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Is Afghanistan Getting Closer to a Reckoning with Gender Violence and Discrimination?

Afghanistan. 25th August 2009 -- A woman in “Borghaa”, Burqa, or Chador [Traditional hijab for women in Afghanistan] is passing through the pigeons in the main square of Mazar-e Sharif City in Afghanistan. Demotix ID: 247626.

Afghanistan. 25th August 2009 — A woman in ‘Borghaa’, Burqa, or Chador [Traditional hijab for women in Afghanistan] is passing through the pigeons in the main square of Mazar-e Sharif City in Afghanistan. Demotix ID: 247626.

In patriarchal Afghanistan, the battle for women's rights will depend in large part on men.

For that reason, the fact that on March 5, dozens of Afghan men took to the streets of Kabul wearing burqas in a protest  against violations of women’s rights in Afghanistan organised by a group called Afghan Peace Volunteers, offered fodder for conversations about gender inequality and violence in the country ahead of International Women's Day. 

One of the participants, 29-year-old Basir, said :

Our authorities will be celebrating International Women's Day in big hotels, but we wanted to take it to the streets. One of the best ways to understand how women feel is to walk around and wear a burqa.

In the 1990s during the Taliban regime, women were forced to wear burqas in public. This tradition, which for many is synonymous with repression, has remained common in Afghanistan even after the Taliban's ouster. 

As the rally took place another female Afghan artist walked around the capital wearing steel armour in the shape of a woman's body as a symbolic move to protest street harassment. 

The march to defend women's rights earned a mixed reaction. Some welcomed the act, some were confused and others condemned it.

One person protesting against the march called it a Western-orchestrated move.

Ahmad Mukhtar, an Afghan journalist, tweeted:

 Zheela Nasari, a VOA journalist, tweeted:

Raza Rumi tweeted: 

But many encouraged the trend:

Fereshta Kazemi, an Afghan artist tellingly stated:

Although Afghanistan remains strongly conservative, there are signs the situation surrounding attitudes to gender is changing incrementally. In 2013, Al Arabiya reported that burqa businesses were going bust in the country's capital Kabul, “with the demand for burqas declining among young women who are increasingly going to school and taking office jobs”.

Nevertheless, the same article observed that the burqa was actually becoming more popular in the country's regions, partly because the anonymity it provides can give a woman security from attacks carried out by men.

Last year witnessed an unprecedented public mobilisation in response to a gang rape case in the country's Paghman province. While international human rights organisations were concerned that the groundswell of public opinion on#Paghman was in favour of giving the death penalty for the gang rapists, the protests surrounding the case marked an important turning point in a country where various forms of violence against women have traditionally not been discussed.

And in Kabul in particular, there are many things which are growing more common now, that were simply unimaginable during the Taliban era:

The Taliban, of course, have not disappeared, and their legacy continues to penetrate Afghan society in a number of ways, but what the last few years have shown is that there is no shortage of people in the country — men and women — that are prepared to stand up for women's rights in a range of different contexts.

Our work building bridges across cultures, languages and perspectives is more urgent than ever before.

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