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A Killing Commanded by Tradition

Afghan Adultery Case Reflects Challenge of Extending Modern Law to Tribal Lands

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 6, 2005; Page A01

GAZON, Afghanistan -- Begum Nessa recalled waking up with a start.

Someone was banging on the wooden door of the house.

Several hundred men gathered at this mosque in Gazon, northern Afghanistan, to decide Amina and Karim's fates. (Shoaib Sharifi For The Washington Post)

She sat up in the darkness as her husband, Mohammed Aslam, rushed outside.

"Where's your oldest daughter?" she heard a voice demand. It was the senior elder of their village.

"She's inside, sleeping with the rest of my family," answered Aslam, a short man with gentle eyes and a bushy black beard. He owns livestock and several wheat fields and is a respected figure in this tiny, mud-brick hamlet at the bottom of a remote valley in northern Afghanistan.

But the elder's voice took on a mocking tone: "Oh, is that so? Go and fetch her then." Nessa recalled feeling suddenly dizzy. She reached for the propane lamp in the bedroom where all nine members of her family slept each night on the floor. She turned it on just as Aslam burst inside.

They gasped in unison at the sight of Amina's empty mattress.

Within an hour, the entire village would learn that the 25-year-old married woman had been discovered in a darkened nearby hut with her lover.

Within two days, Amina was dead -- killed by her fellow villagers April 20 after the men of the community ruled that she had violated Islamic law by having an affair with a neighbor.

Amina's fate highlights the magnitude of the challenge faced by Afghanistan's central government as it attempts to extend the rule of modern law and democratic processes beyond the nation's capital, more than three years after the defeat of the repressive and fundamentalist Islamic Taliban government.

But the attention that Amina's killing has attracted in a forgotten corner of Badakhshan province also tells the story of a region in flux -- caught between centuries of tradition and the hopes of a nascent modern state.


The day began when a party of messengers hiked into Gazon on the long, rocky footpath from the provincial capital, Faizabad, bearing momentous news. Amina's husband, Sharafatullah, had finally returned from Iran after a four-year absence and would soon reach Gazon.

In this picturesque valley where tillable land is scarce and many families eat only rice for dinner, it is common for men to seek work abroad. But Sharafatullah had sent no word, let alone money, since leaving home.

"How long am I supposed to live like this?" Amina's father said she had often complained to him.

Still, Sharafatullah's departure two years after their arranged marriage had also allowed Amina unusual liberties. Instead of having to live with -- and wait on -- her in-laws in the next village, she had returned to her parents' two-room hut in Gazon. There, with plenty of siblings but no children of her own to care for, she had time to sew herself colorful dresses or to go for walks along the wild river that rushes past the village, her parents said.

That morning, when told of her husband's impending return, Amina betrayed no emotion, relatives recalled.

But after nightfall, she crept out of her parents' home and made her way to a nearby hut. The owner, Ashur Mohammad, discovered her there, padlocked the door behind him and rushed to sound the alarm.

Soon Amina's father, the elders and a crowd of villagers had gathered outside. Mohammad unlocked the chain and flung open his front door. At the back of the room sat his son, Karim, on a floor cushion.

Next to him sat Amina. Her expression was once again blank, Aslam said.

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