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Seminar to End Violence Against Women in Afghanistan

Participants signed a pledge to "Say NO to violence against women"

I was asked to present a seminar to raise awareness about Violence Against Women by the manager of Star Educational Society’s C-Branch. It was short notice, but the manager advertised and I hoped there would be a good turnout. Friday is our Holy Day, so many people relax and enjoy the day without responsibilities. Normally the programs attract 20 to 30 students. Especially an educational program and especially a program about women's rights – or so I thought. The crowd was completely beyond my expectations!

We were optimistically prepared for 50 students… but around 80 people attended!! The participants were beyond the capacity of the room where I was presenting. So students were in another room across the hall and crowded in every place where they could see me. I started with a video clip – a 5 minute documentary about general violence. The video gave me time to calm my nerves and was a perfect introduction for my presentation. With a narrative and images, it briefly covered most forms of violence against women in Afghanistan.

During those first five minutes, I gathered my confidence and was ready for my speech. My words came out effortlessly. I spoke from my heart and my emotions. I started from the history of gender-based violence – sexual assault, rape, street harassment, domestic violence, etc. Then I discussed how in the recent years it was defined as harm and violence. I gave practical examples... and personal examples. I told everyone that I witnessed domestic violence in my family too. When I explained domestic violence in a family context, I urged everyone to TALK. I told them that it’s the first step to fight against violence - TO TALK and break the silence.

The participants were compelled to share – something very unusual in Afghan culture. I was shocked and delighted especially when the girls started talking publicly in the class. When we discussed street harassment, some girls even shared things that I am sure they never talked about with any male or in public. One girl actually said that she was physically assaulted and harassed in an alley... and how that affected her life. From that moment on, she felt panic and fear of any quiet alley which prevented her from attending her English course. Speaking of her experience was so brave! Everybody listened intently and admired her courage to share her story. A few other girls followed and shared their experiences.

The presentation extended well beyond the scheduled two hours. The students wouldn't stop asking me questions. They were so excited. They wanted to know more and talk more and ask more. We discussed Afghan culture, the concept of family honor, women in the workforce, the perceived misuse of freedom and many other challenging and sensitive topics. The facilitator tried to end the presentation, but the students wouldn't stop. At the end, many participants pressured us to continue it. The facilitator assured them that we would schedule another presentation and that I would return for a follow-up program.

The participants asked thought-provoking questions. I didn’t have all the answers. Some were thinking from a perspective that I had not previously considered. The feedback from some male students especially challenged my views. One young man in particular was very resistant to my ideas. He didn't want to change. He was fighting me. He believed that if we encourage girls to fight back for their rights that violence will increase. I am challenged to know how to get my message through to such people. At first, I thought he was an extremist. But afterward, I realized that he may witness violence in his family and feels hopeless to change things. Many of us have seen our mothers respond to violence with complete submission and have been trained to believe this is the solution. The atmosphere was respectful and I was sensitive to not put participants in a defensive status. Some students asked how we can solve violence against women. Some wanted to know "who" was to blame. There were many complicated questions with no simple answers.

For future presentations, I need to broaden my knowledge so that I can address these issues more thoroughly. Many of the participants were college students using examples from history, philosophy and sociology. There were many points raised from the discussions and even if I couldn’t offer solutions or answers. The dialogue was the most important part of the event. People were talking about violence against women, people were sharing personal stories, and people were thinking about ways to combat this problem.

I had planned a role-playing exercise to demonstrate the problem of street harassment. I distributed sheets of paper and asked the girls to anonymously write some of the vulgar comments they have heard on the streets. I collected them and asked a friend to summarize them on one sheet. My plan was to have two male participants act out the scenes, using the list of comments for a script. I had to cancel my plans when I saw how unbelievably frank the comments were. It was disturbing. The comments were too vulgar, too graphic - with sexually explicit language that we could never use in such a setting. I didn’t expect that the girls would be this frank and open. Honestly, it was IMPOSSIBLE to read them in public and emphasized the severity of this problem.

One of the girls asked about the impact of domestic violence on my life. Another girl expressed surprise that I was so strong and that I advocate women. This was unbelievable for many of the participants – especially the girls. I explained that domestic violence can have a direct impact on children and many more. I told her that the domestic violence in my family indeed affected me, but some harsh and sad experiences turn people the other way around. Though my experiences were negative, they also changed my life's direction. I explained that some people experience a tragic life... and that tragic life makes them stronger and inspires them to be a change-maker.

Overall, the event was a huge success. The topics raised were too many. The time was too short. The space was too small. And all of those challenges reveal the strong interest and demand for finding ways to end violence against women.

**Same article with additional photos posted on Star's website: http://star.edu.af/Events/3695-End-Violence-Against-Women-Seminar

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Below text is the English translation of a short article written about my presentation by the teacher/facilitator.

On Friday November 9th, a few teachers of Star Educational Society organized an awareness event on “Elimination of Violence Against Women” at Star’s C Branch. The event was solely organized to raise awareness of students and to encourage them to raise their voices and talk about gender-based violence.

The presentation was made by one of the former teachers of Star, and the ex-Branch Manager, Ali Shahidy, who discussed the many forms of violence against women. At the beginning, Mr. Shahidy gave a brief introduction of the history of gender-based violence. He gave vivid examples to illustrate each form of violence and used statistics and facts from accredited sources like the U.N reports and fact sheets on gender based violence, UNFPA, World Health Organization, Amnesty International, etc. The event maintained a variety of programs in order to have the utmost effects on the students. Video clips depicting many forms of violence, documentaries on street harassment, role-playing and student participation constituted the event’s main agenda.

On the “street harassment” section of the presentation, the female attendees were asked to share their experiences of being harassed on the streets. And then, they were given blank sheets to write down the vulgar comments they frequently hear as victims of street harassment. Some of those comments were read in public. This was a means to draw attention on the vulnerability of girls/women in the public areas.

At the final portion of the event, the students and teachers were all asked to take a written vow stating, “We say NO to violence against women”. Lastly, the program sparked a question-and-answer session where students asked many questions on different aspects of the subject matter. The event was also an opportunity in which the “Level Six” graduates were granted their Certificates of Completion.

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.
Learn more »

Comments

Aurore's picture

wow

It's great to see that girls were confident enough to 1) join the seminar and 2) share their experiences of verbal abuse. I hope you'll be able to spread the message to even more people there!
Are you organizing similar events for men & boys, so that they can ask questions and discover a bit more about how to avoid violence?
Really, heart-felt congrats & good luck with further awareness-raising project!
Warmly,
Aurore

Ali Shahidy's picture

Yes!

Thank you Aurore.

As the students ardently had asked me for follow-up seminars, I have plans to conduct more and more seminars. I will create topic-specific curriculum in order to cover specific aspects of gender based violence. Actually, a few girls requested to have female-only seminars. So yes! We will have female-only and male-only seminars too. Girls had such a demand because they want to feel more secure and open so that they can openly ask their questions. And also, as you mentioned, there will be seminars only for boys in order to educate them on the consequences of their patriarchal behaviors. They must realize how gender inequality, harassment, sexual abuse and gender stereotypes harm women/girls, the society and even the men. They must be educated on the devastating patriarchal attitudes. So that's my plan for future seminars.

Regards,

Ali Shahidy

angelique's picture

Inspired

It is very inspiring to know that there is someone like you advocating for women.
Sincere thanks as we continue the journey of breaking the cycle of abuse not only in this generation but in the future generations to come...

Warmest regards

Angelique

Ali Shahidy's picture

I appreciate your comment

Thank you Angelique. Your words really are encouraging.

Ali Shahidy

amirchima's picture

Ripple Effect

The power of sharing is evident in this post based on your efforts and the participation of the attendees. I am a strong believer in ripple effects, and the message you shared with these 80 attendees will be spread by them to others and so on. Keep presenting! The other theme is the impact it has on you. You will grow stronger in how you present and how you respond to individuals one on one and at seminars. It will help your conviction to bring about the change you seek. It will also make the ripple effects more powerful.

Thank you so much for your work!

Ali Shahidy's picture

Ripple Effect is to Expand

You are so right dear Amirchima. Ripple effect is certainly vital and I believe in its power too. In my next seminars, in order to increase our outreach, I will include a separate series of training sessions for student volunteers who are interested in conducting their own seminars. This is one of the most vital objectives of this program – to broaden the ripple effect. And as you said, it will help me with my advocacy too. I really felt that effect that you talked about in your comment.

Many thanks,

Ali Shahidy

Barbara M Bracewell's picture

Humbled by this Story

Many times we tend to bash men for being violent and physical with us as women. While this is sometimes true, I am humbled by the fact that even though you personally witnessed domestic violence as a child and it affected you negatively, you grew up to become a man who decided to shun it instead of embrace it. How awe inspiring! I wish there were many more strong men out there like you. Still, there is certainly hope that with fora such as the one you spoke at, both little girls and boys, can be educated on the pitfalls that come with being violent. Sometimes we also forget that there are men out there who are on the receiving end of some abusive women. There is a lesson for all of us in this story. It is heartfelt and very moving. The fact that these young ladies were all so eager to learn, to listen to you, to talk, to open up about their unfortunate encounters on the streets and in life focusing on the ugliness of violence, is very eye-opening. It becomes even more poignant to hold seminars of this nature in societies like that in Afghanistan, where women are generally suppressed about expressing their views freely or talking about what happens to them behind closed doors in their marriages and relationships. Kudos to you Mr. Shahidy for your thoughts, the lessons to take away from the discussions, and the role-playing exercises done during this seminar to end violence against women. Hopefully, there will be many other sessions that you can spearhead in future as a means of educating young people as well as highlighting the dangers of domestic violence whether perpetrated against women or men.

BMBracewell

Dear Barbara,

Your reply to my post is deeply insightful and encouraging.

As you also noticed in my post, domestic violence seriously affected me. And the majority of Afghan families are blind to the trauma experienced by the children in such homes. I think it's one of the other pernicious products of gender violence that hugely affects our country. As a psychology student, a helpless witness to domestic violence and as a victim of its detrimental consequences, I am firmly planning to conduct seminars on the "Consequences of Domestic Violence on Children".

Breaking the pervasive silence, like you said in your comment, that our women have held is a challenging work. It's never easy. They have accepted their fates, see nothing wrong in violent practices by men, find themselves naturally weak and inferior, and many more. Even if they are against such atrocities, there are myriads of other fears and concerns that prevent them from talking. Most of the boys in my seminar were absolutely against it. They thought if women begin talking (breaking the silence), it just increases the violence. However, I know it is in fact just a fear. A fear by men. The fear of losing their dominance over women. The fear of not being in the lead anymore and not being able to control the women, their bodies, rights and privileges.

I am glad those girls started breaking that silence right in the class and in public. Their load voices can be a beginning - and they have their ripple effects, I am sure.

Thank you dear Barbara.

Ali Shahidy

Debra Engle's picture

Your work is inspiring

I hope your story is read by many, many people around the world because it brings so much hope and inspiration. Historically, we know that things change through grassroots efforts by individuals. So when I read about the enthusiasm and courage of these girls and women and how you encouraged them to speak out and tell the truth, I can see change taking hold. I've thought for a long time that violence of any kind comes from fear, and that goes for the abusers as well as the victims. You're inviting women to stand up for their right to be safe, and you're also calling for men to stop acting from fear (whether it's fear of change, fear of losing power, etc.) and live as civilized and respectful human beings. Congratulations on such important work. With your help, eventually there will be enough women AND men saying "no" that violence will no longer be an accepted way of life for people on this planet.

Ali Shahidy's picture

Change is taking hold

Yes, dear Debra. I see the change. Before, most of today's wrong practices were just part of a pretty normal life. But now, fortunately, we see and feel the changes taking hold. People, very especially those in urban areas, recognize them as harmful, illegal and wrong. And even they stand against such harmful practices. However, there are still too many things to change. We still have a long way to go. It's about generations. Customs, practices, hackneyed ideologies, etc, that have been handed down to our generation are to change, and that requires centuries.
Sadly, even sometimes abusive behaviors are encouraged. Most men believe that it needs courage, power, ability or skills to harass or abuse a girl - and that's what only strong men can do. Walking passed a throng of young boys on a street, the girls face harassment by one or two of those boys. And the rest laugh as a means of encouragement and support, while the harasser feels proud and powerful on his manhood.

So it shows that how violence against women is neglected, how its effects are underrated, and that no one is talking about it or against it. I hope our grassroots efforts bring the changes we struggle for.

Thank you, dear Debra, for your encouraging comment.

Ali Shahidy

JaniceW's picture

Thank you

Your story is a light of hope for so many women across the world. It is always so gratifying to see a man stand up and say no more, to hear a man speak out for women rather than against women.

What is truly wonderful is that the women in your life and the ones you meet will grow up with a unique sense of worth, self esteem and confidence, as she is learning that she is not less of a person because she is a woman. This is your legacy.

The world needs more people like you. It is only with the support of courageous men like you that women can truly be free members of society.

Oh and you also might want to connect with Patricia Varga who in the below link, mentions Victor La Cerva MD, who is based in New Mexico, USA. VIctor works with young men mentoring them on how to be peaceful, not violent. If you would like some additional feedback and advice, I am sure she would be happy to introduce you to Victor. You can read her post in the below link; a letter written to Jimmie Briggs, a man who started an international campaign to end violence against women at manupcampaign.org

http://worldpulse.com/node/22601

Jimmie Briggs: http://worldpulse.com/magazine/columns/through-his-eyes/the-uncomfortabl...

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