The Independent, July 9, 2010

The Afghan love story with a happy ending

Rape victims are often violated twice: by their attackers and by society. But, as Glyn Strong reports, one girl has rebuilt her life

By Glyn Strong

The day starts at Samia's parents' home. The young woman and her sweetheart are asked by a mullah if they understand what they are undertaking. Then begins the serious task of preparing the bride. Like any Western wedding, it revolves around hair, make-up and "the dress".

Samia with her family and Malalai Joya
The raped are twice violated: first by their attackers, then by society. And sometimes "society" means friends and closest family. Girls frequently turn to self-harm or suicide. Those from the most uneducated families are sometimes killed by their own kin who find the "shared dishonour" unbearable.

Here in Afghanistan, Samia's story is typical – its happy ending is not.

Samia is a rape victim, but now it's the morning of her wedding. By late afternoon, she will be married in a private ceremony in Karte Se, Kabul. One of the 150 guests at this extraordinary marriage ceremony will be the activist and suspended MP Malalai Joya: Samia's handsome husband-to-be, Faramarz, has been one of Ms Joya's bodyguards for more than four years.

Without the outspoken MP and her supporters, the wedding would not have been possible, and it is a bitter-sweet occasion for many reasons. Ms Joya, has reached a difficult decision about her own future: she will not stand in parliamentary elections scheduled for September. "Things are not good in my country" she sighs, "but this wedding brings me great joy. Faramarz is such a fine man – he is like my brother, and now he is my hero."

In Afghanistan the taboos that surround taking a "spoiled" bride are powerful. But Faramarz has been around Ms Joya long enough to have a more enlightened view of life. An open, friendly young man of 22 with light hair, film-star good looks and a warm smile, he blushes and smiles when we talk about shopping for the big day. His happiness is contagious. "When I got the news that Samia would marry me, I was so happy, I didn't know whether I was on the earth or in the sky," he says.

The consequences of rape are on a scale beyond comprehension, wiping out futures, annihilating dreams and generating tragedies of epic proportion. The raped are twice violated: first by their attackers, then by society. And sometimes "society" means friends and closest family. Girls frequently turn to self-harm or suicide. Those from the most uneducated families are sometimes killed by their own kin who find the "shared dishonour" unbearable.

Unusually in this case, both families have given the wedding their wholehearted blessing and while it won't mirror the expensive extravaganzas that saddle so many Afghan families with crippling debt, it will be neither a spartan nor a hasty affair.

As Faramarz's sister is a beautician the preparations will be done at home. Samia will wear only one bridal outfit, not the three that grander ceremonies involve. "We want this wedding to send a message," says Joya. "To victims, that there is hope; to men, that they should love and protect girls like Samia, not shun them". It concerns me that when the excitement of the event is over, Samia and her new husband may regret letting the world know their story, but they and Ms Joya are adamant that the marriage be seen as a symbol of hope. And the circumstances of Samia's rape are already public property.

She was kidnapped and gang-raped in the month of Ramadan by eight armed men in the Sancharak District of Sar-e-Pul. Samia escaped but was devastated by the experience. Weeping she said at the time: "They have dishonoured me. I have no prestige among my relatives – no honour in my tribe and my town." In her anguish she called for her attackers to be hanged.

Her father, then a farmer, tried to get justice but was threatened and later imprisoned. "Aren't we human beings?" he said. "Aren't we citizens of this land? Is there no honour and dignity left for us? Our children are being tortured."

Harrowing footage of the aftermath records the tears of his wife Rozi Gul. The rapists were local gangsters and although President Karzai pledged police protection, the reality was that no-one could guarantee the family's safety. So they left their village for the anonymity of Kabul. Samia, like other abused girls before her, was taken under Malalai Joya's wing. Slowly, she began to heal, to smile again, and to find love. A spokeswoman for The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) – an organisation that profiles human-rights atrocities – said no reliable statistics are available on rapes in Afghanistan.

"Most of the rapists are warlords and powerful men that Afghanistan's corrupt and rotten system can't bring to justice," she said. Told of the wedding of the bodyguard and the rape victim, she was incredulous. "We have never heard of any rape victim make a full recovery and marry. Especially those whose cases are public: their entire life is bleak."

Samia's big day begins at the bride's house; a motley procession of cars decorated with small, pink ribbons and paper flowers. As we pass from Karte Se to Kahlai Wazeer, the rank smell of open sewage mingles with the stench of rotting rubbish as the mud walls of the dwellings close in on us.

Heat, dust and the wild lurching of the vehicle make this an uncomfortable rollercoaster ride, and the distance seems twice as long. Tambourines and the shrill sounds of ululating women announce our arrival. Indoors we are split into the two rooms shared by mother, father and 10 children ranging in age from four to 20. Samia's father appears; a happier face than the one I recalled from the post-rape news report.

Against the sound of the traditional wedding song, two of the younger children dance unselfconsciously until the bride is brought in like a china doll, motionless while pictures are taken and sweets passed around. Eventually the young couple is allowed to leave. Over the head of the bride a copy of the Koran is held. The groom Faramarz wears garlands of red, paper flowers. Back in Karte Se, the guests are gathered, a collection of relatives, friends, MPs, a senator, supporters of Ms Joya, and her loyal bodyguards.

Since her election to Parliament in 2005, Ms Joya has had to accept many harsh truths. The woman who enabled Samia to marry and start a new life has learned that sometimes might does prevail over right; that passion and honesty are not always rewarded or appreciated, and that the toxic influence of corruption can penetrate even the highest levels of government.

She doesn't plan to give up her struggle, but she no longer believes that the Afghan parliament has any credibility. She does believe that small steps lead to longer journeys though, which is why weddings like Samia's are so important. As the long day draws to a close, men and women do withdraw to separate areas, but the boundaries are fluid. Women dance in front of men, all witness Faramarz take the floor with his new bride, before delivering her to the flower-decorated wedding table where she will receive gifts and before sharing a simple meal with her guests. Faramarz dances with his sister, a kind woman with her brother's striking good looks.

It is dark when the newly married couple leaves; the bride once more veiled, and suddenly tearful. I don't meet them again until two days later when the traditional visits of congratulation are made and more gifts delivered. Samia the young wife is radiant and animated. This time she does not take a passive role but welcomes us and serves sweets to her guests. The room that is both living and bedroom is still festooned with paper flowers and the couple are showered with rose petals.

Later, while guests dance, Samia and Faramarz laugh and whisper to one another – already creating a private world. Ms Joya teases Samia about who she loves best: the mother she thought she would miss, or her new husband? "Faramarz!" she replies instantly, adding quickly: "But of course I love my mother and my father."

It seemed an inopportune time to ask Faramarz to recall how he first felt when he heard about Samia and her plight. "I condemned those men, those people who committed this terrible crime against this blameless girl. She is a wholly innocent and wonderful girl. I hope in the future that Samia will get an education which is the best kind of revenge against her enemies."

The senator, Belquis Roshan, is a friend and staunch supporter of Ms Joya. "Faramarz, he really is a hero," she says, "because in Afghanistan no-one marries a raped girl. It's nothing to do with the Koran; it's just a tradition."

Ms Joya adds: "I hope this wedding sends two other messages: that people can celebrate marriage ceremonies simply and also together, without men and women being separated. This marriage shows that people are ready to take positive steps, to improve things – to embrace democracy, human rights, women's rights, equal rights.

"But those who are in power do not allow this. You saw how it was: no one raised their voice about men and women being together; everyone was happy. It is those who are in power who are the problem."

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