A Precarious Shelter in Afghanistan

A woman reads with a girl in a Kabul shelter. Afghanistan's chief justice conceded that cultural bias deters women from seeking legal help.
A woman reads with a girl in a Kabul shelter. Afghanistan's chief justice conceded that cultural bias deters women from seeking legal help. (By Pamela Constable -- The Washington Post)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

KABUL -- The room was carpeted and cozy, warm from the wood stove and filled with the chatter of children. But the tales their mothers and older sisters told recently, speaking hesitantly even in the safety of a guarded private shelter, were bone-chilling.

Sahara, an angelic-looking young woman, said she was forcibly married at 11, widowed at 12 and kept as a virtual slave by her in-laws for the next eight years. Unable to endure more beatings, she slipped away early one morning, walked for two days and nights and finally ventured into a police station to ask for help.

Gulshan, a mother of three with a permanently worried look, said she was falsely accused of murdering her husband after he had an affair with her sister. She was sentenced to five years in jail, and her husband's brothers vowed to kill her upon her release. Under the law, they may also take custody of her small children, who are hidden with her at the shelter.

"They said I killed my husband, but I am very sad he died, even though he had a bad friendship with my sister," Gulshan said. "I need him, because of the children. Now I am alone in life, and in this society a woman alone is less than nothing."

Until recently, most of the 20 women at the shelter would probably have been either dead or in prison, hunted down by male relatives seeking revenge or hit with criminal charges for actions that would not be illegal in the West, such as eloping with a boyfriend or fleeing an abusive husband. Some might have committed suicide by burning themselves, as hundreds of desperate Afghan girls and women have done in the past several years.

Afghan society still considers such women "bad" and deserving of punishment. According to the country's conservative Muslim and tribal traditions, arranged marriages are both a cultural cornerstone and a business contract, sometimes with two sisters marrying two brothers. Wives are expected to endure beatings, unfaithfulness or years of separation in obedient silence.

But Afghanistan is also officially a democracy now, with a ministry of women's affairs, human rights organizations and constitutional protections against abuse. In the years since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, a network of civic groups has begun promoting women's legal rights and opening shelters.

Still, despite increasing cooperation from police and referrals from the women's ministry, the shelters remain controversial and in permanent danger of attack by angry husbands and fathers. Some Afghans view groups that advocate women's emancipation as the real danger to society and blame foreign influence for provoking the widely reported phenomenon of self-immolation by unhappy brides or daughters-in-law.

"In our society, it is still unacceptable for a woman to leave home or go to court to solve her problems," said Mari Akrami, who directs the Afghan Women's Skills Development Center. She recently made a documentary film about a girl named Mujahida, who was betrothed to a man at age 4 and later murdered by her family for running away from him.

"Now some people call me a bad woman, too," Akrami said with a rueful laugh.

Women's activists said Afghan courts still tend to side with men in cases of domestic abuse or marital conflict and are often swayed by influential families rather than the law. Two years ago, Akrami's group was given custody of a 10-year-old girl whose family had been arrested for selling her as a bride four years earlier.

"In court she told how she had been made to wear a white dress and a lot of people were invited to a feast. She had no idea it was her wedding," Akrami said. A senior justice official, under heavy pressure from the girl's family, wrote Akrami a letter asking that the girl be sent back to her husband. "He said I must respect Afghan culture and customs," she said.

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