«Rokhshana, a 14-year-girl, has been behind bars here since March. She is serving a yearlong adultery sentence after what she describes as rape by her adult cousin, who remains a free man.
“I love my country, but there’s no justice here,” says Rokhshana at Herat’s juvenile prison, her arms bearing the signs of beatings.
Eleven years after the U.S. ousted the Taliban regime, citing its abuses against women as one of the reasons for the invasion, Afghan women—as well as girls—remain subjected to some of the world’s most draconian laws. The U.S.-funded Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai routinely imprisons wives fleeing domestic abuse and puts raped children like Rokhshana in jail.
In part because of international pressure, Afghan women have made some progress in recent years: They can hold office, study in university or walk the streets of big cities without a traditional burqa covering. But, with the U.S.-led coalition withdrawing its troops by 2014, women’s activists worry that even those fragile achievements will be sacrificed by Mr. Karzai’s administration as he seeks a peace settlement with the Taliban.
“It’s a men’s country,” says Hawa Alam Nuristani, one of a handful of female members on the High Peace Council, the government body appointed by Mr. Karzai to reach out to the insurgency. “Our only support is from the international community. What is the guarantee that we won’t be faced with a similar regime as the Taliban when the Americans withdraw?”
The U.S. says women’s rights will remain an important issue after the withdrawal, even though American officials acknowledge the limits of their waning influence. “Afghanistan is run by Afghans; we are significant partners,” says Melanne Verveer, the U.S. Ambassador at large for global women’s issues. “We will continue to ensure that women’s rights are pivotal because of our partnership and because it is critical to the future.”
Such promises fail to allay international observers like Heather Barr, Human Rights Watch’s Afghanistan researcher. “We’ve seen Karzai repeatedly do violent zigzags on women’s rights,” she says. “The explanation is that he’s getting pressure from opposite directions—the international community and conservative elements of Afghan society. But…if that political pressure [from the West] stops, the government’s already weak support for women’s rights will drop away even more.”
In March, the Ulema Council, Afghanistan’s government-funded supreme religious authority, decreed that Afghan husbands were allowed to beat their wives if they showed disobedience. Mr. Karzai publicly backed the Council’s code of conduct. The Ulema Council declined repeated requests for comment.
Presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi said “today’s Afghanistan is no more [the] Afghanistan of 10 years back. We do not think that Afghan women are facing more violations of their rights than before. It is the opposite.”
Girls like Rokhshana, who uses only one name, are the faces of the present reality. Raised in a village outside Herat, western Afghanistan’s main city, which is considered one of the country’s most liberal, Rokhshana ended up living with her cousin Abdullah, now aged 38, after the death of her father.
At the Herat detention center, surrounded by bars, Rokhshana displays an arm with dark blue capillaries under the skin—the hallmarks of beatings by Abdullah, she says. The cousin, who is married with two children, forced her to smoke opium and then regularly raped her since she was 12, she recounts.
“I would smoke and I wouldn’t know what was happening around me. Life seemed so far away and that’s when my cousin would take me,” she says, her hennaed hand nervously clutching her veil whenever she spoke.
She finally escaped the village in March, fleeing to a nearby police station where she explained her story. Instead of arresting Abdullah, the police locked up Rokhshana herself. Her offense: leaving home unescorted by a male relative. Such conduct is considered a crime by many judges in Afghanistan, who often apply Shariah, or Islamic laws, differently across the country.
Weeks later, her complaints of rape and abuse were turned into charges of leaving home and adultery—even though she is unmarried. “When the judge sentenced me he said ‘I know you’ve been forced to have sexual relations but because you’re now impure and escaped from home, you need to go to jail,’ ” she recalled, sitting on a prison bed.
The judge in the case, Humayoon Aseel, said he sentenced Rokhshana because she “committed adultery by her consent and repeatedly.”
Under Afghan law, men committing adultery should also be imprisoned. Mr. Aseel said he also issued a warrant for Abdullah’s arrest. Rokhshana says, however, that her cousin has bribed the police to avoid being detained and is now back in the village.
Noor Khan Nikzad, the spokesman for Herat police, says the police haven’t received any warrant to arrest Abdullah. The police deny any allegations of bribery. The cousin couldn’t be reached for comment.
Once she is freed from prison, Rokhshana says she hopes to be able to help women like herself find justice. “If I could ask one thing of President Karzai, I’d ask him to let me become a police officer,” she says.
Abuses against women are also widespread these days in the rural areas controlled by the Taliban insurgents. There have been several cases of women stoned for adultery there in recent years—a punishment that government courts don’t impose.
In July, a woman accused of adultery in an insurgent-dominated area of Parwan province neighboring Kabul was publicly executed by a gunman who shot her in the back of the head in front of a crowd of cheering villagers. The Afghan government accused the Taliban of staging the execution; the Taliban denied they were behind the killing.
Many Afghans worry that the Taliban will return to power once the majority of international troops withdraw in 2014, clawing back what tenuous achievements have been made under U.S. occupation. Like the Parwan execution, they are rattled by the October assassination attempt of Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl shot in the head by a Taliban gunman for promoting girls’ education. The Taliban has vowed to hunt down the badly wounded teen again.
Though the current Afghan government allows women to study and work, they must remain under the control of their male relatives. Those who flee an abusive home are unable to gain their independence. They usually live a cloistered, hidden life to protect themselves from kin seeking revenge for the dishonor of leaving the home and shaming the family.
Some have the option to stay at one of 14 women’s shelters scattered across the country that are managed by women’s groups with international support.
But these places have increasingly come under attack from conservative government officials. Earlier this year, Afghanistan’s Justice Minister Habibullah Ghaleb wondered in a parliament speech: “What sort of immorality and prostitution are not happening at those places?” The remarks provoked outrage by European Union and United Nations officials, prompting Mr. Ghaleb to apologize.
Government regulations proposed by Afghanistan’s women’s affairs minister, Husn Banu Ghazanfar, last year would have required the women in the shelters to undergo virginity tests and to justify their stay to a government panel. The proposal was shelved after the United Nations pressured senior Afghan officials, and Western diplomats threatened funding cuts for some Afghan programs. Such intervention won’t be as effective once the foreign forces and aid funds are gone after 2014.
In mid-September officials from Afghanistan’s justice, interior and women’s ministries issued a statement clarifying that the running away of women and girls from home isn’t a criminal act. But local rights activists are doubtful that the government will release women detained for running away because courts often accuse these women of the intention to commit adultery.
“U.N. Women calls upon the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to unconditionally release all women and girls currently detained for ‘running away’ and for ‘attempted adultery’ ” said an October statement from U.N. Women.
Few women locked up under these charges have been released, according to rights activists.
Suraya Pakzad, who runs two women’s shelters in Afghanistan, says prominent government officials already have repeatedly threatened her, demanding that she expel their female relatives from her safe houses to return home. “I’ve never had a single problem with the Taliban,” she says. “Only these warlords who are in government.”
Sharifa, a wiry 17-year-old from a small village in remote Daikundi province, spent two years in one of the two shelters run by Ms. Pakzad’s organization, Voice of Women.
When Sharifa was just 11, her father married her off, in exchange for money, to an 18-year-old man who beat her when she refused his sexual advances and then raped her for the two years their marriage lasted, she says.
“I don’t know how much I was sold for,” Sharifa recalls in a whisper during a recent interview in the Herat shelter, rarely looking up from her teacup. Though child marriages like hers are technically illegal in Afghanistan, they account for some 40% of all weddings, according to the United Nations Children Fund.
The dowry the father received helped him manage his farm. When Sharifa’s husband sent her back to live with her father, the father had to repay the dowry. He beat Sharifa with even more fury, she says.
The father declined to comment.
Finally, two years ago, at age 15, Sharifa fled the village, stealing her father’s clothes and walking for 48 hours to a highway. There she stood and waited awkwardly with her freshly shorn hair, in the traditional men’s clothes, the shalwar kameez, that were too large for her small body.
After hitching a ride to Herat, Sharifa found work in a brick kiln for two months. Sleeping and eating among the boys and men in the factory, she woke up one morning to find her secret had been discovered because her period arrived sooner than expected. One of the men asked Sharifa why she was bleeding. Terrified, she says she ran off. Her male colleagues chased after her until she outran them and found a police station.
Rather than lock her up, the sympathetic police took Sharifa to a shelter, where she lived for two years, learning embroidery and other skills.
“The few months I was a boy it was freedom. I realized how little freedom I had as a girl,” she says.
Afghan women activists consider her case a success because Sharifa’s family has agreed not to kill her to restore their honor. Her uncle Nazer Hussain, who lives in Herat, recently allowed her to live with him while her father, who remains in Daikundi, is arranging another marriage.
“Of course she wants to get married! This is what women want,” Mr. Hussain said. He confirmed the story of her escape.
Marrying a man of her father’s choosing is the only way Sharifa can avoid a lifetime in a shelter or time in jail. “I’m angry. My life is so hard and there’s no way to make it better,” she says in a whisper, half mournful, half defiant. “My family wants me to remarry. The only thing I hope for in life is not to remarry.”
The plight of Afghan women jailed for so-called moral crimes such as escaping home or adultery began to attract international attention last year, when the European Union funded a documentary on an 18-year-old named Golnaz. She was imprisoned after reporting that her cousin had raped her two years earlier.
“What kind of government and justice is this? I’m not a suicide bomber. I’m not a drug addict. I’m a victim,” Golnaz said in an interview in Kabul’s women’s prison at the time.
Fearing backlash from conservative Afghans, the EU blocked the release of the documentary—causing a flurry of protests by international activists that eventually prompted Mr. Karzai to pardon Golnaz a year ago. Government officials at the time made it clear she was expected to marry her rapist, who had impregnated her.
Recently, Golnaz and her daughter were living in a woman’s shelter in Kabul and her mother and brothers were refusing to speak with her, questioning her morality after the case. She is learning how to read and write. But for Golnaz, the likelihood that she will ever leave the shelter or find work to sustain herself and her young daughter is slim.
“Women like Golnaz are still stuck with these misogynistic, old school ideas that rule their lives,” says Kimberley Motley, a Kabul-based lawyer who represents Golnaz. “In the West, shelters are a half way house to get women on their feet. In Afghanistan, they are the end result.”»