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

Afghanistan: The Wives Left Behind

Women face years of loneliness and frustration when men seek work abroad.
By Atal Yad

 

Shah Laila, now 29, married Wali Mohammad in 2008. Six months later, he left his new wife to seek work in Saudi Arabia and only returned to their home in Paktika province in 2013.

“This time he also spent six months with me, and then left to go back. Ever since, he has not returned,” Laila said. “How difficult it is to spend nine years of your ten years of married life alone within the walls of your bedroom, instead of being by your husband’s side.”

She explained that she had been tormented by sexual frustration, but believed the only legitimate outlet for such feelings was with her husband.

 “I have a life like a dog,” Laila concluded.

Security is poor and jobs scarce in the southeastern province, and many men leave to become labour migrants, rarely returning to their families in Paktika. The wives they leave behind are effectively abandoned.

Mizan Khan, a tribal elder in Yousufkhail district, said that as many as six out of every ten men sought work abroad, usually in countries such as India, Saudi Arabia or the UAE. This left their wives in a state of limbo, with social constraints meaning that they felt unable to ask for a divorce.

In Islam, a man has the right to marry up to four women if he can commit to treat them equally. In addition, it is a woman’s conjugal right to have sex with her husband at least once every four months.

But conservative local traditions make it extremely hard for women to openly discuss intimate issues such as sexual relations between husband and wife.

Speaking to IWPR through an intermediary – a close relative of the reporter – a number of local women described how they were forced to endure lives of loneliness and frustration after their husbands left to work abroad.

Zahra, 39, lives in Yousufkhail district. Six months after she married her husband Akbar Khan in 1998, he left to work in India. He did not return until 2004.

“My husband spent one year with me and went back to India. After four years, he came back to home [in 2009],” Zahra explained.

By then the couple had two children, a boy and a girl.

Zahra continued, “When Akbar Khan came home in 2009, he married an 18-year-old girl, Shah Bakht.”

After spending a year with his new wife, Akbar Khan returned to India and neither of them had seen him since.

“When I go to bed at night, I think about my husband, and when I remember that he is not by my side, I am nearly mad with missing him,” Zahra said.

The second wife, Shah Bakht, also said that she was consumed by loneliness.

“A woman can tolerate a mountain of pain and problems, but once she gets married, she can’t tolerate a single day away from her husband,” she said, adding that as a consequence she had been forced to live a life of celibacy.

“I can’t forgive my husband because for eight years that he has keep me in sexual poverty,” Shah Bakht concluded.

Abdul Manan, a religious leader, said that men who in effect abandoned their wives for years under the pretext of working abroad were actually committing a grave sin.

He said that in such cases, if a woman lodged a complaint over her husband’s absence, a court would be well within its rights to grant her a divorce.

Mohammad Rahman Ayaz, the spokesman for Paktika’s provincial governor, said that women did make complaints about being deprived of intimacy with their husbands. Such issues were usually dealt through informal mediation and talks with tribal leaders.