Tearfully, Gulnaz recounted the story of the assault that took place in 2009. The attacker, nearly twice her age, pinned her down, tied her up and then savagely raped her. She described going to the police with her disabled, widowed mother to report the rape. There she was instantly imprisoned for reporting the crime. With no male head of household present, the two women were not taken seriously.
After years of advocacy by human rights groups and other activists, and a decade of war by the United States and its allies — a war in which the need to uphold the rights of women has often been invoked — Afghan women remain trapped in a legal system that often punishes them for being the victims of brutal crimes.
My illiterate client told me of her experience going to court with her illegitimate daughter and not understanding the legal process. She was forced to represent herself after her Afghan lawyer failed to show up, yet the judges who presided over the case refused to allow her to speak. Instead, they berated Gulnaz for lying, insisting that women cannot get pregnant by having sex just once. This assertion was the basis for the 12-year sentence that was imposed, with a wrenching caveat: Marrying her attacker would allow her to be “free.”
Unfortunately, Gulnaz’s case is not an anomaly but represents the situation that more than half of the imprisoned women in Afghanistan find themselves in — locked up for moral crimes, according to a recent studyby the United Nations.
I submitted a pardon application for Gulnaz, accompanied by a petition with more than 6,000 signatures. She had no family willing to take up her cause, but the world, as we discovered, supported her release.
Standing up for the rights of women like Gulnaz was part of the reason the United States went to Afghanistan in the first place. In 2001, one of the key political arguments that President George W. Bush’s administration used to support the military deployment was stopping the terrorists, for whom “the brutal oppression of women” was “a central goal.” In November 2001, Congress passed a bill noting Taliban oppression of women and stressing the need for Afghan women and children to have better access to health care and education.
International attention to the fate of women in Afghanistan has been an issue throughout the war. In 2009, the Afghan government focused on violence and human rights when it passed the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law. Though this measure garnered substantial support worldwide, oversight has been limited. The law is largely ignored in Afghanistan’s justice system, and abused women are routinely imprisoned as a result. While Gulnaz’s case brought international media attention to the plight of Afghan rape victims, inside Afghanistan, gross violations of basic human rights are often business as usual.