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

Society Abandons Divorced Women

Without a husband or a home, they are often vulnerable to abuse.
By Hakim Basharat

Frishta, 35, shuddered as she talked of the abusive marriage she endured for years. "My husband was always beating me and never respected me as a human being," she says. "Finally, he divorced me."


But when Frishta left walked out of the house two years ago, abandoning all her possessions, it was the beginning of a new nightmare that finds her today homeless, her only shelter a cell in a Kabul police station.


Frishta's tale of abandonment, abduction, sexual assault and violence reveals the vulnerability of women who leave the traditional Afghan home.


Her story is hardly unique, according to Rachel Wareham, the director of Medica Mondiale, a charity that works with women who have suffered violence in their arranged or forced marriages.


Frishta is one of many women who find themselves destitute and then fall prey to abusive and ruthless men.


Wareham said that the charity last year handled 70 cases involving women who were either seeking a divorce or attempting to escape forced marriages. Some have been victims of domestic violence or are accused of committing murder.


And this may well be just the tip of the iceberg because so many similar cases go unreported. A 2003 report by the International Organisation for Migration, which looks at the broader issue of human trafficking, found a widespread cultural disinclination to report cases like Frishta's.


"Trafficking and crimes of sexual violence are seen to dishonour the victim and her or his family rather than the perpetrator, making reporting of these crimes seem to some a second violation," the study reported.


Frishta told her story to IWPR while sitting in a cell at the Kabul police station. Because she was speaking to a male reporter, she was reluctant to provide certain details of her past.


Short and muscular, with a pierced nose, small chin and moon-shaped face, she struggled to hold back her tears as she recounted her life.


She was left destitute after her divorce from her abusive husband. Her three brothers refused to take her in, even through Sharia law would normally hold them responsible for offering her assistance.


Penniless and desperate, "I had no choice but to start begging," she said.


Begging is seen as acceptable only as a last resort in Afghanistan. According to Sharia law, begging is illegal, especially by women, unless they have no one to support them.


Mawlawi Mohammed Atif, 40, a religious teacher in Kabul who is viewed as a moderate, explains, "It is mentioned in the Hadiths [sayings and traditions of the Prophet] that a person who begs will lose the skin from his or her face in the next world."


Atif said that there are several people who are responsible for supporting a woman financially: first, her husband, then her father, then her brother and then other relatives. Ultimately, the government is responsible, and if the government does not do anything for her, then she is allowed to beg.


Frishta eked out a living by begging on the streets of Kabul. One day, she was begging at in the Logar Bus station, south of Kabul city, when she said she was approached by a man called Abdul Hadi.


She said that after talking to her for a while, he said, "I'd rather like you to go with me and marry my son, instead of begging."


Desperate, she agreed and went with him to the Kulangar district of Logar province, about an hour's drive from the capital.


But when she got there, she realised that he had brought her there under false pretences. Hadi lived alone and had no son. She said that he then kept her for more than two months and regularly beat her.


Although Frishta was reluctant to provide further details of her time with Hadi, according to Abdul Raof Taj, the head of the 8th district police department in Kabul city she has alleged that Hadi also sexually abused her.


Hadi eventually sold her for 1,000 US dollars to Mohammed Akram, lying to him by saying that Frishta was his sister-in-law.


Akram, 75, a cleaner in the Logar hospital, took her as his wife. They lived together for 18 months.


Frishta said that her new "husband" often physically abused her and prevented her from even speaking to their neighbours.


But one day, he agreed to allow her to travel to Kabul. When she arrived in the capital, she immediately went to the police station to file a complaint.


Police have since arrested both Hadi and Akram and say they are investigating Frishta's allegations.


With nowhere else to go and her case still under investigation, Frishta remains at the Kabul police station. Her cell is close to that of the two men who abused her. She said her jailers are kind to her.


Hakim Basharat is a staff reporter for IWPR in Kabul.