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  • Writer's pictureAfghan Witness

Reports of prominent activist’s arrest sparks protests, but is also met with online hate speech

As news of Zholia Parsi’s alleged arrest surfaced, Afghan Witness monitored the online response.

On September 27, 2023, Hoda Khamosh, an Afghan social activist exiled in Norway, announced the arrest of Zholia Parsi, a leading female activist in Afghanistan who has attended multiple outdoor protests over the last two years of Taliban rule.

Khamosh alleged that the Taliban took Parsi and her eldest son into custody without disclosing their whereabouts. Afghan news agencies further reported that the mother and son were taken from their Kabul home.

Parsi had previously been active on social media platforms such as Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) – attracting thousands of followers on each. While AW investigators could not confirm Parsi’s detention, it is noteworthy that her social media pages stopped sharing content on September 27, the day she was reportedly taken into custody.

On September 19, in one of her last posts prior to her alleged arrest, Parsi demanded the release of Dr Nida Parwani, a female activist reportedly taken by the Taliban alongside her husband and son that same day. Parsi had tagged 28 international organisations and news agencies in her post to boost its visibility.

Figure: Zholia Parsi’s post on X highlights the arrest of Dr Nida Parwani and her family by tagging various international organisations.

News triggers protests online and offline

As news of Parsi’s arrest circulated on social media, Afghan Witness (AW) analysts monitored the online response. Social activists started using the hashtag #FreeZholiaParsi immediately after reports of her arrest began surfacing on September 27, often appearing alongside the #FreeNedaParwani hashtag. The graph below shows the number of mentions of #FreeNedaParwani and #FreeZholiaParsi on X (formerly Twitter) between September 21 and October 4, 2023.

Figure: Graph showing the number of mentions of #FreeNedaParwani and #FreeZholiaParsion on X (formerly Twitter) between September 21 and October 4, 2023.

As well as online campaigns, the news also triggered several offline protests. Exiled in Pakistan, leader of the ‘Women’s Movement of Afghanistan’ Munisa Mubariz posted photos of herself holding a sign showing the faces of Parsi and Parwani. Her accompanying post asked the international community to “please plead for the release of Zholia Parsi”. Footage posted online showed a group of 11 women joining her in protest and chanting, “Zholia is not alone, we are all Zholia”.

In Afghanistan, various female groups turned instead to indoor protests, demanding the release of the two women. The ‘Afghanistan Women's Political Participation Network’ Facebook group shared multiple videos of a group of women with their faces covered and holding placards, demanding the release of the two female activists. The Facebook page also posted similar videos of an indoor protest organised by the ‘Takhar Women’s Movement.’

Figure: Example of an indoor protest shared by the ‘Afghanistan Women's Political Participation Network’ in response to Zholia Parsi and Dr Nida Parwani’s reported arrests. Screenshot taken from Facebook.

The group claimed that “following the assassination and arrest of active women and the subsequent arrest of Zholia Parsi and the painful silence of international institutions”, they are growing “more concerned about the current situation and the fate of these two protesting women.”

Online hate speech surrounding Parsi’s arrest

While Parsi’s alleged arrest triggered protests and campaigns both online and offline, some social media users celebrated the news, claiming that the “Islamic Emirate has done a good thing because those who fall into the hands of foreigners should be caught by the system and investigated and punished for their sedition.

While official Taliban accounts remained silent, pro-Taliban supporters were observed commenting on multiple stories. Comments included references to Parsi as a “prostitute of the West”, “Western spy”, and a member of a “network funded from abroad”, as shown below.

Figure: Comments on X (formerly Twitter) in response to reports of Parsi’s arrest.

Social media comments surrounding Parsi’s alleged arrest compare to the online gendered hate speech directed at other Afghan female activists in recent months. In September, prominent activist Tamana Zaryab Paryani and others received online criticism and abuse when they launched a 12-day hunger strike in Germany, Pakistan and Norway, calling for recognition of ‘gender apartheid’ in Afghanistan.

As of October 11, the Taliban have not made any official announcement regarding the arrest of Zholia Parsi and Dr Nida Parwani.

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