A Love Story from Kabul
I was nervous when I woke up on July 14, 2011. The signs were ready, the pamphlets and flyers printed, and my attire for the day picked. I had received calls from the police, confirming that they would send us 10 officers for security. Media was informed and women’s organizations contacted. Everything was ready, but I was nervous.
Women’s protests and walks are very rare in Afghanistan and this was the first time I had organized one. I wanted to raise awareness about sexual street harassment and identify it as a problem, in a country where most Afghans either deny the existence of it or blame it on the women.
Every woman I know, whether she wears a burqa or simply dresses conservatively, has told me stories of being harassed in Afghanistan. The harassment ranges from comments on appearance to groping and pushing. Even my mother, who is a 40-plus teacher always dressed in her school uniform, arrives home upset almost every day because of the disgusting comments she receives, sometimes from youth half her age and sometimes from white-bearded men who sit by the roads. Only three days before the walk, I was groped in front of the orphanage where I taught creative writing.
Enraged, I called my mother and told her that I no longer wanted to teach. Once I started planning the walk, however, I took that rash statement back.
On the day of the march, we met in front of a restaurant. For some reason that is still unclear to me, the manager of the restaurant had refused to allow us in, so we took refuge in the Afghan Culture House, a center owned by a woman. There were about 25 of us. The meeting was brief and emotional followed by hugs and good wishes.
Moments later we were in front of Kabul University, where we started the walk, and were joined by an additional 25 people. Soon the 50-plus marchers and supporters were surrounded by Afghan and international news. After a few interviews, we began walking towards the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. While we passed out flyers, talked to the police and supporters, and directed members of the media, an incredible feeling of empowerment and hope took over me. In the faces of my companions, I read hope, pride and solidarity. I was amazed at how everything happened so quickly. It had been less than two months since Young Women for Change had held its first meeting.
I had not even dreamed of this day when in May 2011 my friend, Anita Haidary, and I announced on Facebook that we were organizing a meeting on May 25 in Kabul to discuss sexual discrimination and gender inequality. We expected no more than 15 guests, but more than 75 women of different ages, ethnicities and backgrounds showed up. Over 10 Afghan and Afghan-American women in Washington D.C. attended via Skype. This organizational meeting was followed by many more.
During this process, we had to fight hopelessness when the police forbade us from meeting at Kabul University because they “did not want women making problems for them.” We had to persevere when we faced humiliation, harassment and insults as we tried to establish YWC as a non-profit. We had to remain strong and just smile, every time we were asked with disbelief and a smirk: “but you are too young and you are all women; how will you run an organization?” In addition to all that, we had to continue dreaming and planning even when only one or two women came to a meeting.
Eventually, we formed Young Women for Change, an organization commited to working for gender equality. We first decided to focus on a problem we all faced: street harassment. We designed a campaign that included posters, flyers, radio spots, social media, televised interviews and debates, and the first-ever walk against street harassment of women.
Soon we were writing slogans like “Islam and the law forbid the harassment of women,” “I have the right to walk in my city safely,” “these streets belong to me too,” “I will not keep silent the next time you insult me,” and many more. Next thing we knew we were marching down the street, accompanied by a supportive group of men as well as by members of the police and media. I was no longer nervous. I was proud.
Thursday, July 14, 2011 was the first day I felt like I belonged to the city I have lived in for most of my life. I realized that the women who were walking in their high heels and headscarves–as well as their male supporters–had so much strength and power waiting to be unleashed, and it made me so proud to be among them.
Despite Afghanistan’s history of war, and its news filled with suicide attacks, violence, Talibanism and corruption, I had found something to be proud of in my country. This was the moment I fell in love with Afghanistan.
Since then, YWC has been able to gain non-profit status, form a male advocacy group, organize monthly lectures on issues regarding gender and women’s studies, collect books to build libraries in Kabul and Helmand, and begin conducting research on street harassment in Kabul, thanks to a new grant. During this journey, my love for Afghanistan and its people has increased tremendously. It is not that I did not love my homeland before; but when I saw the ability and the motivation to form a grass-roots feminist movement in Afghanistan.
Noorjahan Akbar, 20, is the co-founder of Young Women for Change, an organization advocating against sexual discrimination and inequality in Afghanistan. She has been working for women and children since she was 12 and started a radio show that focused on teenagers in Afghanistan.
Noorjahan has also researched Afghan women’s folkloric music, translated a collection of short stories for Afghan children and held creative writing classes in orphanages. She is currently a student at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.
This was first published, under the title "Women Take a Stand in Kabul" at Nicholas D. Kristof's New York Times Blog.