Why I’m breaking the cycle of violence in Afghanistan

By — January 28, 2013

I never realized how devastating our culture was for women until my brother-in-law tortured my sister.

Growing up in Afghanistan, I had already watched my father beat my mother—but that was seen as just another part of daily life. Then the cycle of violence continued when I myself became an abuser. I began to beat my sisters and harass girls in the street. I restricted my sisters’ movements, how they looked, and who they spoke to. Afghan customs taught me that the honor of my family was more important than the physical and psychological wellbeing of my own siblings. I was following accepted cultural norms without shame.

Then, one of my younger sisters, Soraya, was forced to abandon school and marry against her will. The couple moved to Iran and my sister became yet another victim of domestic violence in her wretched and abusive marriage. Her husband beat her while she was pregnant and regularly tortured her, locking her in her room and threatening their infant son with a knife. The scars on Soraya’s hands and her drastic weight loss were the only things that spoke of her horror.

Like my mother and many other Afghan women, she quietly and dutifully accepted her fate.

A young woman prepares tea in the home she shares in Mir Ali, Afghanistan, with her mother, who is a widow. In a year or two, the woman will be married off to a man in Iran to make money for the family, she told the photographer. (Monique Jaques)

After five years, when my family finally learned of this abuse through another brother-in-law, we tried to take action. But Soraya didn’t speak up or stand against her husband’s brutal acts; instead, she tried to make it seem like everything was normal. To rescue her, we were confronted with mountainous challenges: financial difficulties, distance, laws that maintain gender norms, social stigma, and relatives who opposed and condemned our attempts to help her.

For the first time I realized that gender discrimination and inequality are wrongly ingrained in our culture. To help my sister, I had to fight with mullahs and our elders; I had to struggle with practices, beliefs, and values that filled my life since birth.

When Soraya’s husband discovered our plans he became even more violent. I doubled my efforts, saved more money, learned more about women’s rights. Since I support my family and couldn’t leave my job at an American hotel in Kabul, I sent another of my younger sisters, Freshta, to Iran. (The cost for a trip there was too expensive for us but I tried to gather as much money as I could.) Freshta’s visit revealed the reality of Soraya’s predicament. We decided that she must divorce her husband and that we would remove her from his home. This wasn’t as simple as it sounds—Soraya herself was against the idea. Relatives besieged her, telling her that she would be a “loser” if she divorced. It took months of convincing that she would be safe and better off if she left him. But then her husband was still fighting the idea.

Concerns about Soraya’s safety filled my thoughts at work, at home, and during my studies for the TOEFL and SAT tests; my hope was to get a full scholarship from a U.S. school. Everywhere I went I saw women like her—women quietly accepting abuse. Finally, we were able to bring Soraya and her baby home. She was safe. And my worldview had changed forever.

As the Kabul-based Daily Afghanistan reports, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) found that more than 4,000 cases of violence against women have been reported since March 2012—a 22 percent increase over the same period last year. In 2012 alone, there were 70 reported cases of honor killings and 38 cases of sexual assault, according to the commission. This does not count the myriad cases of violence go unreported in most areas of Afghanistan. Girls under 18 years old make up 80 percent of the country’s sexual assault survivors, according to the Inter Press Service news agency.

Personally, I have seen not only my father’s and brother-in-law’s abuse, but countless other instances within my family and community. I have seen my uncle beat his wife in front of us. She stays silent. Our other female relatives have praised her for her patience. Because she does not speak up, they see her as a loyal and strong woman. One of Freshta’s classmates was forced into marriage. After a year, her husband married a second wife. More than that, he tortured her, particularly in an attempt to abort her pregnancy. As a result, her child was born with a disability. She is now divorced and living with her father and brother, who is a college professor. Despite her family’s educated status, they contribute to the stigma she experiences as a divorced woman.

After helping Soraya, I knew I had a responsibility to fight for women’s rights in a larger way. Girls and women must start to recognize that gender-based violence is a crime. Of course, it’s not just up to the women to change things: Men must stop viewing women as servants, property, and sexual commodities. Many men are blind and need to be healed.

The good thing is that some of us are starting to speak out. Young Women for Change (YWC), founded in April 2011, consists of dozens of volunteer—female and male—advocates across Afghanistan. This was the organization I joined at the inception of my advocacy. They’ve staged protests, film screenings, and other public events that help bring attention to the plight of Afghan women and the inequality and injustices in our society. The few gains that Afghan women today cherish are a result of the struggles of a small but committed contingency of activists and advocates. A conservative and patriarchal society, Afghanistan has witnessed few men speaking out for women. But it seems the numbers are growing. As my level of activity and outspokenness has grown, I have witnessed a mounting interest within my male circles at work and in the community.

Any sort of advocacy and human rights activism here brings risk, however. Noorjahan Akbar, YWC’s co-founder in Afghanistan, has received countless threats during her short period of advocacy—threats that led her to stop her work for a while and go into hiding. Most of her colleagues have been threatened, too. And at public demonstrations for women’s rights, counter-demonstrators have lobbed stones at protesters.

I myself have not experienced any physical threats, but I do face much opposition. I have been ostracized by colleagues at my job and have been called a “non-Muslim” and a “kafir” when defending the rights of women. (A kafir is someone who, unlike those simply born into another faith, knows about Islam but purposely rejects it. It is believed that such a person will automatically go to hell.) Likewise, my family has been shunned and disrespected by our relatives as a result of helping Soraya out of her abusive marriage.

The feminist movement in Afghanistan is a fairly recent, post-Taliban, one. There are gross misinterpretations of Islam in our culture that obstruct many feminist efforts. Many people wrongly believe that women are not entitled to equal rights in Islam. And because ours is a collective culture, some women try hard to honor the value of family, community, and spirituality, even when it jeopardizes their safety. Although new rights and freedoms for women are written in our constitution and government policies, the laws are not often enforced. Bribery and corruption discourage many victims of crimes from seeking justice.

With more and more girls attending school, I have hope that a more educated and enlightened generation of Afghans will bring needed changes to our country. In a recent seminar I conducted at Star, one of the largest English-only institutions in Kabul, I shared my family’s story. It was a catalyst for the young women in the room to open up. Out poured stories of their own abuses and questions about their rights—questions they would normally not share in public, and certainly not with a male. The moment showed me how education and activism can push for change, how simply speaking up can help unlock women from silence.