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Afghan Male Activist Protests To End Oppressive Customs For Women

Pashtun Kuchis (nomads) on the road from Jalalabad to Kabul (Elliot and Marty Larson's photo from the 1970s).

Appearing tired but determined, Khan Wali Adil is surrounded by a group of young activists and university students in his protest tent outside the Afghan Parliament building in Kabul.

The colorful tent is decorated with banners bearing pictures of women and inscribed with moving slogans. “Women are not our concubines,” reads one. Another one calls for rights to be accorded to Afghan women and an end to their “inhumane treatment.”

Adil, 23, has been peacefully protesting for more than a month. He is calling on the lawmakers to ensure that Afghan women are given all the rights enshrined in the country’s constitution. He is particularly pressing for a blanket ban on forced marriages to settle blood feuds and property disputes between clans and families in his home province, Paktia.

Paktia is part of a southeastern Afghan region collectively called Loya or Greater Paktia together with the neighboring provinces of Paktika and Khost. Life in the deeply conservative region is still governed by centuries-old unwritten codes and customs collectively called Pashtunwali, which literally translates as The Way of Pashtuns. Many major Pashtun tribes count Loya Paktia as their home with Adil’s Ahmadzai tribe making up a sizeable part of Paktia’s population.

Adil says he has embarked on a nonviolent struggle to change the region’s current circumstances marred by violence and regressive cultural practices that often target the weak and vulnerable -- women in particular.

“The mentality that violence is an effective tool for reaching the goal, the prevailing violence in society, and the chaotic situation prompted me to adopt a peaceful way to change the negative customs and oppose the use of violence in society,” Adil said.

Khan Wali Adil
Khan Wali Adil

He says he believes nonviolent civic mobilization is more effective than violent struggles. Adil knows such campaigns are much more difficult in societies like Afghanistan. But, he says, they have long-term positive consequences, and while challenging negative traditions and the governing hierarchical system in families and tribes is hard, societal reform is the right priority in reorienting Afghanistan.

Earlier this year, Adil’s nonviolent activism began at home. He went on a four-day hunger strike to protest his family’s decision to bar his younger sister from education and their reluctance to settle a land dispute.

He wanted his family to give away the land they had captured from their relatives, who had also killed his brother. Such feuds are common and can last for generations, spurred by cycles of vengeance.

Adil is inspired by the 20th-century Khudai Khidmatgar or Servants of God Movement. The movement’s stalwart leader, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, an ally of Mahatma Ghandi, waged a struggle of independence from the British and to reform Pashtun society by championing democracy, nonviolence, education, and women’s rights.

Despite his limited education -- he is currently a student of 11th grade -- Adil has read Pashto translations of books such as Civilian Jihad in the Middle East and Why Civil Resistance Works.

Acknowledging the tremendous difficulties ahead in seeing his campaign succeed, Adil says, “Justice always prevails, and darkness is always overcome by light.”

Adil recalls that before waging his first campaign against his family, most people he consulted opposed his ideas. But his campaign is now gaining some traction. Hundreds of supporters including lawmakers, officials, activists, and students visit his tent daily to express their solidarity.

Since his protest, both the upper and lower houses of Afghan Parliament have debated the violation of women’s rights. Late last month, the parliamentary committee on civil society and women’s and human rights summoned Adil to a hearing and decided to send a delegation to investigate the cases of forced marriages used to settle disputes in Paktia.

Hundreds of supporters including lawmakers, officials, activists, and students visit Khan Wali Adil daily to express their solidarity.
Hundreds of supporters including lawmakers, officials, activists, and students visit Khan Wali Adil daily to express their solidarity.

​Fozia Kofi, head of the parliamentary committee, also asked the Afghan women’s and religious affairs ministries to launch a campaign against cultural practices that often result in women’s rights being violated. Members of many provincial councils have also promised to work on improving the lot of women in their conservative rural constituencies.

Mahdi Nazari, an activist from the southeastern Afghan province of Ghazni, praises Adil. “He deserves credit for standing against centuries-old customs. Adil has ventured to protest against evils that challenge peace in our society,” he said.

But he, too, has detractors. Razia Sadat Mangal represents Paktia in the lower house of Afghan Parliament. She doesn’t agree with how Adil has painted an alarming picture of forced marriages in their province.

“I reject his claims but supports every voice raised in the support of rights for Afghan women,” she said.

Ahmadullah Archiwal is a Kabul-based Afghan activist. Editor’s note: The attribution has been changed at author’s request.