Seminar to End Violence Against Women in Afghanistan
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
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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.