Meet Afghanistan's fearless Gen Z influencers, who are blowing up on TikTok and have more Instagram followers than the president

  • A group of women in Afghanistan are breaking through as Gen Z influencers on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube. 
  • As tastemakers, they’re offering a fresh point of view on what it means to be Afghan women. 
  • More Afghans get getting online, and dozens of women have 50,000 or more followers on at least one social platform.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

A generation of Afghan women in their 20s have mastered the art of living their lives on social media. 

Digital natives as much as any young person in Istanbul or Los Angeles, they are doing more than shaping what’s cool in Afghanistan. Over Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and Facebook, these influencers are proving they are more than the “post 9/11” generation, as they’ve been labeled for 20 years. Afghanistan is what they make of it. 

Mixing traditional and streetwear styles, they blast Travis Scott, Rihanna, Nina Simone, and Afghan musicians like Ahmad Zahir. They post selfies in front of Kabul’s graffiti walls and carefully timed videos of the Turkish chef putting on an elaborate show in the city’s new high-end steakhouse. They make Tik-Toks of Megan Thee Stallion’ Savage challenge and redub Bollywood clips to poke fun at their own country. 

Put simply, they’re young, gifted and Afghan. 

##ayeda ##afghanlady ##ayedaaf ##ayedafashion

 

By broadcasting to the public, these influencers are taking real risks — but also reaping big rewards. In Afghanistan, they’ve earned reputations as tastemakers who are sought out by savvy business owners for their marketing power. They work out for free at Kabul’s flashy new high-tech gym. 

But in a country still at war, safety is a serious concern. Recently, there has been a pattern of targeted killings aimed at the nation’s journalists, rights workers, politicians and other influential figures. No influencer has been targeted so far, but it’s a threat that’s never far from their minds. 

Ayeda Shadab is one of Afghanistan’s social media stars. 

The 26-year-old posts several times a day, and she has more followers on Instagram than the country’s president, Ashraf Ghani. She models the dresses for sale in her luxury Kabul boutique and shares glossy selfies from her trips around the country. Her devoted followers flood the comments with style questions, words of encouragement, and the occasional unfriendly directive to cover her hair. 

“Our intention is to show people the possibilities, that they can live life as they want,” she told Insider. “There is always fear in your heart, that’s just part of living in Afghanistan. But we have to stand up and live our lives.” 

On a recent trip to Herat, the historic city in western Afghanistan best known for its sprawling Citadel, Shadab documented her every move, excited to find fresh content for her 220,000-plus Instagram followers. 

The trouble was that everything she wanted to do seemed needlessly dangerous in a city known for kidnappings and where, just recently, police officers were killed by IEDs planted near the hotel where she was staying.

But Shadab was undeterred.  

 

One evening during the trip, Shadab and her crew drove to the Roof of Herat, a scenic overlook with panoramic views of the city that’s a popular sunset hangout spot. As they pulled in, her friends (and this journalist, at work on this story) began to wonder if it was a good idea to stage a shoot in such a public place. 

Just behind the lookout was a mosque belonging to a controversial mullah who had taken out billboards across Herat reprimanding women for inappropriate attire. Nearby was a guest house owned by a local jihadi warlord who only a decade ago had criticized the city’s rock bands for carrying guitars, not guns.

For the occasion, Shadab wore an embroidered top with billowing sleeves and a skirt that fanned out into kaleidoscopic waves of color. Before stepping out of the Lexus and onto the dirt and gravel road, she slipped into a pair of Manolo Blahniks she had bought during a recent trip to Dubai. 

Not too far away, groups of men idled in their cars and rickshaws smoking hashish. Two beggar boys were asking Shadab for coins, not remotely comprehending that they might be getting in the way of her Likes.

While Shadab twirled and grinned for the camera, a group of young men hopped out of a Land Cruiser with black government plates. They started doing their own braggadocious photoshoot, with one brandishing an AK-47 for the camera. 

Sensing the tension passing between Shadab’s crew, one of the men called out, “Don’t worry, we’ll be right here. We won’t get in your shots!” But they kept staring. 

Shadab continued posing, oblivious to everything except the camera. 

And then something happened that confirmed Shadab’s confidence and left her friends in fits of laughter.

With sudden recognition, the young man with the AK-47 called out, “That’s Ayeda, she’s on Instagram!” 

For the rest of the trip “That’s Ayeda!” became a running gag among the group. Including, a few days later, at Herat International Airport, when workers stopped her for a selfie. 

“We follow you!” an airport policeman said as Shadab and her friends headed towards the departures gate. 

As for the adventure that night at the lookout, it earned Shadab more than 12,000 likes. 

The number of Afghans online lags far behind other countries, but they’re catching up. 

Just 14% of the population uses the internet as a source of news and information, according to the Asia Foundation’s 2019 “Survey of the Afghan People.” In 2015, only 25% of households could get online using a cellphone with Internet access, but that number was up to nearly half in 2019.

Mariam Wardak, an Afghan-American who is working with Facebook to bring the anti-bullying and anti-extremism “We Think Digital” campaign to Afghanistan, said she has signed up 14 Afghan women, including Shadab, to be digital ambassadors. 

She has identified 60 Afghan women with 50,000 or more followers, Wardak told Insider, adding: “They are building cultural tolerance in our society one post at a time.” 

Shadab sees herself principally as a businesswoman. 

In fact, the main reason she joined social media was to ramp up business for her boutique, which has become one of Kabul’s hottest shops since she opened it a year ago. As a student in Malaysia and China, she would post pictures of herself online and Kabul women would reply by asking her to bring the looks back to sell in Afghanistan. 

“It was my followers who said we need a physical shop to come to,” she said.  

On the racks, denim jackets adorned with traditional embroidery from northern Afghanistan hang alongside voluminous dresses with subtly-dropped necklines. There are brightly-colored full-length faux fur coats that have appeared on the accounts of several other influencers. Her purchases from Herat — like the second-hand velvet dresses she found at the antiques market —  will be repurposed into original designs.

“My entire business is reliant on my social media,” she said. “Sometimes I fear what will happen to my business if Instagram ever shuts down.” 

As the number of influencers grows, Shadab’s shop has become a place where they run into one another.

One of them is Sadiqa Madadgar, a former contestant on the popular reality singing competition Afghan Star.

She ended up placing seventh, but she stayed on social media, and now has a combined following of 239,000 on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and YouTube. (One performance, in particular, has been viewed millions of times. 

Where Shadab is seen as aspirational, Madadgar, who’s 22, is approachable. YouTube videos that show her cutting open a melon or describing a recent leg injury to a friend get tens of thousands of views. In showing her struggles with basic household chores in her modest Kabul apartment, she has become the girl next door.

Most YouTubers have professional studios with special lighting, specific backdrops, HD cameras and Pro-level computers to shoot and their videos on. Madadgar does it all with the most basic of tools. Each of these videos are shot, edited and published directly from her iPhone.

She’s also known for being deeply religious, and has become a model for how to broadcast your life over social media while maintaining a sense of modesty. 

“When I first went on Afghan Star, everyone said ‘there’s no way you can remain a good Muslim girl and be a singer,'” Madadgar said. “So I set out to prove them wrong.”

After her first appearance on the show in 2018, Madadgar received a frantic phone call from her mother in Quetta, who was incensed to see her daughter (who had moved to Kabul to study dentistry) singing on live TV. 

“I’m still the same girl,” Madagar remembers telling her mother. “I didn’t do anything bad, say anything disrespectful or wear anything inappropriate.” 

Madadgar has found it much more difficult to monetize her following compared to Shadab. Yes, she enjoys the social perks and freebies, but what she really wants is to fund her music career, which means raising enough to record an album and film some music videos.

One recent morning, needing a dress for a photo shoot, Madadgar came into Shadab’s shop with a couple of friends. The staff recognized her immediately and began to pull gowns from the racks. With an armored car idling outside, she spent 30 minutes trying on different looks. 

A post shared by Afghan Star 14⚡صدیقه مددگار (@sadiqa_madadgar)

 

Finally, Madadgar decided on a burgundy dress with an embellished belt and fully-covered sleeves. With that settled, she rushes out and into the waiting car. 

“Oh, she didn’t buy it. She’s just borrowing it,” Wardak, the “We Think Digital” leader, would later explain. “Sadiqa being photographed in it will help the business.” 

Shadab’s success depends on posting a steady stream of content.

She is constantly looking for potential photo ops and video setups. 

One evening during her trip to Herat, after a day spent rushing between photo shoots at the city’s historic sites, Shadab relaxed in a wood and glass gazebo in the garden of the high-end ARG Hotel. 

She was scrolling through the images they’d taken that day, wishing that they had been able to accomplish more. In this conservative city, there had often been nowhere for her to change modestly into different outfits, and so they lost time in traffic as they went back and forth to the safety of her hotel room.  

The confidence that exudes from Shadab in person is also evident from what she posts online. What she wants most of all, she said, is for her followers, especially other young women, to understand is that she is an educated female entrepreneur who has built her own business on her own terms.

There are of course sexist and hateful comments that she has to reckon with too, including from people telling her she should cover her hair more. But for the most part she dismissed that as part of living your life online.

A post shared by Ro Ya Heydari (@roya_heydari)

 

“It’s so strange, all of these people are so curious about our lives,” she continued. “They want to know what this boy or this girl is doing, but then, instead of supporting you, they use that same content to attack you.”

Still, for Shadab it was all worth it. Trips like this offered new content, yes. But Shadab also saw them as a chance to show off her country. When she and her friends were growing up, most of the images of Afghanistan came from foreign war photographers. The country’s story was often reduced to violence and tragedy. 

But today, with just a mobile phone and an Internet connection, influencers like Shadab can show another side to their country — the banalities, the beauty, the luxury and the laughs — that war and displacement couldn’t steal from them. 

Shadab sips from a glass of saffron tea, scrolling through her comments. Suddenly, she lets out a heavy sigh. 

Her friends, each busy with their own stories and tweets, turn to look at her.

“Listen to this,” she says, and begins to read an Instagram DM.

“Thank you for showing my homeland that I haven’t seen in 11 years,” she reads aloud. Her friends sigh along with her. Shadab continues: “I miss it. You’re very lucky.”

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