“Salaam, Hello, Are you there?” “Are we meeting for the protest today?” “Where?” These were some of the messages a 25-year-old press officer for an international company woke up to on a January morning in Mazar-i-Sharif, the fourth largest city in Afghanistan. She had spent the past few months in a safe house with other Afghan women, making placards and mobilising for protests against the Taliban. She wondered who had sent these messages. Puzzled and scared, she called her friends to check if they had received similar messages. Some had, others had not, but the question remained. How did the sender know they were secretly planning an indoor protest that noon?
As they regroup to resist the Taliban regime, which seized power in August last year, Afghan women activists have been vetting everyone holding a placard next to them. Threats and violence ensured that the activists moved the protests indoors and before they knew it, the Taliban was trying to infiltrate their WhatsApp groups. By November 2021, the Taliban knew the names and phone numbers of every protester.
The messages from the unknown number kept the press officer awake at nights. “I know from my heart that it was the Taliban,” she told me. “They had started confiscating phones during protests and have been trying to break into secret message groups to abduct us, silence us. They message in Pashto, in Farsi and in one-liners or send direct questions. They try to trick us into believing they are one of you. We girls have a code, a way to recognise each other. I won’t reveal it, but, when we receive a text like this, we know.”