On a sweltering day in Kabul two years ago, Afghan journalist Freshta Negah was in a rush to get to a reporting assignment. As she walked down the street to find a cab a man on a bicycle rode toward her, slowing down as he approached. She stiffened, fearing he would harass her, a too-common occurrence on Kabul’s streets. He rode past. Relieved, she says she quietly laughed to herself, realizing how paranoid she had become.
But almost immediately, the man came back and reached out to grab her. She screamed, and then did almost instinctively what most Afghan women have learned to do: she took off her shoes and threw them at her tormenter with all her might. Negah’s throw hit the mark, forcing the man to pedal away as fast as he could. “Men mistreating women is nothing unusual,” she tells The Daily Beast. “We’re chased on the streets all the time by men asking for phone numbers, making obscene offers of friendship, or even worse—physical harassment.”
“In our traditions, throwing a shoe during a fight is a sign that I can hurt you, a sign that I have power too,” she adds. “It’s our best and only weapon.”
It’s a blessing of sorts that in a violent country like Afghanistan, where an AK-47 is often used to settle scores, the throwing of shoes for self-defense and to shame and humiliate an opponent has become a common practice, a part of the culture. Shoes are viewed as being dirty and loathsome. Hitting someone with such a lowly object is meant to bring about disgrace and embarrassment. Women are not the only ones defending themselves by shoe-throwing on the streets of Kabul. Parliamentarians, too, are using their shoes as a weapon of choice inside the chamber. “In Parliament shoe-throwing happens all too regularly and will keep on happening,” says an MP who last year threw his shoes and anything else he could grab at another MP who was insulting him, an action that was widely viewed on YouTube. “It’s the best way to express your hatred against ignorant and stupid people,” he says.
The MP, a Pashtun from an eastern province who declines to be named, says he couldn’t take the insults any longer. Another MP, an ethnic Uzbek from the north, began railing at the Pashtun during a debate, blaming all the suicide and roadside bombings and the country’s rampant corruption on ethnic Pashtuns. The Pashtun MP exploded and retaliated by throwing his shoes and anything else he could get his hands on at his accuser. “If I’d had a dead dog, I would have tied it around that guy’s neck,” he says angrily. “But at that moment my shoes were all that I had.” In Parliament even women throw shoes at each other. Last year a lady MP from the north who is popularly known as “the general” for her martial manners suddenly threw her shoes during a parliamentary debate at another woman MP who represents nomads. The general, who was dressed in a black chador, then quickly descended two rows and began punching the other MP before cooler heads intervened and broke up the fight.
A young medical student and body builder, Jalil Parwani, learned his lesson about not harassing young women on the streets the hard way. He and his friend were biking home from the Kabul medical faculty earlier this year when they came across six female students walking home. Parwani began to harass them, he recalls. He says he shouted at one: “You look like a princess walking so nicely and romantically.” The girls ignored him and then ducked into a hamburger shop. Parwani and his friend followed. He told the cook loudly, “Don’t make the burgers too hot,” he recalls saying. “We don’t want to burn their beautiful lips.” With that the two young men were hit by a barrage of shoes thrown by the girls. He says the one he called a princess hit him harder than the others. “Some of those shoes are made of heavy leather and really hurt a lot,” he says. Immediately, everyone in the shop began laughing at the two embarrassed young men. “It was the worst and most shameful experience of my life,” he says. “If that scene had been captured and shown on YouTube, I would have had to disappear from the university to hide my shame.”
“There’s no greater shame in our culture than to be hit by women’s shoes,” he adds. “I learned such a lesson that now every girl I see is my sister and I will never bother them again.”
But even worse things can happen to a man who is harassing women on the street than being hit and humiliated by a well-thrown shoe. Safia Safi, a third-year Kabul university student and ethnic Pashtun from eastern Afghanistan, was recently harassed by a young man on a Kabul street. She immediately threw her shoes at him. “Shoes are unworthy things in our culture and whomever we hit with those shoes is worthless,” she says. “These men are cheap and deserve to be hurt by cheap stuff.” But as her molester ran off he took Safi’s shoes with him, forcing her to walk home barefoot. Safi’s brother exploded when he heard the story. He quickly grabbed a knife, she says, and ran after the man, threatening to kill him. “He should have known that it’s not wise to bother Pashtun girls,” she says. “Harassing us could mean certain death.”
“Bad manners should be severely punished,” she adds angrily. Every Afghan woman would heartily agree with that.