A video of an Afghan government official appearing to sexually exploit a female employee has sent shockwaves through where sexual harassment is rampant but rarely discussed in public.
The video, which went viral, is a daring accusation in a conservative society where victims of abuse are often stigmatised.
Even government institutions, which have received vast sums of foreign aid intended to be used in the empowerment of women, seemingly do little to fight harassment and abuse in their own offices.
In the graphic video, an air force colonel is seen apparently having intercourse with a young, unidentifiable woman who surreptitiously recorded the encounter and gave the footage to a colleague.
Several of the colonel’s co-workers confirmed that he had pressured the woman for sex when she approached him for a promotion.
“I know he has done this many times [with other women]” said one pilot, requesting anonymity. Another pilot told the Guardian that the colonel, who has been named in local media, is known to line up girls in his office and taunt them with derogatory jokes. Both said they had not spoken out before, out of fear of reprisal.
The ministry of defence has said it is investigating the allegations. The woman did not respond to requests for comment.
The video immediately prompted outrage. Yet, to most Afghan women, the experience of harassment is depressingly familiar: studies suggest that up have endured mistreatment everywhere from school and workplace to prisons and – rampantly – on the streets.
Harassment is likely one of the main obstacles to boosting a female workforce. Since 2001, women’s participation in the Afghan labour force , from 14.5% to 17.6%.
Harassment deters women from seeking work, but also diminishes their autonomy by discouraging men from letting wives, daughters and sisters work, due to risks to the women and, by extension, the family honour.
“For Afghan women, it’s a double-edged sword,” said Noorjahan Akbar, a US-based activist. “If you speak out, people say, ‘see I told you we shouldn’t let women work’. And if you don’t, people say, ‘of course it will continue if you don’t speak out to support other women’.”
In some ministries, being asked for sexual favours in return for job or promotion “is like a prerequisite”, said one woman who has worked in various government institutions for years. “It is very hard to get appointed unless you have backing,” she said. “If you don’t have powerful relatives, you will have to sleep with someone powerful.”
Sexual advances also come from younger peers. “If you turn them down, they badmouth you,” she said, recounting a male colleague interrupting a suggestive conversation between women at the office by exclaiming: “Why don’t you talk to me about it? Or better yet, come show me.”
After the female official refused, the man went to their boss and claimed she drank in public – an offence in Afghanistan. “They don’t even give girls the chance to explain themselves,” Akbar said.
Afghan artist dons armour to counter men's street harassment
Anti-harassment activism is almost non-existing in Afghanistan, partly because it is dangerous. In 2015, Kubra Khademi, a young artist, in protest against the groping and leering she endured every day. Afterwards, Khademi received so many death threats she fled the country.
It will remain dangerous for women to report harassment as long as there is impunity for perpetrators, said activist Selay Ghaffar.
“If a member of parliament, who is abusing a woman, is prosecuted in public, others wouldn’t dare,” she said.
Impunity has also been aided by the international community. US military commanders have been known to tell soldiers to ignore sexual abuse of boys in the Afghan security forces. Service members who reported abuse .
Some argue that misogyny in Afghanistan is a result of cultural, sexual repression. But Akbar said that is a “bogus” argument.
“A lot of people argue that sexual harassment is widespread in Afghanistan because men don’t have a way to release themselves sexually, but sexual harassment is a global problem,” she said. “You cannot argue that in the US, men don’t have a way to release themselves sexually.”
“It’s about ownership of women’s bodies. If a woman goes into a public space, her body is automatically seen as public property,” said Akbar, who also founded , a blog for young Afghan writers where harassment is a consistent theme.
The Afghan government has taken steps to empower women, including a bill for the elimination of violence against women, decreed into law in 2009 but not passed by parliament.
Yet, the government does little to implement its policies, said Ghaffar. Platitudes about women’s rights were primarily meant for western donors, she said.
“We have some very misogynist people in power,” she said. “For them, women’s rights is a business.”