Afghan women hit back at Taliban with #DoNotTouchMyClothes campaign

Afghan women have started an online campaign to protest against the Taliban’s strict new dress code for female students. Using hashtags like #DoNotTouchMyClothes and #AfghanistanCulture, many are sharing pictures of their colourful traditional dresses. The BBC’s Sodaba Haidare spoke to the woman who sparked this social media fightback.

Type “Afghan traditional clothes” into Google and you will be overwhelmed at the sight of multi-coloured cultural dresses. Each one is unique, with handmade embroidery and heavy designs, small mirrors placed carefully around the chest, skirts long and pleated, perfect for twirling during “Attan” or Afghanistan’s national dance. Some women sport embroidered hats, others wear heavy headpieces, depending on which region of Afghanistan they come from.

A scaled-back version of similar dresses was worn every day by women going to university or their place of work in the past 20 years. Sometimes the trousers were replaced by jeans and the scarves were draped on their heads instead of over the shoulders.

Afghan students listen to women speakers prior to a pro-Taliban rally outside the Shaheed Rabbani Education University in Kabul on 11 September 2021

Women Afghan students wore all black during a pro-Taliban rally at a university in Kabul

But the pictures of women in long, fully veiled black abayas, covering their faces and hands, and rallying in Kabul over the weekend to support the “Taliban order” have been a huge contrast.

In one video, the women holding a pro-Taliban rally in the capital were seen saying Afghan women wearing make-up and in modern clothes “do not represent the Muslim Afghan woman” and “we don’t want women’s rights that are foreign and at odds with sharia” – referring to the strict version of Islamic law supported by the Taliban.

Afghan women around the world were quick to hit back.

Joining a social media campaign started by Dr Bahar Jalali, a former history professor at the American University in Afghanistan, they used hashtags such as #DoNotTouchMyClothes and #AfghanistanCulture to reclaim their traditional clothes.

Ms Jalali says she started the campaign because “one of my biggest concerns is Afghanistan’s identity and sovereignty is under attack”.

Posting a picture of herself on Twitter in a green Afghan dress, she urged other Afghan women to share theirs to show “the true face of Afghanistan”.

“I wanted to inform the world the attires that you’ve been seeing in the media [referring to those worn by women at the pro-Taliban rally] that’s not our culture, that’s not our identity,” she said.

Many were taken aback by the way the women had dressed at the pro-Taliban rally; the nib and hand coverings are seen as a foreign concept to many Afghans who are used to the colourful, kaleidoscopic traditional dresses.

Afghan women hold placards as they call on the Taliban to preserve their rights to work and an education, in Kabul, on 3 September 2021

Earlier in September, Kabul saw a protest by women calling on the Taliban to protect their rights

Every region of Afghanistan has its own traditional clothes but, despite the diversity, they all share a common theme: lots of colour, mirrors and embroidery. And the women share the same thought – that their clothes are their identity.

“This is our Afghan authentic dress. Afghan women wear such colourful and modest attires. The black burqa has never been part of the Afghan culture,” tweeted Spozhmay Maseed, a rights activist based in Virginia.

“For centuries we have been an Islamic country and our grandmothers have been dressed modestly in their own traditional clothes, not the made-up blue ‘chadari’ and Arab’s black burqa,” says Ms Maseed.

“Our traditional clothes represent our rich culture and history of 5,000 years which makes every Afghan feel proud of who they are.”

Even those who lived in the most conservative parts of the country say they had never seen women dress in niqabs, a black garment covering the face.

“I posted that photo because we are Afghan women, we wear our culture with pride and we think that our identity cannot be defined by some terrorist group. Our culture is not dark, it’s not black and white – it’s colourful and there is beauty, there is art, there is artisanship and there is identity,” says Lima Halima Ahmad, a 37-year-old Afghan researcher and founder of Paywand Afghan Association which focuses on women’s issues.

As someone who lived and worked in Afghanistan for the past 20 years, Ms Ahmad says: “Women had a choice. My mother wore a long and big veil and some women chose to wear smaller ones. Dress codes were not enforced on women.

“We are Afghan women and we have not seen stuff like that where you are fully covered, with some kind of black shadow uniform that you are wearing black gloves, your eyes are not even seen – it looked like it [was] ordered specifically for that exhibit,” she said, referring to the pro-Taliban rally.

Another woman who took part in the Twitter campaign is Malali Bashir, an Afghan journalist based in Prague. She also paints Afghan women in their traditional dresses to “show the world the beauty of our culture”.

She says growing up in her village (not naming to protect her family) “a burqa, either black or blue, was never a norm and women wore their Afghan cultural dresses. Older women wore a black head covering and younger ones wore colourful shawls. Women greeted men by shaking hands,” she said.

“Recently, there’s an increasing amount of pressure on Afghan women to change their cultural attire and fully cover themselves or disappear from public view. I posted my picture and reshared one of my paintings in which Afghan women are wearing our cultural dresses and dancing the nation dance of Afghanistan called “Attan”.

Taliban officials have said women will be able to study and work in accordance with sharia law and local cultural traditions, but strict dress rules will apply.

Some Afghan women have already started dressing more modestly and the “chadari” – the blue garment with only a mesh rectangle in front of the eyes – has made a comeback, with more women seen wearing them in Kabul and other cities.

Higher Education Minister Abdul Baqi Haqqani has said universities will be segregated and veils made mandatory for all female students, but he has not specified whether this means headscarves or compulsory face coverings.