Afghan policewomen form human chain to protect women's rights activists in Kabul, 2009


In March 2009 the Afghan Parliament passed the Shia Personal Status Law, which provided many restrictions and guidelines for the personal lives of Afghanistan’s Shiite Muslims, who made up between fifteen and twenty percent of the total population. The law was drafted by Shia Clerics and then passed by congress and signed by President Hamid Karzai.

Afghanistan women’s rights activists, both Shia and not, were outraged at the law, in particular because of certain clauses which would have forced women to offer sex to their husbands and limited their ability to leave their house without the permission of their husbands. International leaders also condemned the law and governments in the United States and Europe openly disapproved of President Karzai’s decision to approve the law.

As early as March, Afghan women who opposed the law had begun meetings and workshops based around the repeal of the law. These women held their first open protest on April 15, 2009 when nearly 200 women, some Shia and some not, began a march in front of a conservative Shia Muslim university in Kabul that had supported the law.

As the women began to march along the road and chant slogans, nearly 1000 supporters of the law came together from inside and around the university. The counter-protest was made up of both men and women. As the counter-protesters grew angrier they began to throw stones at the women protesting against the law.

Policewomen who were present joined arms and formed a barrier around the protesting women in an effort to protect them from the stone-throwers. These policewomen kept their backs to the counter-protesters. Facing inwards towards the female activists and holding arms to form a circle around the women, they walked with the group of protesters as they continued their march.

While other police officers were present with riot shields and weapons, these other police did not use any apparent violence against the protesters or counter-protesters. The policewomen remained around the female protesters with linked arms as they continued to march. Aside from the initial stones thrown by counter-protesters, the demonstration ended with no known injuries or further violence. The women's rights protesters continued their campaign through July 2009.

The case represents an increasing number of incidents coming to light in which non-protesters step in to reduce or prevent violence in inflamed situations, using methods that go outside their expected role or behavior.