By Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
On July 14 of this year, co-founder of Young Women for Change, Noorjahan Akbar and 25 others prepared to embark on a rare journey through the streets of Kabul: the organization’s first march against Street Harassment.
Student Noorjahan wrote in her New York Times Opinion Pages blog:
“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.”
So, with a scant 10 police officers for protection and armed with a healthy dose of hope, pride and solidarity, Akbar and 25 others marched from the Afghan Culture House, past the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission to Kabul University, where they were joined by more than 50 more supporters and a flurry of media coverage. In the face of criticism these brave activists brandished banners saying “Islam and the law forbid the harassment of women” and “I have the right to walk in my city safely!” The events of July 14 left Akbar brimming with pride she said:
“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.”
Reading about these events reminded me of SlutWalk, the worldwide series of protests against sexual and domestic violence. I helped to organize the NYC protest and news of this Afghan protest struck me as similar. While this protest doesn’t use clothes as the pretext to introduce the topic of sexual discrimination, the feminist goals of SlutWalk and Young Women for Change are similar: To fight for a world where people are treated with dignity–regardless of appearance, regardless of identity. As these young women and men in Kabul have shown, harassment is not going to be accepted without a fight—or a protest.
I am reminded of the criticism that SlutWalk received: that it was an ignorant parade that unknowingly promulgated the sexist patriarchy by wearing “sexy” clothes or that the protesters were privileged white people who weren’t inclusive of or respectful of the qualms and realities of people of color or that the protesters were disinterested in gender-based violence that occurred in non-Western parts of the world.
Well, I would say that this protest and this kind of sober-minded rebellion against oppression is a great example of people taking a public stand and operating on their own terms, using their own methods. To me, whichever methods people use are ultimately interchangeable. The goal is to draw awareness to an issue that needs correcting. So whether a feminist protest uses flashy clothing, strong chants, meaningful signs or silent solemnity or simply walks in opposition, we’re all challenging the status quo by upsetting the present order with a protest.
SlutWalk was never about provocative clothing, instead it used provocative clothing to draw attention to the culture of victim-blaming, just as Young Women for Change’s march was not just about street harassment. It is about fighting a greater culture that blames victims, and both trivializes and denies the impact of abuse.
Whatever anyone wears, of course, is never an excuse for violence and harassment. These Afghan women are bravely fighting a worldwide system that belittles and ignores harassment. Whether in Afghanistan or New York, we are all fighting the same fight—to retain our dignity and feel confident, safe and free in our homelands.