Weighed against all the bad news for women in Afghanistan, it may not have seemed like much. Three hundred Afghan women held a public rally in Kabul on Wednesday to protest a new law that would impose inhuman restrictions on women from the Shiite minority, restrictions reminiscent of the era of the Taliban.
But the emboldening of these women is an extraordinary and hopeful sign in a country that, in its recent past, has been so oppressive of, and dehumanizing for, women. Its message is that the women of Afghanistan are not just passive observers of their fate, but keenly aware participants insistent on self-expression, the core freedom of democracies.
The women showed bravery in both the physical sense, and the moral. Some had to defy husbands to attend. A mob of men, outnumbering them three to one, threw stones and called them names. “You are a dog! You are not a Shiite woman!” It was this mob mentality to which the democratically elected government of Hamid Karzai had pandered, throwing a kind of burqa of legal restrictions over women. Shiite women would be deprived of the right to refuse sex with their husbands, and the right to go to work or leave the home without their husbands' permission. While Canada and other Western countries have brought pressure to bear on Mr. Karzai (he has put the law on hold), no one counted on the women to give voice so powerfully to their own feelings. “This is my land and my people,” one woman replied when called a dog.
It has been terribly disappointing to observe the Karzai government exploit the violence and intimidation of the Taliban years. Women and girls were facing violence on several fronts already. Schoolgirls have had acid flung at their faces because in a society that would deprive women of all power, they dared to educate themselves, a process more explosive than any insurgent's bomb. (The girls have since returned, bravely, to their classes.) Female legislators and police officers have been murdered. To pile state-sanctioned oppression on top of all that is a devastating blow.
But women's expectations have changed, and they insisted on rushing into the public square, to their peril, to say so. No protest in Montreal, London or New York could have said so much, with so few.