Afghan women face horrors for ‘moral crimes’

By — April 23, 2012

A cab driver abducted Marya, 15. He and another man raped her. Tahmina, 18, was trying to find the boy she liked in the hopes of escaping domestic violence and forced marriage. Two men she didn't know found her instead. They raped her. Malalai invited the guy she was seeing over to her house when she was alone, but he proved to be a mistake and raped her.

What's more terrible, however, than these girls' shared horrific experience, is that they're all being detained by law enforcement. For being raped in Afghanistan.

Their stories were chronicled in a 120-page report by Human Rights Watch, “I Had to Run Away.” Released on March 28, the report is the result of interviews with 58 women and girls—many charged with “moral crimes”—in prisons and juvenile detention facilities. The report explains that these “crimes” usually involve “flight from unlawful forced marriage or domestic violence. Some women and girls have been convicted of zina, sex outside of marriage, after being raped or forced into prostitution.”

Furthermore, the country’s broken justice system allows rapists to claim that the sex was consensual, in effect making the victim just as guilty as the rapist in the eyes of the law. Many prosecutors and judges accept “a mere counter-allegation of consensual sex” to dismiss complaints of rape, according to the report. This has created a situation in which not only are very few rape cases actually investigated, but the trauma of being criminalinalized for being a victim makes it more unlikely for women to seek justice for being sexually violated, or even being forced into prostitution.

“Our problem is cultural,” said Nushin Arbabzadah, an Afghan-American research scholar at the Center for the Study of Women at University of California, Los Angeles. “We need to replace the concept of honor with the values of reason, restraint, and genuine respect for other people's privacy. We need to replace the tribal codes of a lawless society with the codes of the laws of an emerging democracy.”

A woman walks through an area known as the "widows village" because of the approximately 2,000 widows living there, outside of Herat, Afghanistan. (Monique Jaques)

More than 10 years since the ouster of the Taliban, women in much of Afghanistan are still enduring a kind of twisted criminalization as well as the punishment of many other laws and social norms that blame them for being victimized. However, with the specter of the withdrawal of international troops in 2014 looming, many Afghans view the current conditions as an improvement—even if they are some of the worst in the world for women.

Last year, a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey of gender experts ranked Afghanistan as the most dangerous country for women in the world, ahead of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, because of grave concerns about domestic violence, forced marriage, and rape. Though unlike in the time of the Taliban (one of whose commanders recently told Al-Jazeera that women's rights to leave their homes for school and work would be severely curtailed if they regained power) conditions for women have changed and even improved in certain ways.

While girls’ schools and women parliamentarians get most of the news coverage, one of the most important changes for women in Afghanistan has been the newfound freedom to raise their voices against violence in all forms, even if they go unheard most of the time. This often limited freedom has created a steady stream of women activists who are challenging the status quo and are asking for increased protections for women and girls. It’s a possible sea change in the way the country handles women’s rights overall.

“Previously, women's rights were always dealt with as part of an ideological approach,” said Arbabzadah, pointing to what she sees as a potential area for change. In Afghanistan’s recent history, every new form of government, from dictatorship to one-party communist rule, would promise the population all-encompassing reforms. But women's rights were always treated as a small part of a larger agenda for the country, not addressed as a standalone issue that required significant resources devoted to it.

The newfound attention to the problems of the country’s women is slowly being harnessed by recently formed women's rights organizations like the Kabul-based nonprofit Young Women for Change (YWC) to raise awareness about the plight of Afghan women—including sexualized violence against them. These groups are addressing these issues as an urgent need, not something to be looked at after other major problems such as high unemployment or the narcotics trade are solved.

On April 14, YWC organized a march in Kabul to demand justice for recent victims of murder, sexualized violence, and acid attacks. (Two recent rape survivors are aged 9 and 14.) While only a couple dozen activists participated, according to this Agence France-Presse video of the march, the women of WYC were joined by equal numbers of men.

Still, many are terrified of their new power, according to activists. Many in Afghanistan's conservative society are unwilling to even accept that sexualized violence against women is a legitimate problem let alone criticize the way the government is addressing it. Some are angry at HRW for releasing its “I Had to Run Away” report, claiming it encouraged moral decadence and supported the poor morals of women who ran away from home. Others have attacked members of YWC, with falsified pictures that make them look “easy” on Facebook.

Noorjahan Akbar, a co-founder of YWC and a recipient of the 2012 Women of Distinction Award by the U.S.-based National Conference for College Women Student Leaders, is aware of those challenges, but she has terrifying reasons to push ahead: “Just in the past two weeks, we have had three women who were killed by their own family members,” she said. Men killed these women for things like wanting to work outside her house, or giving birth to a baby girl instead of a boy. And leaving home is considered a “moral crime,” which means women sometimes have to choose between a terrible kind of isolation and death.

“If they had escaped [left home], they would have been in prison, and since they didn't escape, they were killed brutally,” Akbar wrote in an email. Yet the work of activists like Akbar have accomplished small steps toward reform. In 2008, the city’s only prison for women, Badam Bagh, was built in Kabul. Previously, women convicted of “moral crimes” were kept in the same detention facility as men in Pul-i-Charkhi, east of Kabul, where conditions are notorious. Still, Akbar said she believes the government needs to do much more to empower women in Afghanistan—something more like a series of giant leaps—before violence against women finally ebbs.

Until then, attacks continue, even against those struggling to end it.

Arbabzadah faced that reality on a recent trip to Kabul. While walking down a street, covered as most women, she was groped by a young man whose smirk betrayed his intention from yards away. But instead of walking away in shame as women fearing violence generally do in Afghanistan, she stood her ground and confronted him in public—an act previously unthinkable, and perhaps portending better things to come for the country’s women.

Josh Shahryar is a reporter and analyst for EA WorldView, covering foreign policy and human rights. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Daily Beast, and PBS Frontline’s "Tehran Bureau." You can follow him on Twitter: @jshahryar.