Alee Siddique and Neyaz Mohseni consider themselves the pioneers of TikTok in Afghanistan. In fact, when they each first got on the service in 2017, it was still known as Musical.ly, well before it became the world’s most ubiquitous and influential social media platform.
Today, the two have more than 732,000 followers across their two accounts. But all those efforts may now be in jeopardy as the Taliban starts to enforce its promise of shutting down the service in Afghanistan. Users on three of the nation’s five major mobile phone providers have already reported they could no longer access TikTok without first connecting to a virtual private network or Wi-Fi.
In April, the Taliban ordered a ban on TikTok and online multi-player game PUBG, saying the platforms were leading Afghan youths astray. It came at the same time the group said it would ban television channels from broadcasting what it deemed "immoral material".
This is not the first time an Afghan government has tried to limit access to a popular social media platform. The former western-backed Islamic Republic blocked access to YouTube for nearly three months in the autumn of 2012. Then, in 2014, the senate considered banning Facebook access owing to the amount of controversial comments spreading across the service as a result of a presidential election plagued with accusations of widespread fraud. In 2020, the former government also banned PUBG, citing its alleged “social and security impact”.
But this is the first time since the term “influencer” entered the global lexicon that an Afghan government has tried to cut off access to an entire service indefinitely. It’s also not a coincidence that the clampdown comes under the Taliban and most of Afghanistan’s influencers have already fled the country since the takeover.
Siddique and Mohseni represent the few who stayed.
“So many Afghans have tried to reach this level, but they don’t realise how much work it takes,” Mohseni says.
A ban would lead the two friends to lose a source of income and years of work, but they also believe it’s a disservice to Afghans in the country, who make up more than 60 per cent of their followers, as well as outside.
“Our followers still in the country keep commenting that they get happy seeing us continue to do our work and entertain them despite all of the recent difficulties,” Siddique says.
To those outside the country, says Mohseni, including friends of theirs who had to leave during the evacuations last summer, their content is a reminder of a nation they lost and fear they may never see again.
Mohseni, who is a dentist and musician, has never relied on social media as his sole source of income, but he laments that years of work and quality content could end up being erased almost instantaneously.
“We worked so hard for this, and imagine it all ends up in nothing,” he says.
Siddique, meanwhile, relies on TikTok and Instagram for his income. He studied accounting in neighbouring Pakistan, where he was born and lived until 2016, and used to work at a bank, but eventually left the corporate life to focus on his own ventures. For about six months in 2021, he ran a popular Kabul cafe, but the recent economic downturns forced him to close the business last summer. Since then, he has been focusing all his efforts on social media.
“If they shut TikTok down, there are other platforms. We will shift to Instagram and YouTube ― thankfully we have built a loyal audience around the world,” Siddique says.
It’s a desire to show ordinary life in Afghanistan, despite the Taliban’s restrictions, that drive the pair. It’s also what inspires Karima Katayon, whose Instagram following has jumped from just under 5,000 to more than 21,000 followers over the past year.
She owns an Afghan clothing brand and sees her continued social media presence as a statement.
“I want to send a message to the girls of Afghanistan: don’t wait for the Islamic emirate to give you your rights, you could end up waiting 100 years. You have to take it,” she tells The National.
Katayon, 26, who chooses Instagram over TikTok, says as a female influencer she must deal with dual burdens. On the one hand there are the limitations of the Taliban government, who want all women to wear niqabs or the all-encompassing blue chadari.
“Just going out in colourful clothing and having a meal or going shopping, that is a risk in this country today,” she says, referring to her fear of coming face-to-face with a worker of the Vice and Virtue, who stop men and women they believe are not acting in accordance with the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic dress and lifestyle.
But there is also the burden of being judged by Afghans outside who accuse her of normalising the Taliban’s litany of restrictions, especially on women, by continuing to post about her daily life and travels across the country.
Like Mohseni and Siddique, Katayon says she is simply living her life and trying to show that many Afghans are trying to go on with their lives at a time of increasing humanitarian crisis, unemployment and social restrictions.
This has led to taunts that she is paid by the Taliban to project an unrealistic image of life in Afghanistan’s cities, an accusation she scoffs at.
“People don’t realise how hard life is now, even though I have posted about that. But I’m just trying to show that the Afghan girls of today are not the same girls of the 1990s,” she says of the first time the Taliban ruled the country for five years.
That doesn’t mean she sleeps easy, though. “Three or four nights a week I stay up all night fearing the Taliban will storm through my door because of my social media posts,” she says.
“Rather than supporting me, people judge and point fingers. They should be happy we are trying to use what few rights we have to live our lives as much as possible.”
Scroll through the gallery below to see work from Afghan fashion designers