Editor in Chief: Moh. Reza Huwaida Wednesday, January 27th, 2021

The Walk: on the Public Harassment of Afghan Women


The Walk: on the Public Harassment of Afghan Women

Every day in Afghanistan millions of women and girls make their way through streets, mountains and villages to schools, universities, work places, clinics, marketplaces, etc. The reports on women's progress in Afghanistan focus on the percentage of women who make or don't make it to their destinations, be it schools, work places, etc. Rarely any attention is paid to the trip that women take from the relatively safe walls of their houses to the outside world. While many Afghan women have to fight against the traditions observed and values held in their families to be "given permission" to participate in the social, economical and political life of their communities, all women have to struggle against the violence, assault, abuse and the discrimination that they face once they exit their houses.

One of the most common and most noticeable methods of discouraging women from publicly partaking in society practiced by many men, and sometimes women in Afghanistan, is the usage of physical and verbal violence against women on the roads and public spaces. This method, known as "street harassment," is most common in cities, where women are more publicly active, and has become one of the major reasons behind the lack of women's public participation. Street harassment, as acts of violence, not only makes women feel endangered and vulnerable in public, but it also prevents them from exiting their houses and feeds the sadist and discriminatory motivations of the assaulter as it promotes the objectification of women, which leads to rape and sexual assault. The common harassment of women in public spaces in the cities of Afghanistan is a mirror of how the society views women and what the people consider a women's job or place.

Many different factors contribute to birth and promotion of street-harassment of women. The most important of these factors may be social conventions, values and traditions that have long reserved the domination and full-control of the social arena for men only and are challenged by pioneer women and the media, to some extent. As communities feel threatened by the changes brought to their life styles through media, that, at least in the obvious level promotes women's public partaking, they feel the need to grasp more tightly to inherited traditions and values that might be positive or negative. Street-harassment is a negative bi-product of this struggle against the change that makes many traditionalists uncomfortable.
A commonly-used Afghan proverb brutally says, "A women's place is either her husband's house or her grave." Traditionally, "the appropriate place" for women is considered to be her house. This common belief, supported by nationalist sentiments that support the need to backlash the media and women's movements, that are believed to be supported by "Westerners", contributes not only to the street-harassment of women but also to the violence and abuse women face in families, schools, universities and work places.

Another major motivation for street harassment is the competition for opportunities that is born with women's partaking in the economical, social and political life of the society. Supported by patriarchal system, Afghan men have enjoyed the convenience brought by the lack of competition for educational opportunities and jobs. This luxury is being challenged as more women not only enter the market for labor but are, sometimes, offered more and better educational opportunities due to affirmative action that is aimed at increasing women's active partaking in the society. Street-harassment serves as a method to discourage these women from their involvement in the society to decrease competition for opportunities.

While studying this social issue, one has to gather information on how women struggle against street-harassment because women are not merely victims. Despite the fact that no formal, strategized and orderly action is taken by the government, namely the Ministry of Women's Affairs, the media or women's organizations to recognize the phenomena as a social issue that needs to be addressed seriously, individual women have developed their own methods to fight street-harassment. To deny the satisfaction of accomplishment to the violators, many women have a silent attitude towards the harassment they face. The silent treatment is a common way chosen by women to protect themselves and discourage the person who verbally abuses them. Another way of dealing with this problem has been initiation of the harassment by the women when they say something condescending to men just to prevent their harassment and to prove that they are not afraid of their presence. Some women have word fights, or mini-fist fights that usually end at the interference of an outsider. The different methods that women find to deal with the issue must be addressed and the advantages and disadvantages of each must be weighed to reach a conclusion on which is most successful in ensuring the safety and continuous participation of women in their societies.

The danger that this social issue poses for women as they exit their homes is real and needs to be addressed, dealt with publicly and systematically, and removed from the society. There is no argument that if men in Afghanistan faced such a problem a public campaign against it would have started immediately; it is time to realize how dangerous this problem is and stop it through wide-public participation and awareness. The roots of the problem, the effects of it and the methods and ways out of it must be studied and a strategic work-plan must be produced to eliminate, or at least decrease, this threat that faces active women in Afghanistan. From the social conventions and values that promote street-harassment, the methods installed by women to fight it, to the dismissive attitude of the government, political and religious leaders and even women's rights' activists that refuse to recognize the issue; this social problem mirrors the attitude of the people towards women's involvement and is worth studying in detail.

Noorjahan Akbar is an aspiring Afghan writer, women and children rights activist, currently studying in the US. She can be reached at Akbarnoorjahan@gmail.com

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