Twenty-nine-year-old Masouma was walking down a street in Kabul one day recently when a boy no older than 5 tried to grab her.
She moved to avoid him, but what he did next, she recalled, spoke volumes about attitudes toward women and girls in the Afghan capital.
“When I walked away he laughed, content in the knowledge that he was able to disrupt my day and annoy me,” said Masouma, the employee of a media company who did not want to be further identified for fear of further harassment.
In Kabul, a city of more than 6 million, women and girls complain of sexual harassment in their daily lives — on the streets, in the workplace and at school. Newly elected President Ashraf Ghani spoke out on the issue in October, saying Afghan women are subject to “shocking” levels of harassment and ordering the Education Ministry to report every incident in the nation’s schools.
“No matter what you do, they will stop and say something,” said Masouma. “‘Where are you going?’ ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Are you married? Where is your husband?’ ‘Where do you work?’ ‘Take my phone number, I promise I won’t bother you.’”
Afghanistan has no law explicitly forbidding sexual harassment, and in the weeks since his inauguration after a bitterly disputed runoff election, Ghani has faced calls from human rights groups and women’s advocates to enact such legislation. But some say that in a tradition-bound society struggling to emerge from decades of civil war, strict Taliban rule and the U.S.-led military intervention, it will take more than a law to change societal attitudes.
“The war has polluted the public’s minds,” said Soraya Goharshad Halimi, a university professor in the northern province of Baghlan. “This is not something a single person or the government can change overnight. Each person must do it for themselves.”
Much has improved for Afghan women in the 13 years since the invasion that toppled the Taliban. Twenty-eight percent of lawmakers are women, a higher percentage than in the United States and France. The female attendance rate in schools has jumped, although few girls advance past the 10th grade.
Yet Halimi said that Afghan women still have a long way to go before they can feel secure in their daily interactions.
The recent death sentence meted out to five men convicted of raping a group of women in Kabul’s Paghman district is the kind of decisive action needed to end sexual harassment, she said.
“If in the past such swift action had been taken, then we wouldn’t have these situations where children are abused and married off,” Halimi said.
Heather Barr, a Kabul-based Human Rights Watch senior researcher on women’s rights, said the key to making women feel safer in Afghanistan lies not in capital punishment but in shifting attitudes.
“The issue could be framed in a way that would make it clear how compatible it is with existing cultural values regarding the protection of women,” Barr said. “After all, no Afghan man would find it acceptable for another man to sexually harass his mother, wife, sister or daughter.”
Masouma agreed, saying that men who come to the aid of harassment victims often utter a simple phrase to shame and send away the harasser: “Don’t you have a sister or a mother yourself?”
Her frustration with cabdrivers who made inappropriate advances before she had even gotten into the vehicle — “Wherever you want to go, I will take you,” they would say — led her to buy her own car. But she soon realized that a woman driving herself around, a common sight in prewar Kabul, led to new forms of harassment.
“In the spring and summer it was so hot, but I couldn’t roll down my windows because of all the taunts and insults I would hear,” she said. At times, young boys would pelt her car with rocks.
Ghani’s inauguration has raised hope for progress on women’s rights because of his background — he spent most of his adult life in the United States — and that of his wife, Rula Ghani, a Lebanese-born Maronite Christian. She already has been more visible than former President Hamid Karzai’s wife, Zinat, a doctor who was rarely seen in public in his nearly 13 years in power.
But some fear that political alliances made during the hard-fought campaign by Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah — his election rival who now serves as chief executive officer in a unity government — could impede the advancement of women’s rights. Both men forged alliances with hard-line Islamist groups that oppose greater freedom for women.
Barr said Ghani’s administration should enact policies prohibiting harassment, particularly in the workplace, starting with the civil service.
“Every government institution should have a sexual harassment policy including a mechanism through which people who have been the target of harassment can make a complaint, have that complaint investigated, and through which people will be fired and barred from future employment when appropriate,” Barr said.
Others such as Halimi point out that Afghan women once secured basic rights without government intervention. In Baghlan’s capital, Pul-i-Khumri, for example, women decades ago pursued education and employment without the fear of abuse they face now.
“But in 2014,” she said, “we are constantly hearing reports of deaths and rapes.”
Latifi is a special correspondent.