KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan performance artist Kubra Khademi was just 4 years old the first time she was molested by a stranger on the street, and recalls thinking one thing: “I wish my underwear was made of iron.”
So more than 20 years later she donned a suit of armor with large breasts and buttocks and wore it on the streets of Kabul to protest Afghanistan’s endemic harassment.
The eight-minute performance was not well received: She is now in hiding and afraid for her life. But after a lifetime of being pinched and prodded on the streets — and being told to keep quiet about it — the 27 year old is determined to break her deeply conservative society’s silence on sexual harassment.
Women, even those who wear the all-encompassing burka, regularly endure verbal abuse and unwanted touching in Afghanistan, where the fight for gender equality is still in its infancy. After more than a decade of activism, girls are still sold into marriage, domestic violence goes largely unpunished, and few women occupy positions of public responsibility.
Khademi was four when a stranger touched her bottom while she was walking to a shop near her family’s home in Quetta, Pakistan, where they had joined a tide of refugees fleeing war and the brutal rule of the ultra-conservative Taliban. She was molested in the streets on many other occasions throughout her life, including one instance shortly after she had returned to Afghanistan in 2008 to take entrance exams to study fine arts at Kabul University.
On that occasion, she screamed, assuming someone would come to her aid. Instead, the crowd turned on her.
“All the people stared at me and even started yelling at me: ‘You whore! How dare you scream! Did you enjoy it?'” Khademi told The Associated Press.
“Nobody saw that man. Maybe he was among the people shouting at me. This stuff happens daily and I see it. But if I am a ‘good girl’ I shouldn’t say it, not to my mother, not to my brother, I shouldn’t say it in public. But I will say it.”
The repeated harassment and other deeply personal experiences inform her exhibitions, which can take years to evolve and yet last just minutes. A late 2013 performance at a Kabul gallery, which many viewers found distressing, consisted of her slapping both sides of her own face for almost an hour. She said she wanted to highlight her country’s tolerance of violence after more than 30 years of war.
Ahead of her Feb. 26 suit of armor performance, she spent four months interviewing women about sex, sexuality and identity. Many stories were about cruelty and loss, but none of the women seemed to own their own experiences, she said.
“What I felt was the same: women do not have the right to enjoy, and should not have the right to enjoy. It’s like food — you desire to eat, but good women should not talk about it, good women should not enjoy it, good women should not have the right to think of it as her right,” she said.
There undoubtedly have been improvements since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban in 2001. Billions of dollars in aid have poured into projects aimed at cutting maternal mortality rates, boosting women’s access to health care and schooling, and educating police and the judiciary in enforcing constitutional guarantees of equality.
Khademi said the angry reactions from both men and women to her performance — including death threats and accusations that she is an American spy — are proof that Afghan society is changing.
But change is slow, and fear of change remains deeply entrenched.
When she put on the suit of armor and returned to the crowded Kabul neighborhood where she had been harassed in 2008, the crowd turned on her again. People threw stones and threatened to beat her, and after just eight minutes she declared the performance over and returned to her car, which was surrounded and damaged by the angry mob.
But amid the melee at least one person seemed to understand the message.
“Look at that girl,” she recounted a boy saying who was about 10, not much older than she had been on that distant day in Quetta. “She doesn’t want to be touched.”