Afghan women still languish

SUN JOURNAL

Rights: Despite Western pressure for greater attention, many laws have not changed since the Taliban left, and jails are refilling.

July 27, 2002|By Robyn Dixon | Robyn Dixon,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KABUL, Afghanistan - Wrapped in blankets and bright scarves, the six inmates are scattered like wallflowers on the side of a cell inside Kabul's women's prison.

Twenty-eight-year-old Marzia's husband won't give her a divorce. She says the 55-year-old chained her feet and locked her in a small damp room in his house for a month.

Nilofar, 16, and Fariba, 19, fell in love with boys next door and tried to elope. When Fariba refused to marry a cousin, she says, her father threatened to chop her up "and give me to my cousin in pieces." The cousin sent her a message in jail that he would kill her as soon as she was freed.

On Nov. 13, when the Taliban left Kabul, the women's jail emptied. But in the past six months, women and teen-age girls have started trickling back in, arrested for many of the same crimes that got them jailed during the Taliban era.

Of 29 prisoners, the majority were jailed for eloping or leaving their homes, half a dozen were accused of adultery, one was charged with murder and one was charged with theft.

Despite Western pressure for greater attention to the rights of women in Afghanistan, many laws pertaining to women have not changed, and there is confusion as to what the law is.

Afghanistan runs under a dual legal system, with sharia, or Islamic law, and some parts of the civil code that existed before the Taliban took control in 1996 and burned all the contemporary laws, legal records and books.

Under sharia, a man's word is worth twice that of a woman's. Convincing a court that a woman has been beaten by her husband or raped or needs a divorce is difficult.

A woman or girl who reports a rape but fails to prove she did not consent may risk a charge of fornication. Rana, 40, Kabul's senior female police investigator, who also held the position under the Taliban, argues that rape is physically impossible and that the crime cannot exist. Rana is responsible for investigating all crimes involving women. Peering through thick, black-rimmed glasses, she compares rape with a needle and thread.

"Can you force the thread through the needle if the needle is jerking around?" she asks, suggesting that no man could force sex upon any woman who really struggled.

Sherin Aqa Manawee, deputy of Afghanistan's Supreme Court, says that under sharia, a man or woman is entitled to choose a spouse, provided neither is engaged - and the woman's father has no legal right to interfere.

But it rarely works out that way. The law clashes with the long-held Afghan tradition that families select the spouse. Women and girls who run away from the homes of their fathers, husbands or other male relatives are arrested and taken to jail, where they stay unless claimed by a male relative.

Martin Lau, an Islamic law specialist at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, says some offenses - such as "honor crimes," in which male relatives kill female relatives for dishonoring the family - are more a matter of tradition than law.

"It's custom here. It's not Islamic law," he says. "There is nothing in Islam that says a betrayed husband has the right to take the law into his own hands."

The detention of women for running away from home is part of a culture that treats them as though they were minors, their lives ruled by their male relatives. Under the law applied by the Taliban and still widely in force, a woman has to be represented by her male guardian or husband in all legal proceedings. In a country where clan connections are all-important, a woman must rely on her male relatives to push her cause with police and court officials. For Afghan women, the legal system is opaque and terrifying.

Marzia spent eight months in prison because she wants a divorce. A month ago she was released pending the divorce trial, but she may be sent back to her husband if the court refuses a divorce.

She is living with her one male relative, a 95-year-old uncle.

She has been twice married. Her first husband married a younger woman, divorced Marzia, and he and his new wife took her 2-month-old girl. She never saw the child again.

When she was 18, a shopkeeper 27 years her senior took her as his second wife, but she says he never consummated the marriage. "He said he'd not married me to have children. He'd married me to work for his first wife," she says.

Several years later, when the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani ruled Kabul, bringing in fundamentalist Islam, she tried to get a divorce. Her husband refused and had her jailed for 18 months. Eight months ago, Marzia says, she again sought a divorce after her husband, who she says was often angry and violent, chained her in a dark, wet room.

"I was hungry and thirsty. The other wife brought me something secretly," Marzia says. "I respect her very much, like a mother."

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