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Afghan Women Victims Not Perpetrators of ‘Moral Crimes’

KABUL, Apr 2 2012 (IPS) - Mursal, a beautiful 19-year-old girl who has run away from home to escape a mentally ill husband, is just one of many Afghan women and girls who are now considered criminals under the country’s laws on ‘morality.’

Running away from one’s husband is considered a ‘moral crime’, for which hundreds of Afghan women have already been jailed, with hundreds more at risk of been sentenced to a similar fate.

“I was forced to marry a mentally sick man when I was 11 years old, I was still a child and had no information about sex and marriage. I had just run away from my house because my father’s second wife used to beat me,” Mursal told IPS.

The memory of those early years is obviously still fresh in her mind, though she recounted the story from a women’s shelter in Kabul, far away from her old home.

“My mother died when I was one year old and since than my life has been hell. That’s why I came here to this shelter nine years ago. A year later, my father arrived and forced me to go to Maidan Shar to live with my cousin. A month later I was married.”

“Because my husband has many mental problems, people started to say that I was a prostitute. One night they started shouting in front of my house, so I left and have been here for the last three days,” she said.


Dressed in a beautifully embroidered dress and scarf that is out of place with her humble surroundings, one can’t help but think that Mursal fled with her most precious possessions on her back, and little else.

Now she says she wants a divorce but that will not be easy to obtain without her husband’s consent, which changes according to his unstable moods and the opinions of those around him. Still, she is certain she wants to remarry, this time to a man from Kabul.

“In the city men are better than in the villages,” she says hopefully with tears in her eyes.

Live with abuse, or die

Women like Mursal don’t have many alternatives to marriage because a woman living alone in Afghanistan is considered a prostitute even if she works another job.

Luckily the shelter she lives in, run by Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA), a local non-governmental organisation, provides classes in literacy and courses in tailoring. Two of the women from the shelter even became police officers.

Two years ago state legislation came close to shutting down all the private shelters and placing them under government control but huge protests brought a compromise that the government would run the “open shelters” and the NGOs the “closed” ones.

Up to now the government hasn’t opened any shelters of its own, so the ministries and police continue to send women in danger to the NGO-run centres. In Kabul there are only three such shelters in operation and a total of 14 in all of Afghanistan – hardly adequate to meet the needs of increasing numbers of survivors of domestic violence.

Women have also turned to self-immolation as a way of avoiding domestic abuse – preferring to die a horrifically painful death than continue a life of acute suffering. The Istiqlal hospital in Kabul opened a special department for burned patients, 90 percent of whom are women. Most of these victims succumb to the severity of their burns; only a tiny minority survive.

But burn patients are not always victims of self-immolation. Quite often women are set ablaze by their own husbands or in-laws so that now, according to Harir, a doctor at the Istiqlal hospital, police are informed about all burn patients so that appropriate investigations can be opened.

Sadly, most members of the police force are ill-equipped to handle domestic violence complaints lodged by women; and women themselves have expressed concern over the risk of rape at the hands of the police. To address the situation, HAWCA conducts trainings to educate the police officers, “but it is not easy to change a cultural legacy,” Selay Ghaffar, the president of HAWCA, told IPS.

Ghaffar also admitted that honour killings continue to be a major problem that “in many cases are hidden by the tribe or the community (and never brought to light). The girl or the woman just disappears.”

“In other cases the Taliban takes charge of the execution by stoning the girl (to death),” she added.

There are also widespread cases of torture.

“Sarah Gul was tortured by her husband because she refused to become a prostitute,” Malalai Joya, herself a victim of state violence in retaliation for earning a seat in the Loya jirga (council of elders) for the Farah region, told IPS.

After a speech against the Taliban warlords she was beaten while some members of the parliament shouted, “rape her.” Her case is now famous across the country.

Recently, Gulnaz, a 21-year-old woman, also gained national recognition by lodging a complaint with the police after she was raped by her cousin-in-law, who happened to be a powerful man in the local community.

Instead of arresting the perpetrator, the police condemned Gulnaz for adultery. The alternative to her three-year prison sentence was to marry the man who raped her, which Gulnaz refused.

Unconstitutional treatment

These ‘moral crimes’ are determined by an illegal procedure that is not upheld in the constitution but rather determined by vague religious concepts. As a result, running away from home now earns women a prison sentence, denouncing rape labelled them adulterers and refusing a forced marriage is a crime.

The Afghan Ulema (religious leaders) recently issued a declaration to limit women’s already scant freedoms: for example, a woman can’t speak to an unknown man, and the husband is authorised to beat his wife if she doesn’t obey. This document is supported by president Hamid Karzai, who banned the English version of the Ulema document from the government website.

All this is happening under the “control” of the international community and various armed forces that are still very much present and engaged in Afghanistan.

“Ten years after the fall of the Taliban, the situation for women is worsening by the day,” Bilqis Roshan, a senator who receives bad news about women from her region of Farah every single day, told IPS.

“The majority of senators are warlords and religious fundamentalists so it is very difficult to take positions in favour of women’s rights. But at the very least, I can raise the issue and lift the voice of my people,” she added.

 
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