In April 2009, a group of about 250 women gathered in front of the Blue Mosque in Kabul to oppose the Shia Law that violated women rights. I was among them. It was a protest unprecedented in recent Afghan history and as the result, some articles of law were eliminated and some changed. But we were not prepared to encounter furious, stone-throwing men and shouting women. Thinking about this later, I’ve realized a very important part of our demonstration was that we began to learn how to organize. This is crucial because well-organized protests encourage Afghan women to take more responsibility in changing their situation and the laws that violate their rights.
To organize, first of all, an individual should form a group. In our case, we were a small number of women who disagreed with some articles of the Shia Law, but we needed more to join us. We found many women really did not understand how the law could affect their lives. Therefore, we held a workshop and invited as many women as we could: young, old, educated, uneducated, employed, and housewives.
Then, the group should explain clearly what it wants to achieve. We invited a lawyer to explain the articles of the Shia Law and the consequences of having such laws in our society. We told the women at our workshop that we wanted to protest because we did not have any voice in the society. The media was trying to show that all Afghan women supported the law, but this was not true. Peaceful protest could give us a voice the government could not easily ignore. After this explanation, many women present wanted to support us. Some joined our group and some said they would spread our message. In this way, our group became bigger, creating a network.
Next, a group should divide responsibilities. The four main subgroups needed are: management, finance, marketing, and public communication. In our group, we had a leader who oversaw the sub-groups with the help of another person to make sure everything proceeded effectively. It is very important that the group leader be a good team player, friendly, firm and accountable in order to build trust. The group leader also is responsible for getting permission for the protest and informing police about the time and location. In addition, she should have a car ready with a first aid kit and a doctor or nurse available for emergency situations on the protest day.
The finance section should make a list of needed materials and estimate the overall cost of protest. The marketing section did all writing and corresponding for our group, including the protest letter, announcements, and slogans. The communication section should have a spokesperson to contact and address the media. In Afghanistan, because many people don’t have access to the Internet, we also had a group that went to high schools, universities, transportation stations, and other areas to announce the planned protest.
I was in the public communications group and went to the high schools to print off and distribute the protest announcement. The high school that we went to the day before the protest was attacked later in the day because of anger over our planned protest, and two people were injured.
One day before the protest, the group leader should hold a meeting with all members to make sure all is ready. Members should be assigned specific tasks for the next day. For example, some should be responsible for delivering the signs to the protest location. Some should stand in front of protesters and lead the way to the destination. A person should be in touch with police and the doctor. The group should be in the location two hours before the protest starts and everyone should have their phones on so they can coordinate with each other.
Being ready for the unforeseen is very important. For example, on the day of our Shia Law protest, when we were gathering in front of the mosque, we heard that some women could not join us because a group of men blocked their way. When we heard this, we could not believe it and did not know how to help the women reach us. Still, we tried to stay calm and move forward.
Suddenly, a group of angry men moved out of the mosque toward us. They were shouting bad words, waving their hands and throwing stones at us. Policemen and policewomen were the only line between them and us. Some women wanted to hold their ground to show that they were not afraid. Others asked us to retreat a bit. We did not know what to do.
A group of fierce women came out of another gate of the mosque and moved just behind us. They were yelling at us, condemning us, and coming to punish us, I felt. Now I could see that the women in our group were becoming really worried.
“Can police stop them if something happens?”
“Where should we go now?”
We were surrounded by an angry mob, and the policewomen made a circle around us. I was afraid of an explosion or of being attacked. We did not anticipate this and we were not ready for it. The policewomen helped us move from in front of the mosque to a less crowded part of the main street and from there, with their protection, we moved toward the Parliament Building. They tried to keep us as far from the mob as possible.
From this experience, I learned that a group always should be ready for a bad situation, and if something happens, the most important thing is to stay calm, be careful, and follow police instructions. This experience was hard but at the same time great for me because I learned many things about the women’s movement that I did not know before. The protest was good, but if we had paid attention to some small but important points, it could have been much better.