Catcallers make Kabul streets unsafe for women

Zahra Nazemi, 27, dresses with full cautiousness when she goes outside her home. She usually avoids wearing close-fitting dresses when walking in public spaces.

Whenever an alone or even a group of well-dressed women walk down the streets of Kabul, just as Zahra, they become subject to the prevalent act of harassment, usually to catcalls by male passersby, shopkeepers, and young boys.

Like Zahra, many Afghan women and girls are not safe when they walk across Kabul streets. They are often exposed to verbal and non-verbal harassments, catcalls, and sexually provoked jokes on the streets.

“I feel very bad when am catcalled on the streets, alleys, and outside home,” says Sajia Hussaini, who is a student at Avicena University in the western neighborhood of Kabul. As she states, the catcalls addressed to women and girls are usually made by men who see the women only as a sexual object.

Although street harassment is prevalent across the globe, Afghan women and girls are more likely to report personal experience of being groped, leered, stalked, and receiving sexist remarks by a male passerby. The country endorsed its Law on Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) in August 2009. The law, however, remains highly unenforced across the country since then.

According to the law, any act that harms the personality, body, property, and spirit of a women is considered as violence and the perpetrator is a criminal. “Using words, sentences, jokes, unethical satires (sarcasms), commenting about a women’s body, dress, and phone harassment that causes damage to woman or child’s peace and psychological safety is defined as verbal harassment,” the 3th clause of Article 3 of the law says.

Anyone who harasses women or children in public places, public transport, or any other places shall be sentenced to pay a fine of 5,000 Afghanis to 10,000 Afghanis by an authorized court, albeit in the face of evidences and required witnesses.

Catcalling is prevalent in Kabul

Harassment is very prevalent in public places of the capital Kabul. Men and young boys are frequently seen catcalling a woman on streets, alleys, or urban parks. Although there might be different driving factor behind the unpleasant practice, most people believe lack of awareness and education is the main factor behind it.

According to Sajia, men resort to catcalling the women for two main reasons. Firstly, the perpetrators do it as they think women are not able to defend themselves. Secondly, they are looking upon women just as a “sex object.”

Zahra, however, thinks that a sex starved society and physiologically socked population are apt to push men to catcall women in public places. She argues that the culture of avoiding girls and boys hang out before becoming mature are another root cause of this social problem. “The boys and girls have never been together until becoming mature. Therefore, they cannot accept each other due to lacking a proper culture,” she stated.

According to Latifa Sultani, who is program manager at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), catcalling is a verbal harassment and prevalent violence against women which has been rarely seen as a violence in the society.

A report by the AIHRC suggests that the commission has registered 2,762 cases of violence against women over the course of seven months since the beginning of 1398 solar year. Of those cases, 1,041 cases are verbal harassment that shows an increase of 141 cases comparing to the same period in 1397 (solar year). The report says 2.9 percent of violence cases have been taken place in working places, institutions, hospitals, schools, universities, detention centers, prisons and streets.

What is the solution?

Activists believe that an awareness campaign against is the only way to fight against this ominous social problem, if not in the entire country yet in urban areas. Latifa states the only way to eliminate violence against women is to raise public awareness about women rights, inform police forces of their responsibilities on preventing harassment of women.  

The ministries of women affairs, hajj and pilgrimage, higher education, education, information and culture, justice, interior, and public health are duty-bound by the endorsed laws to launch public awareness campaigns about women rights.

Roya Dadras, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Women Affairs, told Kabul Now that the ministry alone is not able to change public mindsets and social basis of violence against women. She added that all the institutions needed to address the issue.