It’s to my great shame that I was unable to attend the march against street harassment in Kabul, organised by Young Women For Change, the other day.
It was covered by friend Atia Abawi at NBC and very deftly by my favourite link-to blogger, Una Moore at UN Dispatch here and here.
I can’t emphasise how brave these women (and a few men) were to take to the streets in the face of men openly spitting at them. They had protection from the police today, but, next time they face harassment in the street alone, I’ll put a lot of money on the police not only failing to protect them, but joining in.
A woman walking the streets alone in Kabul is widely interpreted as an invitation to harass - men will shout at you, follow you or try to touch you. Being very tall, I’m able to walk around my neighbourhood mostly unbothered apart from the constant, ‘how are yous?’ that are less friendly enquiries and more attempts to unsettle and intimidate you.
But women more slightly built than I or walking in less friendly neighbourhoods than mine are targets for much worse. One friend of mine was grabbed by her chest in an alleyway and another was slapped very hard on the rear. Both were shocked and the first was lucky to get away. These were both in broad daylight.
It doesn’t matter if you’re covered up, be it your head, face or entire being. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, single or married. But the reaction from police or officials is widely that women somehow deserve that kind of treatment by simply being on the street. A simple task to buy food for dinner becomes running the gauntlet.
Of course, this kind of behaviour is not confined to Afghanistan or even the east. I’ve blogged before about street harassment in London here. But in Kabul it can be far more threatening, even life-threatening in some cases like when girls going to school have acid thrown in their faces. It’s also a very clear sign of the rise of conservatism within the Afghan government. Yet another friend of mine reported that, until recently, she used to walk in Shar-e-Nau park with a group of female friends every Friday. These days, men shout at them to get out and boys throw stones. You have to wonder whether these people have mothers or sisters.
The presence of international media at the march has helped get the message out, but I do worry that the association of these Afghan women marching for change with foreigners may set the conservative mind even more against them. But better that they are heard than not, I suppose. Once again, these are very brave women tackling an incredibly difficult subject.