Street Harassment in Afghanistan, More Work Needed

Dec 21, 2015

When It Comes to Sexual Assault, Afghanistan Is All Talk And No Action

By Danielle Moylan, Foreign Policy

Nilofar was in a taxi when the driver leaned back to grope her chest. Fereshta was walking home from work when a motorcyclist slowed down and grabbed her left breast. Mariam had been slapped so hard on her buttocks by a man in the bazaar that it left a bruise. Elaheh was at a bus stop when a young boy pinched her inner thigh.

In Afghanistan, as these four cases in Kabul demonstrate, the public sexual harassment of women is mind-bogglingly rampant.

On one recent weekend in Kabul, I sat on a ratty couch in one of the city’s beauty parlors, one of the few safe spaces for women in Afghanistan. Squeezed between a pile of handbags and a five-year-old boy waiting for his mother’s curls to set, a dozen women turned to look at me.

“Repeat your question,” one of them commanded. “Have any of you been sexually harassed in public?” I asked. The parlor exploded in bitter laughter. “Get ready,” Mariam said to me. “If you ask each of us, you’re going to fill that notebook of yours.”

The types of public harassment they described ranged from sexually charged comments about appearance, indecent whistling, and physical attacks like groping, pinching, and slapping. In Afghanistan, this objectification and mistreatment of women is all too common. Research shows that nearly nine out of ten Afghan women are forced to endure such treatment. And there’s seemingly nowhere for them to go. Women are harassed and assaulted in quiet areas when no one else is around, but also in busy public places like bus stations, markets, shops, and parks, where there are plenty of aiders and abettors.

Public sexual harassment “is so tolerated by the public, and the women are always blamed,” said Wazhma Frogh, founder of the Research Institute for Women Peace and Security – Afghanistan (RIWPS).

In interviews, over a dozen Afghan women discussed their experiences. Consistent themes always emerged: the ease with which male strangers touch or harass them; the absence of public intervention when it’s most needed; blaming of the victims when they asked for assistance; and distrust of the police to act in their best interest.

Every day, as these women travelled to school or work, go shopping, or meet with a friend, they endured physical assault, constant and vulgar insults, unwanted sexual invitations, and comments about their appearances.

After being the victim of a public sexual assault in Kabul, I can empathize with these women.

On the night of Nov. 10, 2015, I was reporting from a large ceremony in west Kabul, where hundreds of men and women gathered to grieve and protest the brutal murders of seven ethnic Hazaras, including two women and one nine-year old girl. The mourners were welcoming as they approached us, the reporters, who wanted to talk about their community’s anger and sorrow over the murders. As the coffins of the seven lost lives were brought in, protesters helped me get a closer view of their collective grief. I watched men cry, collapsing on the cold ground, placing their hands on the coffins.

The crowd was asked to sit. I crouched near the front when I felt a pair of hands touch me from behind. At first I thought it was a mistake, as someone could be trying to move forward or steady himself in the darkness. It wasn’t a mistake. Soon, I could feel multiple pairs of hands, intimately and forcefully groping me. In the worst moment, someone reached up under my knee-length coat and thrust his hand into my jeans and deep into my underwear.

I turned around and pushed the first man I saw hard in the chest. Another man, who had helped me get closer to the coffins, asked me what was wrong. “They’re touching me,” I said, unable to better express myself in Dari. He shouted furiously at the crowd. “Have some respect! This is a foreign journalist!” I was lucky. As was later explained, it is rare for men to publicly defend women.

A male photojournalist friend appeared beside me. Thinking the assault was over, I turned back to face the coffins. But I continued to be violated, groped just as hard as before. Even as we exited the crowd, the hands of the unknown perpetrators grabbed my thighs.

Virtually no other women had come close to the coffins – they all stood back at the fringes. In Afghanistan, even at a mourning ceremony attended by hundreds of people, a woman can easily be sexually assaulted or harassed. Perhaps those women knew. Perhaps I was naïve.

Very little is being done to address this widespread problem.

The Afghan government, for its part, acknowledges the issue exists. In October 2014, President Ashraf Ghani described the level of harassment in schools as “shocking.” In an email, Shah Jahan Yazdanparast, the deputy minister for women’s affairs, wrote that “street harassment is one of the biggest problems facing Afghan women today.”

Beyond the obvious psychological pressure women face, sexual harassment also clearly involves issues of gender inequality and the lack of economic opportunity and human development.

“Sexual harassment harms more than just the victim,” said Ahmad Shuja, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. “The costs are significant in terms of emotional suffering, but also lost productivity and reduced participation in the workforce and the economy…costs that Afghanistan cannot afford.”

Between 2001 and 2013, workforce participation of all Afghan women over the age of 15 increased from 13 percent to just 16 percent. Evidence consistently demonstrates that raising female employment to male levels has a direct impact on GDP, and, in developing countries, can make significant contributions to overall poverty reduction

“Girls aren’t going to school [because of sexual harassment],” said Anita Haidary, a co-founder of Young Women for Change, who has also produced a video on street harassment. “They don’t feel safe walking to school.”

Fatima, a young professional Afghan woman, recounted a harrowing story of a male stranger assaulting her in broad daylight on a quiet street. Her family has since asked her to stay at home. “My father advises my sister and me to not go out unless it’s absolutely necessary,” said Fatima. “[But] I’m not the girl who wants to stay at home. I want to work. It’s stressful to try and convince my father that there’s nothing to be worried about when I’m not even sure if that’s true.”

At the beauty parlor I asked Mariam, who had been slapped in the bazaar, if she had gone to the police. “What for?” was the deafening, collective response from all the women listening in.

She had once gone to the police when a man from her neighborhood kept following her. He knew what time she left for work and what time she came home. One day he grabbed her, and insulted her for continuing to ignore him. After listening to her complaint, according to Miriam, the policeman had looked her up and down and said, “Good for him, you must have deserved it.”

Many women I spoke to expressed anger at the police’s complacency towards gender-based violence. They often cited the example of how officers had failed to intervene, and even participated in the brutal mob murder of Farkhunda, a young woman falsely accused of burning the Quran. “Women can’t take these issues to the police,” said Anita Haidary. “Police haven’t been able to establish trust.”

“We have to make it easier for women to approach the police,” said Amod Guring, a policing expert with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Afghanistan. Roughly 2 percent of Afghanistan’s police are female, with the majority in low-ranking positions, a rate UNDP is working to increase.

“Right now, gender sensitivity training is inadequate at all levels of the police hierarchy,” he said.

In another story, Fatima and a friend were walking together to catch a taxi in Kabul when a group of young boys followed them, and repeatedly grabbed and squeezed their hips and thighs. It was a busy street and everyone was staring, but “no one said anything to us,” Fatima said. “Not the shopkeepers, not the passers-by, not the guards, not the other young men in the street.”

Afghanistan has some regulations, but no laws to explicitly address street harassment. The Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law, instituted by presidential order in 2009, punishes “harassment and annoyance,” or “abuse, humiliation or intimidation” with imprisonment. It has also seen slow implementation. The U.N. has consistently reported continuing gaps in the law’s enforcement across the country. Additionally, the law remains unpassed by parliament, which some blame on a small yet vocal opposition of conservative MPs, and leaves serious questions about its legal status and ability to be properly implemented . And even with EVAW, Afghan women are not coming forward to report street harassment. In 2012-13, despite the prevalence of street harassment, only 90 women registered cases of harassment or persecution with authorities.

The Prohibition of Women’s Sexual Harassment, a recently passed regulation that addresses street harassment is a “step forward,” said a lawyer who wished to remain anonymous. But it places far too heavy a burden on women to provide solid evidence before police are obliged to investigate, the lawyer added.

Ahmad Shuja of Human Rights Watch agreed that the regulation had serious flaws, pointing to its stipulation for “disciplinary punishment” for a woman judged to be “abusing the complaint process.” In a country where women are commonly blamed for being the victims of sexual harassment or assault, these provisions “have chilling effects on women coming forward,” said Mr. Shuja.

However, as deficient as the legal protections appear, Wazhma Frogh said more laws are not the answer. “We have to educate people that this is harassment. The government must also take responsibility for it,” she said. But the government is focused on more pressing issues, like fighting the Taliban and dealing with a stagnant economy.

Ms. Frogh said that decision makers also don’t seem to realize how prevalent an issue street harassment is. In Kabul, the elite travel by private car, largely isolated from the barrage of harassment that exists on the streets they govern. “They don’t see [street harassment] as an important issue. The policy makers don’t walk on the streets,” she said.

Anita Haidary says education — of both men and women — is more important. Sexual harassment is so common that many people don’t view it as behavior that should be deemed unacceptable. “We have a lot of laws on the books,” she said. “[But] if you talk to many women they won’t even understand what [sexual harassment] means.”

“We need to create awareness among the women that it’s okay to stand up for themselves and men need to be aware of the effect it has on us,” said Frogh. “There is so much segregation in our society. All these years we haven’t brought men into this debate.”



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