Kabul, Afghanistan – Holding signs that read “This street belongs to me too”; “We won’t tolerate insults anymore”; and a banner with a verse from the Koran emphasizing the wrongness of abusing women, around 30 young Afghan women and men marched in the sweltering afternoon heat to protest the rampant and often violent sexual harassment of women and girls on Kabul’s streets.
The demonstration was the first of its kind in Afghanistan. Though small in size, its message was clear and, in Afghanistan’s extremely conservative public space, incendiary: street harassment is an attack on women’s right to coexist in society with men, and it must end.
Composed mainly of members of two local youth organizations and including several men, the demonstrators marched from the gates of Kabul University, a notorious hangout for harassers, to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission about half a mile away.
Passing through bustling streets full of food vendors and shoppers, they handed out leaflets urging their fellow Afghans to recognize the cruelty of harassing women and take action in their everyday lives to counter the abuse around them.
Keenly aware of their country’s history of peaceful demonstrations turning bloody, the organizers had initially feared violence from male opponents and hostile members of law enforcement.
Police officers stayed close to the column of demonstrators throughout the march and, in a welcome departure from recent public protests, the demonstration proceeded without interruption and concluded peacefully.
In the days leading up to the march, organizers from the newly-formed feminist group Young Women for Change received online messages of solidarity from fellow anti-harassment activists as far away as Slovenia and Yemen, as well as an outpouring of encouragement from women elsewhere in Afghanistan and in the Afghan diaspora.
Flanked by members of the Afghan and international press, the marchers knew their message would be carried to a far wider audience than the thousands who witnessed their protest firsthand.
The organizers hoped the deluge of media coverage would ignite a public discussion of the problem of sexual harassment and encourage more young Afghans, including men, to join the nascent movement to make their country’s streets safe for women.
“This is only the beginning,” one participant said afterward. “We have more actions planned.”
Supporters are already coming forward with ideas for future acts of protest. Following the march, one Afghan man posted the following provocative suggestion on the Facebook wall of Young Women for Change:
A message to all my Afghan sisters,
First of all, I would like to thank those of you who initiated the campaign against sexual harassment on the streets of Kabul, and those of you who participated in the rally. Bravo!
Second, I humbly suggest to create a Facebook page for “Sex Offenders in Kabul”. Every time a car stops by asking if you want to go with him, take his picture or his car’s license plate, with your cell phones. Anyone who says something demeaning and unethical to you on the street, take his picture secretly so he wouldn’t know. Post them all on facebook. Hopefully it will teach them a lesson. Let all sisters and mothers know what their brother/son is up to. Just an idea!