Afghan Men Are Getting Trained to Be Feminists

Will Emma Watson’s ‘He for She’ campaign have the same success in Kabul as it did in the U.S.?
(Photo: Reuters/STR News)
Jun 21, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

As U.N. Women’s goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson has spent the last year trying to convince men that women’s equality is more than just a women’s issue. In the U.S., her “He for She” campaign gained the support of celebs like Forest Whitaker and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who tweeted about it, and Steve Carell, who wore the campaign logo on his cuff link at the Oscars.

In Afghanistan, it may take time for “He for She” to take root with ideals of gender equality. The Taliban cracked down on women’s rights during its five-year rule that ended in 2001, and the group’s violent, fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law continues to influence daily life.

To kick off the U.N. campaign’s launch in Afghanistan last week, local activists, government officials, and foreign dignitaries met at a Kabul high school to demonstrate how men play an integral role in the fight for women’s rights. Using the slogan “A brave man stands for women,” activists took the stage and shared stories that attempted to reposition the fight for women’s rights as a courageous and valiant undertaking.

The underlying message, conveyed by speakers including U.N. Women’s Country Representative in Afganistan Elzira Sagynbaeva, was that gender equality can’t be achieved unless men change the way they view women. It’s a major shift in tactics considering that up until recently, gender equality has been framed largely as a cause taken up by women—many of whom have been victimized and even murdered for their activism in Afghanistan.

The event in Kabul was attended by a sympathetic crowd of about 250, but the campaign has a loftier goal of acquiring signatures from 3,000 Afghan men and boys pledging to stand up for women’s rights on the “He for She” website. It’s part of a broader aim to acquire pledges from 1 billion men and boys worldwide by the time the U.N. General Assembly convenes in September, but there’s still a long way to go. The website currently boasts roughly 327,488 signatures, with a majority of them originating in the United States—and just 325 from Afghanistan.

In the months leading up to the U.N. General Assembly, “He for She” plans to ramp up its presence in Afghanistan by launching in five other provinces—Herat, Mazar, Jalalabad, Kandahar, and Bamyan—gaining endorsements from Afghan celebrities, and screening a “documentary film telling human-interest stories depicting the plight of Afghan women,” according to Montira Narkvichien, a U.N. spokesperson. Still, the success of such a campaign remains to be seen in a country where some men worry that women’s independence will threaten their own freedoms.

So, Why Should You Care? The “He for She” campaign’s launch in Afghanistan comes on the heels of mounting international attention to women’s rights around the world, as this year marks the 20th anniversary of the U.N.’s Beijing conference on women. In March, a U.N. report found that violence against women around the world “persists at alarmingly high levels,” with about 35 percent of women reporting experiencing physical violence in their lifetime.

The issue is particularly pressing in Afghanistan, which often ranks as one of the world’s most dangerous countries for women. In April, NATO’s Secretary General’s Special Representative for Women met with officials in Kabul, around the same time Amnesty International issued a report urging authorities to protect and defend women’s rights and the people who fight for them.

Afghanistan is still mourning the death of a 27-year-old woman called Farkhunda who was attacked, murdered, and set on fire in March by a mob in the streets of Kabul after being falsely accused of burning the Koran. Her death spurred widespread protests throughout the country as women carried her coffin and marched in the streets while defending Farkhunda’s innocence and chanting for justice.

A small group of men stood in support of the protesters, Solidarity Party of Afghanistan spokesperson Selay Ghaffar told CNN. “Without men, it is not possible for women to get their rights,” she said.