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Lifting the veil on harassment

Fawzia Ihsan
An unprecedented march through Kabul this month by a handful of young women protesting against harassment by men casts light on an issue that broader Afghan society prefers not to acknowledge.
23.07.2011  |  Kabul
Marchers declare
Marchers declare "We don't accept insults any more". (Photo: Ihsan)

The small procession by three dozen young women and a few young men made its way along closed streets in Kabul under close police supervision.

Watched by curious bystanders, students chanting slogans like “It’s my street too” protested against intimidation women face when seen in public without a burqa or hijab veil: being taunted, followed or groped by men who think they should stay covered or at home.

“By holding such marches and campaigns we want to draw the attention of the public, the government and the international community to this problem,” said Noor Jahan Akbar, the 19-year-old founder of the rights group Young Women for Change, which staged the event.

Akbar, who is studying music and literature in the United States, says she was moved to act by her own recent observations. 

“When I came home to Kabul for my summer vacation I noticed the harassment of women by men and boys in the neighbourhood, in streets across the city - even in education centres.”

In the ten years since the end of the Taliban regime women’s rights have improved, with better access to education, health care and employment, and a slackening of expectations to cover up in public. But conservative attitudes are still entrenched in many parts of the country and sections of the population. And these can manifest themselves aggressively.

“It’s extremely hard to change society, but we must all try,” said Marina, a 22-year-old student on the march, which began at Kabul University and proceeded several kilometres across the capital.

Fighting back can cause more problems

According to Marina, the constant threat of harassment deters many women from even considering going to study or looking for a job.

“Those people who pester women on the streets don’t think about the things they say or do, all they care about is insulting or harming the woman,” she said.

“It’s extremely hard to change society, but we must all try.”

Women can fight back, but this can sometimes only inflame prejudices. 

Guljan, 36, recalls an occasion when a man tried to grope her as she was walking on a Kabul street. “Don’t you have a mother and sisters, you pimp?!” she snapped back, using a common slur. “I have, but they are not prostitutes like you - if you were a good woman, you would stay at home too,” came the retort.

Most women do not tell their husbands and family of such occurrences, because they may then have their time outside the home limited even further and be deterred from taking jobs. 

The problem is naturally hard to quantify. But a snapshot survey by Akbar’s group indicates that it is widespread, to say the least: Eighteen of 20 young women they spoke to before the march said they had experienced some form of harassment by men on the street.

Entrenched views and expectations

Some young men say women invite harassment if they do not wear burqas or hijabs in public. (Photo:Nick Allen) 

Several young men marched with Akbar’s group in sympathy. But at the origin of the march, Kabul University, male students offered some strident opinions on the subject. 

Some said young women invited trouble by wearing figure-hugging clothes and make-up rather than traditional conservative dress.

“The way a girl dresses reveals her morals,” said Mustafa Hosseini, a second-year student of the literature faculty. “If a girl in tight clothing passes me, I will react and say something to her,” he added, blaming “democracy” for what he sees as lax conduct among women.

Others agreed that street harassment is something that appeared in recent years and is spreading, but said the roots of the problem go deeper than values and fashion imported from the West.

“There was a very restricted atmosphere during the Taliban regime,” said Mohammad Ismail. “This caused the younger generation to form some negative opinions and brought the emergence of the male-dominated society.” 

Kabul newspapers did not give much column space to the protest march and local television channels gave it only cursory mention. In the limited discussion of the issue that exists, blame is often placed on the police for inaction. 

“Afghan police don’t regard street harassment as a crime, they don’t take it seriously and some officers even do it themselves,” said Akbar’s elder sister Zubaidah, who also participated in the march.

But the police force rejects claims that it is indifferent.

We are taking action

“A lot of women have complained to us about being harassed on the streets, near schools or even by their own members of their families,” said Mohammad Zahir, the head of Kabul's criminal investigative department. “The police have done their job and detained these people according to the law.”

Legislation allows the detention of citizens for 72 hours for harassment, depending on the severity of the incident, Zahir said. Officers are also instructed to question youths and young boys who repeatedly loiter in the same places, but it is difficult to prevent incidents, the investigator points out: “We can’t just detain men on the streets because they are roaming around.”

“We can’t just detain men on the streets because they are roaming around.” Head of Kabul criminal investigation department

Noor Jahan Akbar says her group has been working to bring matters to the attention of the ministries for women’s affairs and information and culture, as well as members of parliament. Some of these are now taking up the cause.

Female parliamentarian Shinkai Karokhail said the very act of publicly airing the issue as negative social behaviour will make it easier to address and prevent in future. 

“In order to change people’s attitudes towards street harassment, an educational programme should be launched at schools, and religious leaders and mullah imams should preach accordingly in the mosques,” said the MP, adding that the media must do their bit too. “But it will take time to change people’s thinking.”