Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghanistan: See You in Court

Women are beginning to break their code of silence and stand up for their rights.
By Gawhar Nikpai
Khurshid is only 15, and the pretty young girl does not look like a rebel. But she has taken the unprecedented step of refusing to marry the man her parents picked out for her.

Instead, she has run away from her native Baghlan province with her boyfriend, Elias, 20, in the hopes of finding a solution in a family court.

“I was only six months old when my father betrothed me to one of his relatives,” she said, timidly. “I was supposed to marry him right about now. But I didn't like him. I ran away with the boy I loved.”

Elias explained that he had heard on the radio that the family court in Kabul can help in these kinds of situations, so the couple have come to the capital to try and marry without their parents’ consent.

The case is ongoing, and there is no way of knowing what will happen. Khurshid could be forced back to her father’s house, or even jailed for running away. While this measure would not be legal, jails all over the country are full of young girls whose only crime is trying to escape unwanted marriages.

“Some judges make a decision to put a girl in prison, even though this is against the constitution,” said a lawyer in the Kabul Family Court, who did not want to be named. “But under the law, there is no punishment for running away, if the purpose of the escape is marriage. They should be married by the court.”

So, if Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy triumphs, Khurshid may be allowed to marry Elias.

In this traditional society, it is almost unheard of for women to turn to the courts to defend their rights. Most often, women are subjected to the rule of fathers, husbands, brothers or even sons, with little chance of exerting their own will. But that is starting to change, say experts.

Sima, a slender woman in her late twenties, was only 13 when she got married. After living with her for just one month, her husband left for Russia. Fourteen years later, he still has not come back to her. Like Khurshid, Sima is a native of Baghlan, a province in northern Afghanistan.

According to local tradition, Sima had to live with her husband’s family, who, she says, were hostile and abusive to her. With the support of family and friends, she went to the family court in Kabul and secured a divorce.

Dressed in black traditional clothing, and with her blue burqa thrown up to reveal her face, Sima looked very happy at the outcome.

“Women with family problems should just ignore these abominable traditions. They must not feel ashamed to turn to the courts,” she said defiantly.

Her now ex-husband, Khodai Nazar, who attended the proceedings, was less enthusiastic.

“It is against our culture and tradition for people to get divorced,” he grumbled. “It casts shame on me and my family.”

But Sima was able to take advantage of the law, which sets out certain conditions for a wife to divorce her husband. If the husband has been away for more than four years, as in Sima’s case, she can apply for an official divorce. Also, if the husband is unable to support his wife, if he is violent, or is disabled in some way, the wife can apply for a legal separation. But up until now, very few women have had the courage.

“We have to endure every kind of violence and tyranny without complaining,” said Sima. “We must not keep quiet any more. We have to stand up for our rights.”

One judge from the family court, who spoke in condition of anonymity, agreed that women in Afghanistan have been victimised by traditions, many of which go against the spirit and letter of Islam.

With the relative freedom that came after the fall of the Taleban, things are starting to shift, said the judge, and women are now becoming more aware of their rights. But Afghans are not ready for drastic change.

“Democracy is new for us and we are just starting out. It should not be misused,” he said.

Huma Sultani, head of women’s development section at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, stresses that women’s problems stemmed from social structures.

“Women were economically dependent on men, they had to put up with anything, otherwise they and their children would go hungry,” she said. “So violence became part of the tradition in our society, and there were no government bodies to defend women.”

But increasingly human rights institutions and the media have stepped in to make women aware of their rights. “Now women are starting to dare to stand up and defend themselves,” said Sultani.

These gains have been largely limited to large cities, she emphasised. In the provinces, the situation has changed little.

Fauzia Amini, head of the legal department at the ministry of women's affairs, says that since the fall of the Taleban her office has handled more than 1,500 cases. Only a small number resulted in divorce, while most women sought and received advice and mediation and were then able to carry on with their lives.

Najiba is a young widow with two children. Her husband was killed in an earthquake in Iran, and now her brother-in-law is trying to kick her out of the family home, leaving her children and property behind.

She has come to the ministry of women’s affairs on the advice of her neighbours to try and find a solution.

"I am sure that our voice will be heard now and that no one will be able to violate our rights," she said.

Men also come to the ministry of women’s affairs, seeking help for what they see as the excesses of the new democracy.

Rahmatullah, 40, is a shopkeeper in Kabul. Leaning against a wall in the ministry, he looks bewildered about the turn his life has taken.

“My wife demanded that I buy her a SIM card for her mobile phone,” he said. “I told her I didn't have money right now, and would get her one when I could. Now she's living at her mother’s house and asking for a divorce.”

Gawhar Nikpai is a freelance journalist in Kabul.

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