by Holly Kearl
Carrying banners and signs with messages like, “We will not tolerate harassment,” “Islam forbids men from insulting women,” and “I have the right to walk freely in my city,” on July 14, 50 brave women and men marched together from Kabul University to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. As they marched, they handed out fliers to raise awareness about the problem of street harassment in their country.
Most of the bystanders stood shocked, openly staring as the marchers passed by. It is not common to see women and men marching together through Kabul, nor is it typical to hear people speak out on an issue like street harassment. Despite the presence of a police escort, some men even heckled the marchers and called them names. Others were supportive and took fliers or started walking with the marchers.
Tabasum Wolayat, a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, said that she was both excited and nervous to participate in the march. “As an Afghan woman who is harassed on a daily basis in the public sphere, I thought, ‘it is me who has to fight for myself, my mother, and my sisters’ safety, dignity, and rights.’”
She noted that her family was very supportive of her participation, but some of her female friends were not. They worried about her safety.
March organizer Noor Jahan Akbar, a 19-year-old student at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, also received support from her family. Her entire family, including her mother and father who both have health issues, participated in the march with her. A few days after the march, Akbar said it had gone better than she expected and that she feels “so much stronger” because of the outpouring of support for their efforts.
In the spring of 2011, Akbar founded the Kabul-based group Young Women for Change (YWC) to help increase the political, social, economic and cultural participation of women across the country. Through discussions at their first meetings, it quickly became clear that the sexual harassment women experience on the streets hinders their participation in all these areas. In collaboration with another group, Hadia, they decided to launch an anti-street harassment campaign that began with the march.
“Women often remain silent when they are harassed and men believe it is normal to assault women,” YWC organizers wrote on the Facebook event page. Through their efforts they hope “sexual harassment will be recognized as a problem, discussed in the Afghan media, and men – rather than the victims who are women – will be held responsible for their disrespectful behavior.”
The march marked an impressive first step toward their goals and they successfully brought attention to the issue. More than 15 members of the media attended the march, reporting on it for radio and television shows in Afghanistan and for international outlets like the BBC, Reuters, and MSNBC. Those stories were picked up by other news outlets around the world.
While an anti-street harassment march organized by young women would be impressive in any country, it is especially impressive in Afghanistan. Not long ago girls faced acid attacks for going to school and women were beaten for infractions like talking to unrelated men or not dressing according to the Taliban’s strict guidelines. Many harmful cultural attitudes and practices continue to make Afghanistan unsafe for women.
A new Thomson Reuters Foundation expert poll rated Afghanistan the world’s most dangerous country for women. “Ongoing conflict, NATO airstrikes and cultural practices combined make Afghanistan a very dangerous place for women,” Antonella Notari Vischer, head of Women Change Makers, tells Al Jazeera.
To speak out, to march, to lead or to be visible in efforts to stop street harassment in Afghanistan takes great bravery. There have always been brave Afghans like Akbar and Wolayat fighting for women’s rights. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), founded in 1977, is one example. Up until just recently, they engaged in numerous efforts to support human rights and social justice through consciousness-raising efforts, education (often clandestine), and social services.
While there is this history of women’s rights activism in Afghanistan, the organizers of the march believe their actions mark the first time any group has publicly protested street harassment in their country. Cheryl Benard, founder of The Bamiyan Project and author of Veiled Courage: Inside the Afghan Women’s Resistance, agrees. “Until now,” she says, “most forms of public activism such as demonstrations have focused on political issues in the narrow sense, not on individual rights or lifestyle issues, and I think this could well be the first demonstration on the topic.”
YWC has a few next steps planned for their campaign. In August they will hold a press conference on the importance of media’s advocacy against street harassment. They are also preparing to conduct a city-wide research project in September that will include surveying thousands of women and men about street harassment.
Related to YWC’s efforts, Wolayat is currently writing a thesis on street harassment. To her knowledge, she is the first person to ever research and write about the topic in Afghanistan.
At this stage in her research, she is examining the issue from a sociological standpoint. She describes her process: “I walk in three areas of Kabul city in three different times of the day and take note from I what I observe and experience. I want to note the mild and extreme harassment that women are experiencing. I interview women who are being harassed and men who are harassing.”
She feels passionately about her work and views street harassment as violence akin to rape and beatings because “it [causes] a horrible feeling of being excluded from the whole society” and it “absolutely diminishes and discourages women from being active.”
When her research is complete, she plans to meet with policy makers to discuss her findings and discuss ways to address the issue.
As YWC continues its work, Akbar asks that people both inside and outside Afghanistan help by “advocating for us using social media and public media and contributing to YWC and Hadia to help us become sustainable as a movement for progress in Afghanistan.”
Not only can individuals outside Afghanistan help support and fund the anti-street harassment efforts underway there, but we can all gain inspiration from the example set by Afghan women and men. If they dare to speak out against street harassment in the least safe country for women, the rest of us can too!
About the author:
Holly Kearl works for the American Association of University Women in Washington, DC. She is the founder of the website www.stopstreetharassment.com, founder of International Anti-Street Harassment Day, and author of the book Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women (Praeger Publisher, 2010). She has written articles about street harassment for Huffington Post, Guardian, AOL, Forbes.com, and Ms. magazine’s blog.