This Courageous One-Woman Protest Challenged Gender-Based Violence in Afghanistan

Since the beginning of 2015, an impressive and growing number of women have braved the streets of Turkey and Egypt protesting sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women. Before the end of February, Turkish men endorsed and joined the mobilizations marching in miniskirts in Istanbul and posting photos of themselves in skirts on social media.

As in these and many other countries, sexual harassment and assault, rape, and domestic violence are omnipresent in Afghanistan. Violence against women here has increased 25% and the country’s first Elimination of Violence Against Women law (2012) is rarely applied with police turning their backs on victims. This culture of violence and its normalization is deeper and more widespread in Afghanistan due to tribal norms, the ideology of religious extremists like the Taliban, and other patriarchic mindsets that result in 60-80% of marriages being forced and/or underage and other atrocities such as arsons and bombings against girl schools, poison and acid attacks against girl students, and the traditional increase victimization of women and girls due to conflict.

Against this backdrop, and the high probability of being harassed on the streets for no other reason than gender, a young Afghan woman artist, Kubra Khademi, designed and wore an exaggerated breast and buttock armor in a crowded street of Kabul to condemn violence against women.

via
via

Whether male or female, the reactions of passerbys were predominately negative and echoed those expressed in a flurry of Twitter and Facebook posts. Kubra was mocked. Condemned. Called a whore. Threatened. Some even demanded she be slapped in the face. Her protest was seen as offensive to women and to Afghanistan. As a stunt to promote western culture. Her outfit was sexualized and viewed as something she dawned only to draw attention to her body parts. Not surprisingly, Kubra and a few of the women accompanying her were touched.

The media’s response was to sensationalize the street scene. Most only shared social media photos with a caption or scant article portraying Kubra as a nameless woman wearing a controversial costume in protest against sexual harassment.

There was rare mention anywhere that the day before, Kubra had circulated a Facebook announcement entitled “Armor”, stating she would be on the street at 3 pm “sharp” on February 26 for a “live performance.” Almost no one connected her protest to Kubra being a visual and performing artist and few even bothered to ask her for an explanation.

The truth is that Kubra’s inspiration for the protest or “performance” came from several traumatizing experiences of being touched or grabbed by men while walking down the street. The first occurred when she was four or five and living as a refugee with her parents in Iran during the soviet war in Afghanistan. She was so ashamed after the incident that she didn’t tell her family. Instead, she hid in the bathroom where she cried and shook with fear while imagining having some kind of underwear that could scare off such pursuers. Kubra was touched again when she returned to Kabul in 2008. This time she screamed in the street and when people gathered, instead of helping her they criticized her for making such a big deal out of the incident and no one said anything to the man who had assaulted her.

This pain has been reflected in Kubra’s art, often a mix of photographs, videos and performance exhibited in Kabul’s museums, international offices, and elsewhere. Indeed, the performance piece in her 2013 “The Moist Realities” collection included her slapping her face for half an hour to illustrate the problems and pain of Afghan women. Among other projects, Kubra was the production and costume designer and art director for the just released film Mina Walking about Afghan girls who are denied education.

Like Kubra’s performance on February 26, the women protesting in Turkey and Egypt are extremely courageous. They know, as Kubra does, that their public outrage over injustices and atrocities against women can easily trigger violence against them in the streets, in their workplaces and schools, or even in their homes. Yet they mobilize and will continue to do so on March 8, the International Day of Women, and way beyond.

Still, what Kubra did was more daring. While she was accompanied by a few friends, she alone wore the now scandalized armor in the same streets where women wearing the famous Afghan blue burkas are also sexually harassed. As an Afghan woman living in Afghanistan, she has no romantic notions about the reactions of such a performance. She totally understands the country’s misogynist and macho cultural mindset and had to have anticipated the negativity and possible danger to her life. Yet she took on this project, she says, because she wanted to ignite an open conversation about sexual harassment. And she was without a doubt successful. And impressive.

As a young Afghan woman myself, I am moved by Kubra’s selfless and dramatic performance. Regardless of the dangers and complications, we must work for peace and social justice and continue the struggle for the advancement of women’s rights in Afghanistan. We cannot return to the repression of the Taliban regime or allow the new government, because of its alliances with hard-line Islamist groups, to be lax about implementing laws and other actions preventing and protecting women and girls from violence and guaranteeing greater freedoms for women. We must speak out. We must be willing and ready to act.

Thank you, Kubra, for your inspiring example of a strong Afghan woman.

Shoulder-to-Shoulder: Making Real the Right to Education for Afghan Women and Girls

In this time of transition for Afghanistan, we need to remember the progress of Afghan women over the past decade and work together to sustain it. Shoulder-to-Shoulder is about Afghan women’s own experiences – as told in their own words. Share these stories, and your own, on Twitter using #ShoulderToShoulder; you can also take our pledge today to stand with Afghan women’s activists.


I am from Jaghori, south of Kabul in rural Central Afghanistan. It is home to the Hazaras, an ethnic group of typically liberal Shi’a Muslims who value education. In contrast to other parts of the country, Jaghori has always had very high rates of high school graduates, both girls and boys, who populate most of the country’s few universities and who also study in Pakistan and other neighboring countries. We also have a sizeable library.

via Shutterstock
via Shutterstock

I was eight when the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan; 13 when the U.S. invaded and deposed them. Our district was lucky not to have experienced war and to have had elders who negotiated with the Taliban shortly after it came to power in order to arrange a peaceful surrender.

Considering the tradition of education in Jaghori, the Taliban allowed boys to continue studying through high school, but local Mullahs had to be trained by the Taliban, the public schools had to use Taliban books, and the boys had to wear Taliban turbans.

Despite the Taliban’s ban on girls’ education, in Jaghori, girls were allowed to study up to the 6th grade. We were prohibited from wearing our traditional black uniforms with a white headscarf and instead were required to use street clothes and cover our heads with long scarves. Our teachers were required to wear blue burqas. I remember one resisted, and to avoid problems, she didn’t come to school whenever the Taliban visited for periodic inspections.

Our local Mullahs paid no attention to this teacher and also looked the other way when some girls continued their education in private residences. We would sneak about, in our street clothes and headscarves, avoiding public places, main roads, and suspicious glances on our way to and from “private school.” Our teachers from primary bravely arrived in their burqas to teach. We feared being caught by the Taliban and punished for clothing violations and our post-primary studies. Our fears were elevated by our parents’ discussions about the horrors of the Taliban and by our mothers and other adult women who stayed at home after the Taliban came into power, worried about being spotted in public by the Taliban, even if they were wearing the newly required blue burqa.

I am extremely fortunate to have spent my childhood in a place like Jaghori where men and women value education and took risks to make sure their children are literate. Of course, had the U.S. and NATO troops not brought down the Taliban in 2001, the Taliban presence in my village would have grown much greater, and regardless of the heroic efforts of the local population, education for women would have been halted. Thankfully, it was not.

The influence of the U.S. and NATO, however, has been even more wide-ranging. Because of their presence, women and girls can walk freely in my village without conforming to a Taliban, or any other, dress code. The U.S. Future Generations project funded a mosque-based literacy classes for illiterate women in Jaghori where I taught first to third grade skills, and USAID funding started a community radio station where I was not only a reporter but was the first woman reporter in the District. In 2004, Future Generation offered English and computer classes – to integrated classes of boys and girls. Among many other U.S.-related improvements, the following year, Internet access was made available to all Jaghori residents, including women, through Internet cafés at the market and hospital. Thanks to this, I was able to start a weekly educational project through SKYPE with young men and women in my village to share with them what I am learning in the U.S., and to keep me abreast of developments there.

Today, I am a student at the University of Virginia. I owe my achievements both to Jaghori resistance to the Taliban and to the U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan, which protected my right to an education, and continues to help secure this right for all Afghan women and girls.

Sorting Through The Chaos: One-Third of Teens Are In An Abusive Relationship. What Now?

New data shows that young people between 14 and 20 are at a high risk for abusive relationships: over a third of teenagers in the United States have suffered some form of abused in their relationships, with 41% of girls and women and 37% of boys and men agreeing that they were somehow victimized in a relationship. It is chaos.

It’s a persistent question across eras: should teenagers should start dating in their early age, or wait until they’re older? According to this psychological data, teenagers are more likely targeted for sexually, emotionally, and physically abusive relationships. I spoke to current and former college students Haya Siddiqui and Lauren Berg about the rampant problem of relationship abuse to shed light on the report’s findings.

photo via bea on flickr
photo via bea on flickr

Siddiqui and Berg agreed that abuse happens in teen relationships for a variety of reasons, and that it’s not possible to find a single root cause for the problem. “[I think] teens at those ages are more abused because they are at that innocent stage,” said Siddiqui, a Northern Virginia Community College student. “They think the teen doesn’t know any better.” But that doesn’t mean that teens who face abuse won’t also face the blame: Siddiqui observed that blame for abuse can often be hard to pin down. “It can go to the parents of the teen or the abuser,” she said. The problem, however, is deeper than who to blame for the actual abuse. The real question, for me, is why is it happening at all?

Lauren Berg, who graduated from University of Virginia, noted that abusive relationships don’t occur in a vacuum: “I think there are several factors to consider when looking at where the problem begins,” she said. “Teenagers and young adults are influenced by everything around them, including their parents and other adult relationships, the media, and their own friends and peers.”

And what about after abuse? Surviving an abusive relationship is hard to handle for anyone. Reactions to it “can range from no feelings at all to even suicide,” remarked Siddiqui. The data supports her argument; with high levels of emotional abuse, suicide can often be a consequence to suffering through an abusive relationship, especially as a teen.

It appears important, then, to raise the issue and make teens aware of what abusive relationships are and how they can confront them. Berg feels those efforts are significant.  “I think it’s very important to bring this issue to light because teenage and young adult relationships set the mold for future adult relationships.” She added:

“Teenagers are learning how to be in a relationship and shaping their emotional maturity. If teenagers experience abusive relationships at such a young age, they are more likely to be in future abusive relationships as adults. Through education and preventive steps, teenagers can learn to have healthy relationships now and in their future adulthood. Teenagers and young adults should be more informed about relationships… Whether that information comes from parents, schools, or other adults, teenagers need more access to [it].”

The bottom line is as clear as water: whether you’re “mature enough” to date or not, abuse shouldn’t be a side effect of exploring romantic relationships as a teen. Together, we can come up with community-based solutions to this epidemic. And together, we must.

New All-Women Jirga in Pakistan Takes Steps Toward Equality

Last year in Pakistan, a 16-year-old girl named Tahira was murdered in a brutal acid attack – but police nor the government properly handled her case. She died after suffering from the attack, in which her face and upper body were destroyed at the hands of her husband. Her poverty-stricken family could not get attention to her plight, and law enforcement officials refused to listen. Now, one year later, women in Pakistan are standing up and demanding that the law protect them as well.

A jirga is “a group of male tribal elders that functions as a decision-making council in Pashtun society.” Now, 25 women have formed their own:

a group of female activists had set up a women’s only jirga in Saidu Sharif, the twin town of Mingora, the largest city in Swat.

“We’re fed up with male-only jirgas which decide only in favour of men and sacrifice women for their own mistakes,” said Tabbassum Adnan, 35, head of the 25-member jirga.

“We simply can’t leave women at the mercy of the male jirgas,” she told AFP at the jirga’s small office.

In Pakistan, the rights of fundamentalists surpass the rights of women. Women’s rights are deferred in the name of traditional practices and ignored in a society where men make decisions and set standards for behavior. In Pakistan, women are for selling and exchanging in seeking forgiveness. Due to the corrupted legal system in place there, the government doesn’t respond to their cases. No one listened to Tahira’s case, but the new all-woman jirga in particular has taken a focus to hers and protested against Tahira’s husband.

gary yim / Shutterstock.com
gary yim / Shutterstock.com

The women in the new jirga are a group of activists working to empower women in the region, and in particular they want to create stronger systems of legal support and law enforcement to protect and defend women and progress their equality in the region. From one case to another, from one sacrifice to another, from Malala’s shooting to Tahira’s murder – the suffering is immeasurable and it needs to stop. It is no longer possible for women to hold themselves back from engaging in the movement for their own rights. There have been many cases of open and hostile discrimination against women in Pakistan, and now the all-woman jirga can speak up and follow the cases in which women are suffering.

It is depressing to witness discrimination against women – from Egypt to India to Afghanistan to Pakistan and all over the world. These issues, and the lives affected by them, need to be discussed. Action needs to be taken. Women should have their voices.

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