Their 300 grey and black headscarves are brightened by bobbing swatches of pink, lime green and electric blue, harbingers of hope. Their banners, emblazoned with proclamations like “Equality is Our Right!” sail above the waves of shaking fists and screams of “whore!” and “dog!” Every time I have watched this video over the past week, I have attempted to write about it. Every time, I have found my words inadequate to describe the courage that carried this small flotilla of women through such an angry sea.
This is not Thermopylae. This is Kabul, where on April 16, three hundred women of various Muslim sects protested a bill that President Karzai had just signed into law, legislation that, as fingerlakeswanderer discussed so passionately in this post, drastically curtailed the rights of Shiite women. In a country where honor killings are a common occurrence, the marchers could not have helped but feel fear as they confronted a crowd two to three times their size. Yet, risking repercussion from family, neighbors, and the religious extremists who drafted the legislation against which they were demonstrating, they marched unveiled.
Too young to participate in the civil rights protests of the 50s and early 60s, I have personally witnessed such bravery only once; it also involved an act of unveiling. At the invitation of a friend, I took a queer youth photography exhibit to the 2001 LGBT Pride Festival in Budapest. The event culminated with a parade that ended in front of the Hungarian Parliament. Previous to 2001, marchers wore handmade masks that, while colorful and flamboyantly queer, were designed to hide their faces from observers. This reticence was due not so much to shame as it was to a legitimate fear of discriminatory reprisal. Hungary had not yet joined the European Union, and being openly gay or lesbian could result in loss of children, housing, livelihood and even physical freedom in the form of a forced asylum stay.
The 2001 parade established a new tradition. While all marchers began en masque, most "unveiled" along the first part of the route, joyously claiming the right to live openly and without shame. We Westerners who had been invited to participate in this historic moment risked little. Our Eastern European companions not only braved threats of violence from white wing extremists (which in 2001 proved empty) but the very real threat of social stigmatization and loss of livelihood.
Unlike many of my feminist friends, I have never seen anything inherently oppressive in wearing a headscarf. However, I have long believed the veil to be deeply damaging to women, and to the men who love us. In the late 1970s, one of my college friends who joined the Peace Corps ended up teaching English in one of the Arab Emirates. One of his classes consisted of female students, all of whom attended completely veiled.
On the last day of class, the women showed him their appreciation by revealing their faces, an event he described as the most sensual of his life. By eroticizing every part of their physical being, the veil had reduced these women to vulvas, and denied my friend any true understanding of his students’ personhood.
The Afghani women who marched last week through the streets of Kabul could have protected their identities by wearing veils. They decided instead to boldly assert their full humanity in the face of radical extremism. They may have risked everything but they gained even more.
I am heartened that the world paid attention. A number of western leaders, including President Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Harper, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel strongly condemned the law. In response to international pressure, President Karzai promised to shelve the bill and pledged to reconsider any portions of the law that contradict the Afghan constitution, which guarantees equal rights for men and women.
I may never match the courage of these Afghani women. However, I can honor them by bearing witness, by supporting them in their fight. I do not want to allow the world to forget. Without continuing pressure to do something, I am afraid that neither our elected representatives or the Afghan government will follow through on their promises. In the words of the Russian writer, Nadezhda Mandelstam, “Silence is the real crime against humanity. ”