Women’s Day, Afghan Style: Headscarves and flowers

The other day I was on the street reporting on a suicide bombing. Policemen and even some of the male journalists at the scene kept asking what I was doing, as if I were engaged in work unbecoming of a woman. The nicer ones were worried I would be scarred by the experience, and couldn’t handle it. The ruder ones felt I was stepping out of my lane.

One official suggested that it was dangerous for me to be out that late at night.

It isn’t easy being a woman journalist in Afghanistan; it isn’t easy being a woman here, for that matter. But for many Afghan women, that is not what comes across in all these celebrations. It often appears that many institutions use Women’s Day to show a liberal face, but just for a day.

“On every International Women’s Day, I keep thinking more of how suppressed we are within this patriarchal society,” said Sahar Fetrat, a filmmaker and women’s activist. “The symbolic celebrations, flowers, gifts and some words of empathy and sympathy are always given to women every 8th of March while on the same day, sexism, inequality, harassment and violence against women screams from all the streets and corners of this country.”

Women’s activists say that donors find it easy to give money for celebrations, which no one criticizes, while it’s much harder to support programs that produce real — and therefore controversial — change.

“We do not want to get flowers and head scarves,” said Zubaida Akbar, an advocate for women’s rights. “Instead, respect us as humans.”

Nearly a billion dollars of foreign aid to Afghanistan, maybe more, has gone into programs meant to make women’s lives better. But according to a new report by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, violence against women has increased 8.6 per cent this year.

Still, while many women scoff at the gift of head scarves, at least, they acknowledge, they are not being given burqas.