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A Precarious Shelter in Afghanistan
New Refuges for Women Face Permanent Danger of Attack

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.

Today, that official is no longer in his post, and the government of President Hamid Karzai has made several changes in the justice system. Last summer, Karzai appointed an Afghan American to head the Supreme Court, a former university teacher who is widely viewed as a modern thinker, sympathetic to women's rights.

In a recent interview, the new chief justice, Abdul Salam Azimi, said Afghan civil laws and Islamic principles both provide ample protection for women, including the right to divorce for a variety of reasons. But he acknowledged that conservative culture is often more powerful, especially in rural areas, and that there are heavy social and psychological barriers to women seeking legal help.

"If a woman comes to court, we will protect her under the law," said Azimi, 70, who dresses in tailored business suits. "The problem is that many cases never reach us at all. A lady in a house may be suffering a lot, but she is too ashamed to go and complain. There is strong pressure from families, and often there is pressure from the women themselves."

Advocacy groups have tried to educate the public about women's rights, with limited success. In the town of Charikar, 30 miles north of Kabul, a community meeting was held recently to discuss the problem of domestic violence. The women in the audience were eager and attentive, but the male officials on the panel seemed impatient and uncomfortable.

One official gave a long, rambling speech in which he said it was important to protect women but then criticized Western countries as immoral and defended Afghan culture as "the least violent toward women in the world."

In a small room nearby, a free knitting and literacy class for women was underway. None of the participants had ever been to school or learned a skill, and several said it had been difficult to get permission to attend from male family members.

"Some women are stopped by their brothers, their fathers, even their uncles," said Rahima, 35, a mother of six. "I visit those families, and I tell them I am a good woman, I go straight to class and back home with my face covered. My honor is safe, and I am learning something useful for myself, and it can be useful to their wives and daughters, too."

Advocates say that what little legal protection Afghan women have is effectively available only in Kabul, the capital, and several other large cities. But even there, they said, courts rarely grant divorces to women and usually award custody of minor children to fathers.

In Kabul, a German-based group called Medica Mondiale provides attorneys for girls or women charged with such offenses as fleeing their husbands or having sex outside of marriage. Lawyers there said they try to mediate informally with family members, who often level such accusations against their own daughters or wives.

For example, they said, two families could be persuaded to let an eloping son and daughter marry instead of going to prison, or a girl who rejects an arranged marriage could return the gifts and money the man's family has given her, often the real cause of dispute.

"If a girl of 16 has been promised to an old man in marriage and she is unhappy about it, the law says she cannot be forced, but she may be unable to express her feelings to the family. We can express them for her," said Aziza Khowa, a lawyer with the group. "If the families are open-minded, they may understand quickly. If they are very strict, we may have to visit them and talk about it many times."

Since Medica Mondiale began offering legal aid to Afghan women in 2003, it has helped solve 750 cases through the court system or informal mediation.

The most formidable obstacle to change, advocates said, is the power of gossip and shame. An Afghan woman's reputation can be destroyed for life if she simply decides to insist on her right to choose, whether that means rejecting an unattractive groom or refusing to endure daily beatings by a drunken husband.

"The rule of rumor is a terrible thing, and it can cause great tragedy," said Angeles Martinez, the Medica Mondiale director here. "In Afghanistan, women have no identity as individuals, only in relation to their families."

In more than 90 percent of cases in which Afghan women or girls have attempted suicide by burning, Martinez said, "the cause is pure, constant domestic violence. At some point you turn it against others, or against yourself."

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