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Afghan women brave Kabul streets to protest against violence

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Credit: Young Women for Change

Julie Tomlin
WVoN co-editor

The 30 people who took to the streets of Kabul on Saturday were taking a brave step by publicly airing their anger at levels of violence against women.

Protests can often lead to violence in Afghanistan and so controversial are women’s rights that details of a march of this kind are not announced publicly and only trusted individuals were invited to take part by organisers Young Women for Change (YWC).

The protesters who held banners that said “Where is Justice” and “enforce law for violence against women” as they walked to the Afghan parliament, were in fact outnumbered by journalists and the 50 or so Afghan police who flanked them.

The following day Kabul was rocked by bomb attacks carried out by the Taliban across Afghanistan as it launched its “spring offensive”.

Many of the 200 who were invited didn’t take part because of concerns about media presence and family pressures to stay away. One 16-year old said she had slipped away to take part without telling her parents.

“A lot of things happen against women in Afghanistan, but no one can bring change without women themselves,” she said.

But the fact that the event took place at all is a credit to YWC, a newly-formed feminist movement with the aim of empowering Afghan women and recruiting them to the struggle for gender equality.

The walk took place following the violent deaths of five women since March. Three women were killed in Herat, one of whom was beheaded by her husband. Another woman was killed by her husband in Khost and another was hanged by a tribal court in Paktya.

Fatima Saidi, a 17-year old protester, said: “We hold this rally on behalf of the Afghan women whose voices are not heard and we came to raise our voice against their killing. Even our government is not helping us to reduce violence against women.”

YWC, which was founded in April last year by Noorjahan Akbar and Anita Haidary, outline numerous cases of violence and torture of women carried out by their husbands and family in a statement on its website.

The fact that no charges had been made in the majority of cases was addressed in the statement, which said:

“We, the women and men of Afghanistan who want equality and justice, demand from the people’s representatives, who represent the men and women of Afghanistan, the Ministry of Justice, that is responsible for creating a just environment for men and women in Afghanistan, and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which must protect the rights of the same women who are brutally tortured, that they should no more forget women and when crimes like these happen in front of their eyes, they should remember justice and humanity and raise their voice.”

YWC is calling for maximum punishment for those who have committed murder, the freedom of the women who are in jail because they were raped.

The statement also called on the Ulema Council to condemn violence against women.

This demand follows the controversial ruling by the country’s religious council, apparently with President Kamid Karzai’s backing, that women were “secondary” to men and that husbands could beat wives under certain circumstances (see WVoN story).

The ruling has fueled concerns that women’s rights will be traded for peace in negotiations with the Taliban.

But at a crucial time for women in Afghanistan, the media-savvy YWC, which has also actively set out to recruit men to its cause, has taken significant steps towards challenging the “suffocating silence” that exists around violence against women.

Last year YWC, which now has 30 women volunteers and 15 men, all of whom are Afghanis, held what it claims was the country’s first protest against street harassment.

To mark International Women’s Day, YWC also opened a female-only internet cafe that was dedicated to Sahar Gul, the teenager who was tortured and kept for months in a cellar after refusing to enter into prostitution (see WVoN story). There are also plans to set up more in Bamiyan, Kandahar and Helmand.

 

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