KABUL (Reuters) - In high heels and head scarves, a small band of Afghan women took to the streets of the country's capital, Kabul, on Thursday to protest harassment by men in public places.
Carrying signs, that read "This street also belongs to me" and "We won't stand insults anymore" the 20 or so women -- and some men marching in solidarity -- protested being abused, groped and followed on the city's streets.
Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative country, with heavy cultural and social restrictions on women's freedoms, even though the ouster of the hardline Taliban nearly a decade ago brought huge improvements in their legal rights.
"The idea behind street harassment is that women should not be out of their houses," said organizer Noor Jahan Akbar, 19, founder of rights group Young Women for Change.
"We want to fight that mentality because we believe that these streets belong to us as much as they belong to the men of this country," adding that she herself had suffered harassment so persistent it made her reluctant to walk anywhere.
International attention has often focused on the most extreme attacks on women's freedom, including acid attacks on girls walking to school and mysterious gas poisonings at several girls' schools, including in Kabul.
But Afghan women say they face a barrage of lower level persecution that can make daily life a challenge.
"What we want to wear, how we want to walk, that's our decision," said Anita Haidery, 19, a film and computer science student who also helped organize the protest.
Akbar, who is studying music and literature at university in the United States and returns to Kabul in the summers, said that she had been criticized for "importing an idea from the West," but said in fact women's freedom had its roots in Islam.
"Women's safety is not a western idea, even in the time of Prophet Mohammad, women were safe, they could do trade, they could go out, and that's what we deserve," she said.
Police redirected traffic as the protesters marched several kilometers through the city's dusty streets, thrusting flyers promoting their cause in the open windows of passing vehicles in the hope of sparking grassroots change.
Omaid Shirfi, 25, who works for the Afghan Transition and Coordination Commission, said he wanted to march with the women to show sympathy for their plight and promote change.
"They are a part of this society, they are half of the population. They should have the right to go to school, to go on the street," he said.
Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Sugita Katyal