The news about Afghanistan hasn’t been good lately: a recent report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee baldly declared that the country could suffer a severe economic depression after the United States’ scheduled departure in 2014. A new interview from UN Dispatch had a more hopeful perspective, however. In it, feminist activist Noorjahan Akbar, a sophomore at Dickinson College, describes the nascent feminist movement among Afghan women who are determined to see real progress on their streets and in their homes.
Akbar and her colleagues have their work cut out for them, though: a distressing piece from the Guardian details some of the violence perpetrated by women who dare to step into public life. How will women will agitate for their rights when their lives and personal safety are at stake?
The actions of a handful of young feminists are a beam of light. Fed up with the slow pace of reform, Akbar and a group of young feminists formed Young Women for Change earlier this year. One of its goals is to recruit young women to do grassroots activism against everyday issues like street harassment, and changing trends in women’s rights more broadly. Later this month, the group will host the first ever public demonstration against street harassment. In a Facebook event, the activists ”invite Afghan youth from across the city to participate in this walk and support us in creating a powerful voice against the un-Islamic acts of women’s harassments.”
Asked how she thought authorities would react to the event, Akbar said, “I am sure we will face harassment anyway. We will have a permit for the march, but I am sure the police will stop us and question us anyway. I just hope no one gets hurt. There are risks, but this is an important step and someone needs to take it.”
Akbar is, by her own admission, lucky. She has a supportive family and the ability to access an education outside of Afghanistan, two things that enable her to speak out so firmly and fearlessly for women’s rights. It’s to her credit that she realizes how privileged she is, and wants to organize to improve rights for all women in her home country.
As Minority Rights Group International points out, however, most Afghan women are not so fortunate. A report from the organization articulated the threat of violence that affects ”women at every level in society and from all ethnic and religious groups.” Especially disturbing are the “night letters” sent to women who venture into the public sphere. According to the report, “these ‘night letters’ are written threats delivered at night to a home or mosque, addressed to individuals… they are followed up with real violence, and in some cases murder.” Poisoning in girls’ schools is another deadly retaliation against women who openly seek an education.
The report is sobering, especially when read alongside Akbar’s heartening interview. But taken together, the two pieces show how important it is to support the women who are already speaking out on behalf of women’s rights in Afghanistan, while attending to the violence perpetrated against women to keep them silenced. It’s an enormous problem, but the actions of feminists like Akbar could slowly start to chip away at the threats and violence that women face.
Photo from Eric Draper via Wikimedia Commons.