Chicago Tribune, April 28, 2002

Afghan laws still repress women

Refusing suitor, leaving husband bring jail time

By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah Tribune staff reporter

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Shazia is only 13. Her voice is barely audible. Around adults, she bites her nails and tugs at her black chiffon scarf, covering her face and hazel eyes.

She is one of the hardened criminals inside the dank and forbidding walls of Kabul's Provincial Jail for women. Her crime: running away from the 45-year-old husband she was forced to marry.

In fact, the jail is filled with teenage girls accused of crimes ranging from falling in love to having illicit affairs, from leaving unbending parents to running away from abusive husbands.

Taliban-style executions may be gone, but Islamic law and rigid cultural traditions persist in Afghanistan. The country still relies on Islamic law dating to the 7th Century.

The U.S.-supported government of interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai says it still will uphold these laws, although perhaps not as strictly as the Taliban. Islamic laws allow women the right to turn down their parents' choice of husbands, but enforce harsh punishment for sex outside marriage.

Tribal laws, on the other hand, allow relatives to imprison and even kill young women who lose their virginity, bring shame to their family by falling in love with unacceptable suitors or even seek a divorce.

"I want a divorce," said Shazia, who like many Afghans does not have a last name. "My husband beats me. I'm not happy with him."

Taliban punishments halted

In its zeal to enforce Islamic law, the Taliban chopped off the hands of thieves in public stadiums and had family members shoot down murderers. If a woman were to run away from her husband, she, too, would have been executed, said the deputy of security in Kabul, Lt. Gen. Mohammed Khalil Aminzada. A married woman who committed adultery would be stoned to death.

"Right now, we don't do that," Aminzada said. "We put them in prison for three to four months. This is an Islamic society. If we let people do whatever they want, half of society will soon suffer from AIDS."

There is little information about AIDS here, but the World Health Organization reports 10 known cases in Afghanistan.

Aminzada said Kabul's police don't go out of their way to arrest runaways or adulterers unless they feel it will create a threat to security or if family members turn them in.

"Unless people complain, we do nothing," he said.

Among its many tasks, Afghanistan's interim government was supposed to create a commission to plan the rebuilding of the criminal justice system and to restore human rights as part of the Bonn agreement last fall. The commission has yet to be established.

In the absence of new laws, the country's high court has gone back to using the old Shariah laws of Islam, those in place before the Taliban. But they say they will apply them more compassionately.

Since the Taliban's departure, there have been no stonings or whippings. Those punishments could occur again some day, legal officials said, for repeat offenders or if the evidence is strong in a case.

For example, under the strict standard set by Shariah law, a married man or woman will be stoned to death for committing adultery if the accusation can be substantiated by four male eyewitnesses.

Under the Taliban, says the head of Afghanistan's high court, Fazal Hadi Shinwari, they didn't wait for four witnesses.

"It's very difficult to find four witnesses who can confirm the act," said Shinwari, who has a long white beard, a copy of the Koran sitting on his desk and a leather whip hanging on his wall.

"Of course the Taliban executed them without evidence, without any confirmation. They did not use the real Shariah. They just wanted to scare people. We're softer than them," he said.

Being softer in this case means imprisoning women for months or years rather than killing them.

Teen jailed by family

So in the empty, dreary cells of the Kabul Provincial Jail sit young women like Farayba, 19.

She and her lover went to the Taliban, hoping the former rulers would marry them against their families' wishes. Instead, Taliban officials gave them 5-year jail sentences.

When the Taliban abandoned Kabul five months ago, Farayba escaped with 71 other women in the jail.

Her family was relatively wealthy; her father had been a commander in the Ministry of Defense before the Taliban. When she chose to marry a poor man's son, Farayba brought shame to her family, who wanted her to marry a cousin. When she refused, her father, cousins and brothers beat her boyfriend's father.

Fearing for their lives, the young lovers turned again to authorities, this time from the interim government. "The police officials told me to marry my cousin," she said. "I refused and so they said I should serve the rest of my 5-year sentence. I don't think there's any difference between this regime and the Taliban regime."

Families face penalties

Adiba, 14, was forced at gunpoint to marry a 30-year-old Talib who broke into her father's house one night. She says family members in her husband's house tried to force her into prostitution.

When the Taliban left Kabul, she escaped from her husband's home. He, in turn, had her uncle and a cousin arrested, which is why she turned herself in to police.

In this tribal society, badal, or revenge, is a common theme. Often, families can have relatives of the guilty party arrested until the accused turns himself or herself in or pays compensation to the victim's family.

Nasreen, 30, has been in jail for months because her brother-in-law ran off with a girl. The girl's father had Nasreen, a widow with five children, arrested in his place.

In all, there are 14 women in the jail, sharing two tiny cells.

The jail provides only bread and water for most meals. The women buy their own tea and sugar. On good days, a family member may bring meat and rice, which prisoners often share.

The women do little except sit and talk, or perhaps walk in the courtyard. They stare out a window with iron bars and a ripped screen.

Bugs crawl in the reeking cells, where the women sleep with thin mats on the hard ground. Their blankets and pillows have not been washed in months.

Despite everything, some say they would rather be here than out on the streets of Kabul.

"Outside of the jail, they'll be killed by their families," said a jail guard, Khatool. "They feel it's safer to be in jail."

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