Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Afghan women’s freedoms perilous

Salima Ghafari Institute for War & Peace Reporting

KABUL, Afghanistan – Humaira was just 15 when she died at the hands of her fiance, Salim. And it’s unlikely that her killer, if ever captured, will actually face any punishment.

That’s because many in this traditional society believe he was justified in his action. He suspected the girl of flirting with another man – an offense that here is considered worthy of the death penalty.

Her death illustrates an attitude that is still all too prevalent in this country: A woman belongs either in the house or in the grave.

According to statistics provided by the Ministry of Interior, 274 women have been murdered for such offenses since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. And an additional 284 have committed suicide to avoid a similar fate and expiate their guilt.

“The real figure may be higher, because we don’t receive crime statistics from some provinces and districts,” said Abdul Rahim, deputy head of the anti-crime department at the ministry.

Ironically, it’s the newfound freedoms that women acquired after the fall of the Taliban that appear to be putting them at the most risk.

While the Taliban were in power, women were not allowed outside their houses unless accompanied by a male relative.

“Women were imprisoned in their homes, but after the establishment of the interim government they were freed,” said political analyst Habibullah Rafi.

But it’s a freedom that many in this tradition-bound society are unwilling to accept.

That in part explains why the police are reluctant to arrest or charge those accused of violence against women.

“When a criminal is caught, he is not punished as a warning to others,” said Ghutai Khawri, a member of the Academy of Sciences. “He just comes into the court through one door and leaves through another.”

Rahim said it’s not just traditional beliefs that prevent women from obtaining justice in Afghanistan today.

“We have a lack of professionalism,” he said. “Also, bribery and corruption is common in all government offices and departments.”

While women today are no longer threatened by baton-wielding religious police as they were under the Taliban regime, they are still largely held in check by age-old traditions, such as forced marriages, that still hold sway here.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission estimates that 80 percent of Afghan women have been forced into their marriages.

Despite official pronouncements against such practices, many observers say the government – or the international community for that matter – has done little to protect women’s rights.

“It seems the international community has forgotten (Afghan) women and we can’t allow that to happen,” Yakin Ertuck, a representative of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, said during a recent visit here.

“I urge both the Afghan authorities and the international community to recognize that sacrificing respect for human rights, in particular human rights … not only falls short of the United Nations founding principles but is also politically short-sighted,” she said.

But local observers say that it will take dramatic actions by the government to change current practices.

“The executive organs of Afghanistan do not administer justice,” said Suraya Parlika, head of the All Afghan Women’s Union. “The criminal walks around without fear. Even if he is arrested, he will be released using his power or money, and this encourages others to commit crimes against women.”