Afghanistan's controversial law emboldens women's rights activists
Hundreds in Kabul staged a rare rally Wednesday, defying counterprotesters' stones and insults.
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The movement is very decentralized, with no individual or group leading it. At one point during Wednesday's protest a few women rose with loudspeakers and debated on the spot when they should hold the next protest. Later, a parliament official emerged to promise that the law would be reviewed.Skip to next paragraph
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"When? Don't make empty promises!" shouted women in the crowd.
"Soon, just give us some time," the official pleaded.
The women demanded to be heard by high-ranking authorities immediately. Finally, the man relented. The women huddled together and nominated some among themselves to enter the Parliament.
Movement draws the young, educated
The women in this new movement are young and educated – most are in high school or university. Activists say that their ranks number in the hundreds, although it is possible that more support their cause in secret. Some are NGO workers, others are journalists, and some are teachers. Many have repatriated from Iran, which is more culturally liberal than Afghanistan. A few of the women involved say they have experience working on gender issues through NGOs, though none had participated in open political activism before.
Some analysts suggest the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, an underground women's group that resisted the Taliban and mujahideen governments of the 1990s, could be helping to organize the demonstrations. They remain underground because of their vigorous advocacy of women's rights, which can be very dangerous here.
Women against women
The biggest challenge the women face may be from other women. "I can say with confidence that most women support this law," says activist Fatima Ahazul. Many say that they have tried in vain to convince friends and relatives to support them.
Afghanistan is widely regarded as one of the world's most conservative societies, and independent-minded women here are under constant threat. Some TV presenters and outspoken women's rights activists have been assassinated in the past. Earlier this week, the Taliban gunned down a government official and gender equality activist, Sitara Achakzai, in the southern city of Kandahar. In general, women cannot leave their homes without permission from their husband or father.
Women who back the law say they see it as imposing conditions little different from their daily experiences, and view the controversy surrounding it as a Western attempt to undermine their culture.
"But such women are mainly housewives and illiterates," argues Ms. Ahazul, the activist. "Only open-minded and well-educated women oppose the law."