Afghanistan has a major problem with both rape and domestic abuse, and the two often intersect. Both genders are victims, especially children. Young boys are often subjected to the custom of Bacha Bazi, as they are seen as a socially acceptable substitute for girls in a society that frequently practices purdah, or the practice of female seclusion. Despite this practice meant to “protect” women, or perhaps because of this – women, many of whom are cloistered, have little power in much of Afghanistan – women are frequently victims of unpunished rape and abuse all over Afghanistan.
Up to 90 percent of women in Afghanistan face domestic abuse, usually by a close relative. Although this is technically illegal in Afghanistan, the law is rarely enforced due to customs that treat women as the property of men and allow men to do with “their” women as they please. According to Women for Afghan Women (WAW), a human rights organization that runs shelters for women and fights for their rights, Afghan women’s “mothers are beaten by their fathers. They’re beaten by their fathers, by their brothers. It’s a way of life.”
In this context, rape is extremely frequent and almost always unpunished. Rape victims are frequently prosecuted under laws for adultery and zina, a catch-all term for unlawful intercourse including any non-marital intercourse. Frequently, rape victims are themselves murdered by their families in honor killings because male members of the family see the lack of chastity in their women as an object of deep shame. Rape was even not criminalized in Afghanistan until 2009 with the passage of The Elimination of Violence Against Women law. This fact is odd as customary Sharia law clearly forbids rape, so there is no traditional reason that rape should be been permitted in the first place.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Rapists of Afghan women are finally beginning to be prosecuted, however. This is due to the efforts of groups like WAW in ensuring that Afghanistan’s laws are enforced. Early in October, five men were executed after the gang rape of four women on August 23. This trial was televised and exposed many more Afghan women to the possibility of fighting for their rights.
An even more dramatic trial, the first of its kind in Afghanistan, concluded last week. A young girl, aged 10, was able to get her rapist, a mullah who raped her in a mosque, sentenced to 20 years in prison, despite overwhelming odds. While women’s activists and the girl’s family expressed disappointment that the rapist was not awarded the death penalty, the fact that he got punished at all is a step forward for Afghanistan. Rape is not a capital crime in Afghanistan and the five men who were executed earlier for rape were technically executed for the armed robbery that occurred alongside the rape. The fact that the rape case made it to trial itself is miraculous given the prestige of local mullahs and the reaction of her family, which was overheard discussing a plot to kill their daughter by women’s activists in her native Kunduz. The family denied this, and the girl’s mother and uncle seemed supportive of her, though the father seemed ashamed during the trial. WAW then sheltered the girl, who cannot be named for various legal and security reasons.
The trial featured odd claims made by the defendant, Mullah Muhammad Amin, who claimed variously that the girl had seduced him, that she was 17, or that their relationship was consensual. All of these claims acknowledged that intercourse did occur and the judge at the trial argued that “the mullah’s admission that he had sex with the girl could not be considered adultery because of her young age, and was tantamount to an admission of rape.”
One hopes that these trials will set an example for more Afghan women to come out and report rapes and bring their attackers to trial. This will help the idea catch on that women can, in fact, see their abusers and rapists punished. They do not have to silently suffer their whole lives or be punished for being victims. Finally, the victims should also feel safe with their families, who ought to be their supporters and not their enemies.