Published on
the Times Online/UK

Defying Threats, Fighting Oppression: The Woman Leading Protests in Afghanistan

Tom Coghlan in Kabul

(The Times)

They were stoned, spat on and assaulted, but when 200
women staged Afghanistan's first public women's rights protest

since the 1970s their voices were heard around the world.

And if centuries-old traditions are to change, it may well be a petite but
pugnacious 28-year-old called Diana Saqeb who is responsible.

One of the organisers of the march, which took place a fortnight ago in the
capital, Kabul, Ms Saqeb was present this week when President Karzai
promised activists that there would be changes to the Shia Family Law that
prompted their protest.

Mr Karzai said that the legislation would be amended and he did not know that
the law he was signing legalised marital rape, child marriage and a host of
Taleban-era restrictions on women, because his advisers had failed to inform
him of its contents.

Sitting in her home in Kabul, where the walls are lined with arthouse film
posters and translations of Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Virginia Woolf and Michel
Foucault, Ms Saqeb was unimpressed.

"This excuse is worse than the actual crime," she said. "It was not acceptable
for a lot of women present at the meeting that the first person of the
country signs a law, which directly affects the lives of the people, without
reading it."

She said that Mr Karzai should have been more responsible in a society where,
as the UN puts it, women "remain victims of discrimination and violence" and
the concept of human rights means little to many Afghan women.

"The society we live in is full of intimidation," said Ms Saqeb. "Always
concealing ideas, beliefs, dressing the way others want, it is a kind of
continuous stress and intimidation; more mental intimidation than physical."

Nonetheless, the protesters were taken aback by the fury they provoked. "We
did not expect the wild reaction from them," Ms Saqeb said of a mob, several
thousand strong, that surrounded the marchers. "We wanted ours to be a
silent protest but then they turned violent with rocks and stones, saying
terrible things to the women, trying to physically attack the women. I was
not frightened but I was shocked."

Many women did not reach the protest, she said, after being attacked or
intimidated as they tried to approach the area.

"The women who came were from all walks of life. We talked to women in many
parts of the city. All the women who came had seen difficulties and
oppression in their daily lives, and now they were seeing it legalised."

Since the protest, she said, she had received threatening messages and rumours
had circulated that she was not a Muslim - the evidence being that her name
sounded foreign.

To describe the country's women's rights movement as embryonic is to overstate
its strength. At its heart are a few score visible activists, including a
number of young women MPs such as Sabrina Saqib, Diana's sister.

The women politicians owe their seats in most cases to a quota system,
included in the Afghan constitution - to the dismay of conservatives - which
reserves 25 per cent of Parliament for women.

Afghanistan today is a world away from Saqeb's early life in one of the few
old liberal Kabul families to have returned to the city since 2001. She
spent most of her upbringing as a refugee in Iran, finding in the arts
faculty at Tehran University a relative freedom of thought far from the
constraints of home. She is now a film-maker.

The risks attached to attacking the status quo are very clear. A growing
number of women holding public positions have been killed in the past two
years by Taleban militants, whose influence extends to the outskirts of the
capital. Ms Saqeb says she is undaunted.

Among a new generation of supporters is Hamida, 18, who told The Times:
"I think since the day of the demonstration, more and more girls in our
school are speaking against the law and it has become a big subject for the
girls' discussions. I think rights are something that you have to always
take by struggle. If you sit by, no one will come to give them to you."

Ms Saqeb said that the campaign to change the Shia family legislation was just the start: "We are just confronting people who don't dare to doubt what they are told."

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