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An Afghan artist who enacted a performance against sexual molestation in a crowded Kabul marketplace has been forced into hiding, AFP reported.
Kubra Khademi had hired a local blacksmith to forge a suit of armor with accentuated breasts and buttocks. She planned to wear it publicly to protest the way that women’s bodies are lecherously groped and abused in public spaces — something that first happened to her when she was only four years old.
“Somebody touched me and then he just walked away. I was just a female for him. He didn’t care how old I was,” the 25-year-old artist shared in an interview. “I was feeling guilty. Why did it happen to me? It was my fault. And I said: ‘I wish my underwear were made of iron.’”
She told the AP that she was publicly sexually assaulted several times after that, most recently in 2008, just before she took her entrance exams to study art at Kabul University. That time, she screamed. “All the people stared at me and even started yelling at me: ‘You whore! How dare you scream! Did you enjoy it?’” she remembered.
Because of these personal encounters, Khademi has made violence against women the focus of her performance work; in a Kabul gallery in late 2013, she slapped each side of her face for almost an hour as a metaphor for her country’s numbness to violence. Human Rights Watch estimates that 87% of Afghan women have experienced physical, sexual, or psychological attacks, while the United Nations has reported that “violence remains an inextricable part of the lives of many Afghan women and girls.”
Khademi’s activism culminated on the afternoon of February 26, when she emerged from her home wearing the metal suit, concealed by a coat. She removed the covering at the base of the Kata stone bridge and began to walk. Bystander Mina Rezaei described the eight-minute performance and the angry reactions it quickly provoked on her Facebook:
Crowds were wide-eyed and everyone was running to see the armored woman. Some complained about her clothes, some misused the situation and started touching girls’ bodies in the crowd, some people stoned her, some abused. It was so unbearable and scary. People were following both herself and her entourages while stoning all of them. During those eight minutes, the armored woman was scared and walked so fast. At the end she sat in a car, but people still stoned and kicked the car as a sign of goodbye to her.
At least one person got the message. “Look at that girl,” Khamedi recalled a 10-year-old boy saying. “She doesn’t want to be touched.”
But for the most part, the backlash continued, spreading to social media where the event began trending. Blogger Omar Haqbin wrote:
It was hard for me when I read a girl’s comment on the Facebook who said: “Kubra is a whore and looking to become famous so better and rich men will come to her.” Or a man [who] said: “What Kubra did is useless and we don’t appreciate it in Afghanistan.” … During the next two hours after the Armor Performance, I read about it at least 20 times in my Facebook feed and more than half of them … denounced her action.
Some people even accused Khademi of being an American spy. She has since received so many angry emails and death threats that she’s purportedly left her home. According to her Facebook, she currently resides in Seoul, South Korea, though it’s unclear if that’s where she’s currently located.
Khademi’s brave performance follows that of many other artists — from Pussy Riot to Tania Bruguera — who have forsaken the safe haven of the gallery to take their social activism into the streets, where it is most trenchant. The persecution she has since endured shouldn’t only be a cause for despair, but for optimism, as it shows just how threatening such acts of protest really are. Hopefully this will inspire more victims to break their silence.
The University of Virginia researchers wrote that the data “provides compelling evidence that these symbols are associated with hate.”
We are waiting for spectacle and when the quotidian, yet incongruous actions occur I wonder whether there is any real payoff coming.
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