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Street Harassment: How it looks like in Afghanistan

Women in Afghanistan suffer many forms of violence that one of which is street harassment – a daily-basis encounter between girls/women and strangers. Street harassment is the most neglected form of violence in Afghanistan that has received neither the attention of domestic justice institutions nor the advocacy of women’s rights organizations and civil societies. Terminologically, even the expression “Street Harassment” or “Khiaban Azaari” hasn’t gained its place yet within the Afghan laws. Very recently, however, a non-profit advocacy group named Young Women for Change based in Afghanistan has focused a huge attention on the so called phenomenon “Street Harassment” through different means such as posters, campaigns, walks, interviews, TV shows, surveys, and even a few documentaries.

Street harassment is the most invisible, to the states, and trivialized, by people, form of sexual assault that is as common as a day-to-day occurrence where the perpetrators are never apprehended despite the frightening consequences that it leaves on its victims. It is extensively neglected because in a patriarchal country like Afghanistan men make up the most occupations in the public spheres and streets, and it is women, the minority gender group in the streets, who suffer the consequences not men. And very sadly, the victims are never compensated and no damages are paid.

But what is street harassment? Anthropologist Micaela de Leonardo offers the best working definition of street harassment:

Street harassment occurs when one or more strange men accost one or more women in a public place which is not the woman’s/women’s worksite. Through looks, words or gestures the man asserts his right to intrude on the woman’s attention, defining her as a sexual object and forcing her to interact with him.

In fact, street harassment gives the public places and streets a sexual aspect in which it promotes men’s dominance over women. Another broader definition of street harassment suggests that it is both unwanted sexual advances and any unsought intrusions by men “into women’s feelings, thoughts, behaviors, space, time, energies and bodies.”

What makes it different in Afghanistan?

A male-dominated and radically traditional country, Afghanistan is an ample land of many human rights violations. Part of those violations goes under the category of gender-based violence that encompasses various forms per se. Street harassment, as a sexual assault, is another form of gender based violence that is an everyday experience of every Afghan woman. There are several factors that basically reinforce street harassment in Afghanistan. First is the socio-cultural theory and important to this theory is the idea that harassment in public serves to remind women that they are violating the female gender role merely by being out on the streets. In another word, men’s perception of women’s role is limited solely to their homes not essentially beyond their homes and family obligations within the homes. This is widely evident in Afghanistan as in most of the rural and, to some great extends, urban areas women are discouraged from leaving the private sphere of the home unaccompanied. And women who spend significant time on the street are generally deemed to be prostitutes. On the other hand, this theory proposes that street harassment serves as a way to construct gender and maintain the norms that control gender.

The second factor is that Afghanistan is a sexually objectifying environment in which (a) traditional gender roles exist, (b) a high probability of male contact exists, (c) women typically hold less power than men, (d) a high degree of attention is drawn to sexual/physical attributes of women’s bodies, and (e) there is the approval and acknowledgement of male gaze.

Lack of a particular law for street harassment in Afghanistan’s constitution is another reason why harassment is so predominant in Afghanistan. Street harassment is also a blatant violation of the social norm “civil inattention” thus it is considered an abnormal behavior. Civil inattention allows individuals to maintain a sense of privacy and feel protected while street harassment entirely breaches this social norm. Above all, the unawareness of women themselves from the detrimental consequences of this phenomenon is another major factor that reinforces street harassment’s survival; mainly because street harassment has become part of their everyday life. Women’s silence in response to street harassment not only does fortify the harassment but also promotes the system of sexual terrorism.

The social consequences of street harassment can be studied in a certain context where the ultimate effects of street harassment can be reviewed. At this point, the mental pressures can serve as the context within which the social effects and harmful consequences of street harassment can be studied. From those damages that street harassment leaves on its victims are the self-objectifying image in women, agoraphobia, and the fear not to be raped. When women get remarks by strangers on their appearance, it gives them the image that they are as sexual objects and their sex is the most important thing about them. It makes them self-conscious about their sexuality and how vulnerable it can be. Moreover, what augments the destructive consequences of street harassment is the fear of rape. Typically, when a woman is harassed in a street, the next thing that the woman thinks of is whether she will be a victim of a sexual assault. The frequency of these experiences is associated with decreased feelings of safety in public places, increased fear of being sexually assaulted, and agoraphobia.

What measurements can women’s rights advocates and the responsible bodies take in order to tackle this social damage?

By terming street harassment as “harm” we, in fact, have taken the first pace in eliminating street harassment. However, recognizing street harassment as harm and terming it as harm is not a simple process. For instance, sexual harassment had received the attentions of women’s rights advocates and justice institutions to be addressed when its fatal consequences were, for the first time, recognized as harm and came into terminology. The significance of this trend can also contribute to the elimination of street harassment by means of recognizing it as harm and damage.

Potential and creative mutual participation of women and men in public places particularly at educational centers, jobs, libraries, etc, awareness programs and educating women on the street harassment and defining it as a social abnormality, establishing particular laws on street harassment, and empowering women are the other recommended measurements that can be taken in order to fight street harassment.

• Harmony B Sullivan (2011). "Hey lady, you're hot!" Emotional and cognitive effects of gender-based street harassment on women.
• Robin West (1989). Pornography as a Legal Text
• Cynthia Grant Bowman (1993). Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women
Harvard Law Review
• Micaela di Leonardo (1981). Political Economy of Street Harassment
• Sue Wise & Liz Stanley (1987). Sexual Harassment in Everyday Life

This story was written for World Pulse’s Ending Violence Against Women Digital Action Campaign.

World Pulse believes that women's stories, recommendations, and collective rising leadership can—and will—bring an end to gender-based violence. The EVAW Campaign elicits powerful content from women on the ground, strengthens their confidence as vocal grassroots leaders, and ensures that influencers and powerful institutions hear their stories.
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Wendyiscalm's picture

Knowledge is power. Keep it coming.

Hello Ali,

I read your article with great interest and dismay. In May I was part of a small group of professional women at the NAFTA Shadow Conference. There were 3 women from Afghanistan who risked their life to come to Chicago to speak out on a panel about women's rights. It was frightening and chilling. I pray that people like you and me and many others will keep talking and writing about this so that the world knows and understands. Until I went to this panel in May I had NO IDEA how bad it is for women. So, please keep writing here. Amnesty International is also a good organization to tell over and over and ask them for help. They are very pro-active and they are the ones who presented this conference.

Thank you. My prayers and thoughts are with you and I will keep talking this up to others.

Ubuntu (I am who I am because of who we are together),

Wendy Stebbins

Wendy Stebbins
I AM ONE IN A MILLION Non-Profit Organization focused on helping street orphans and vulnerable children in Livingstone, Zambia Africa.

Ali Shahidy's picture

Thank you

Thanks a lot for your comments, and this is so great to hear that you have been interacting with a few Afghan women and learned about the Afghan women's plight in Afghanistan.

About the Amnesty International - I would like to contact them and ask them for some sorts of support too. Because I am planning to run the 16 Days Campaign in Kabul and need help in some parts.

Thanks for the prayers too.

Ali Shahidy

Wendyiscalm's picture

Amnesty International

Hi Ali,

Yes, I strongly suggest you persistently contact Amnesty International for help and I also know they have other organizations they can recommend who can take a pro-active role in helping with this and be of assistance to you. Sometimes these things take time and cannot happen as quickly as you wish but do not give up on them.


Just google Amnesty International

Wendy Stebbins
I AM ONE IN A MILLION Non-Profit Organization focused on helping street orphans and vulnerable children in Livingstone, Zambia Africa.

ChicagoGirl's picture

Thank you

This is such a powerful article - thank you for sharing it. Just like Wendy commented, knowledge is power and you have certainly empowered me to speak out about a little known problem. I appreciate this line "Women’s silence in response to street harassment not only does fortify the harassment but also promotes the system of sexual terrorism."
I am convicted about my own silence in situations that promote sexual terrorism.
I also liked that you gave facts about street harassment and talked about the ways that it can be dangerous.

I hope you will continue to speak out on this issue and help champion equality for all!


Ali Shahidy's picture

Knowledge is power

Thanks a lot for the comment.

I am happy to hear that the article inspired you and I am sure you will make up for what you call your silence.
I will continue to speak out


Ali Shahidy

Kara-Amena's picture

An important issue

Dear Ali,

Excellent essay! I am so glad you shared this with the World Pulse community. I have worked very closely with Afghan students over the years and learned about "street harassment" through Young Women for Change (YWC). It concerned me, but it was also very difficult for me to comprehend. It's not something I ever witnessed before in the U.S. or any other countries. Several months ago I saw a short video with one of the YWC founders where a hidden camera followed her down a Kabul street and that was when I was finally able to understand. Street harassment is a hideous thing! The words and looks and attacks against this young woman were completely repulsive. There was even an old woman who started hitting her with a broom - for no reason other than the fact that she was walking down the street. It's a pervasive problem in Afghanistan that erodes a woman's sense of dignity and self-esteem.

Some of my female students have told me that they avoid going into public places. Some chose to wear a burqa in hopes that they would not be harassed - but they were harassed anyway. Ali, I am pleased that you are standing up for women's rights. When men speak out about these issues, you help to validate the fear and pain that women feel from this treatment. Your voice can be heard by some who will not listen to the voices of women. I hope that Afghan men can be educated about this problem and can learn to stop this disrespectful and un-Islamic behavior. Keep up the great work! Advocacy and public awareness are critical to solving this problem. No porda rang gange moisar nemi shawad. Good luck.


Ali Shahidy's picture

I am impressed

Dear Kara,

I am very grateful for your empathetic reply and this is so great to know that you have been closely working with Afghans. I also watched the documentary you mentioned in your comment. It was Noorjahan, the YWC co-founder, carrying the hidden camera. They have been very helpful and productive in educating people on various forms of violence in Afghanistan; very particularly in recognizing street harassment and labeling it as a gender based violence.
For me, it's always a passion to do advocacy for women and to speak out for women's rights. However, in my country, as you are already familiar with, rarely can one witness a man standing for women's rights. And I believe mainly because religion has granted them many privileges (gender-based) that the women are bereft of and thus men never aspire to lose the dominance over women or, simply, to lose those privileges. I strongly believe in what you mentioned as critical in solving the problem - public awareness.
And you are so true, "Na borda ranj, ganj moiassar nami shawad".

By the way, thank you very much for the link too. I will definitely give it a careful and thorough read.

Ali Shahidy

Kara-Amena's picture

An interesting interview

I thought you might be interested in reading this interview called "Taking Women's Lives Seriously" with Professor Cynthia Enloe.

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