramuddin Keram — have been placed under suspension over the allegations.
The global soccer body FIFA, too, has banned AFF president from all football-related activities due to the investigations into allegations of the abuse.
Kabul-based women's rights activist Wida Saghari is hopeful such moves by Afghan and FIFA officials will encourage more women to speak up against other forms of abuse in Afghanistan.
"When Afghan women see that somebody's accusations are being taken seriously and investigated, more will find the assurances they need to speak up against sexual predators," she said. The activist stressed that measures needed to be taken to ensure victim-blaming and shaming does not take place.
"We need much more support for this to turn into a bigger movement," she said, pointing out that speaking up against sexual abuse could be dangerous in Afghanistan where it is still considered a taboo and believed to bring shame to the families of victims. "This makes our fight against abuse uglier and more dangerous," Saghari said.
The AFF scandal, for instance, is already proving costly for some Afghanistan-based members of the women's football team. The sexual allegations by their teammates — who, they say, live outside Afghanistan — are creating problems for them both at home and outside.
"Due to the coverage the news of alleged sexual abuse is getting, we are not able to go to work or university," Afghan national team player Samia Hamasi told DW. "Now people think that all members of the football team are abused, which has made life difficult for us," she added, noting that allegations of sexual abuse in Afghanistan must identify both the victim as well as the perpetrator.
Women's rights activist Bahar Sahely echoes such concerns, saying recent accusations could put some Afghan women in difficult situations. "It can indeed be costly for some women, which is why we need a much more balanced approach to such issues," she said.
'It's now or never'
At no other point since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 has the topic of sexual abuse in Afghanistan gained so much attention both nationally and internationally.
Activists believe now is the right time for women to raise their voices. "There is a chance to launch a nation-wide dialogue over sexual abuse in Afghanistan and everyone should support those who have taken a huge risk by speaking up," Samira Hamidi, regional campaigner for South Asia at Amnesty International, said.
According to Hamidi, previous attempts at starting a conversation over the topic have failed due to a lack of protection for women in the country as well as inadequate support from the government. "But this time it could be different," she said.
If sexual predators are punished, laws that protect victims are enforced and officials are held accountable, rights advocates say, it is likely that Afghanistan will see a movement similar to #MeToo.