For women in Afghanistan, there aren’t many places to turn for protection from a violent husband or mother-in-law — even the law doesn’t shield them from their tormentors.
Mina, a 32-year-old Afghan activist, is haunted by her memories of a young woman who was beaten and periodically hung by her head for bearing daughters, not sons.
The women had a clandestine meeting in a rural village in the northwest Afghan province of Parwan in 2009, and Mina still remembers the dark spots of all of the scars covering the face and hands of the young woman.
“You can see a lot of violence in her eye even,” Mina, whose name has been changed for her own protection, said in a telephone interview with MintPress News.
“Her eye talked to you,” Mina said. “She was under lots of pressure. Then I saw in the hand, the scar from [the beating]…black scar in her skin. [Her] skin was a bit dark, then the scar was even darker in the skin, then I said, ‘What happened to your hand?’ And she said that, ‘They hit me with those things that they hit with donkeys [the wooden staff]’ and I said, ‘Why?’”
“‘Because I delivered a baby girl,’” Mina said. “She thought it was her punishment.”
Mina encountered countless women caught in the vicious cycle of abuse throughout her former role as president of the Kabul-based nonprofit Afghan Midwives Association (AMA).
Each woman’s plight was as significant as that of the woman before her. Their eyes all revealed a silent suffering, and they all carried the same multi-layered shield of fear.
For every hundred of these women, however, only one can be helped, according to Mina.
Many, if not all, resist assistance from the AMA, which has local branches in 33 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Due to a strong Taliban presence in one province, the AMA can not operate there.
Fearing retaliation from their husbands and in-laws, women also hide from the cultural shadow of being seen as outspoken. In a harsh paradox, the abused woman is condemned for taking private, family business outside of the home, even though her personal experiences are exactly what she should be able to talk about, Mina explained.
Working to overcome stigmas surrounding women’s health in a country that ranks among the highest in the world for maternal mortality rates, the nonprofit provides special training to enable midwives to identify women in precarious situations.
For most of these women, though, it seems preferable to remain in a bad situation. They fear that their children will face a similar fate, if not worse, without their mother.
The young woman Mina met in Parwan said, “I don’t want any help because they will kill me and my girls will be alone in this world.”
“My husband will cut my head, cut my hair, cut my tongue and then kill me if [you try to help me],” she told Mina. “I don’t want that. I accept that violence every day, but don’t accept to be like that.”
Mina continued to press her, but the young woman was hesitant to trust her. She looked at Mina with doubt, carefully chose what to reveal and omitted many details.
“They are together hitting me a lot,” the young woman told Mina about her husband and mother-in-law.
The young woman explained she was put in a “very bad situation” soon after she gave birth to her first daughter and quickly pushed to get pregnant again.
Mothers shoulder the cultural stress to bear a son in the ultra-conservative, male-dominated society. A family lacking any male heirs is forced to compensate for its perceived socio-cultural failing, so much so that some families engage in a centuries-old practice known as “bacha posh,” which translates to “dressed up as a boy.” Faced with shame, families engage in a game of deception in which a daughter posing as a son is better than no son at all. Raising their daughters as boys up until puberty, families push for community respect and “breadwinner” status.
Meanwhile, to meet the demand for a son, many women fall victim to back-to-back pregnancies.
“Each one [was] one year after the other one, very close together,” Mina said of the young woman she met. “They push her for next pregnancy. Girl…next pregnancy, girl… Then the situation got worse day-by-day for her,” she said.
“One day, they hang her from [her] head because she born a baby girl. They hang her and hit her with the thing they use her for the donkey. They use that to hit her…[because] she didn’t have a boy,” Mina said.
After she gave birth to a second girl, the young woman’s husband was pressured by his mother to marry again so that he could have a son. But the young woman was hung and heavily beat for speaking up against the proposal. Her husband, however, would eventually take both a second and a third wife.
“…And I remember she use[d] a word which made me too sad. She said, ‘I am like a donkey now and I should do just what they want,’” Mina said.
AMA works to refer young women, like the one Mina met with in 2009, to ministries of public health or nonprofits that provide shelter to at-risk women.
“[But the young woman], she was one of those we couldn’t help because the husband was not ready to talk to us at all and the woman doesn’t want anyone to know about her situation and we couldn’t refer her because she didn’t want [it],” Mina said.
Finding a safe haven
In a district of Kunduz province overrun by the Taliban in early 2013, a woman in her early-twenties was being beaten by her husband, who accused her of adultery. A Taliban commander who happened to be walking near the house intervened.
“The Taliban did not ask any questions,” Esther Hyneman, a 74-year-old American human rights activist and board member for Kabul- and New York-based nonprofit Women for Afghan Women (WAW), said in a telephone interview with MintPress News. “He simply dragged the wife outside and started to dig a hole. They were going to kill her. They were going to stone her death. And so he started to dig a hole to bury her in.”
Someone in the community heard her screams and called the police, who then took her to WAW. The nonprofit, which operates family guidance centers and shelters in eight Afghan provinces, has a working relationship with police forces for such referrals.
“She’s now in our shelter in Kabul, [but] she had to leave her children,” Hyneman said, adding that because she was targeted by the Taliban, she couldn’t stay in the local Kunduz shelter.
The woman insists on returning to her home province, even though her family could be targets for Taliban revenge, Hyneman said, explaining that Afghan women rely on their families for psychological support.
“We don’t know if the father would kill her if she would get home. There are many possibilities there where the family may be threatened by the Taliban, or the father may on his own want to kill her if he believes that she has had relations with other men,” Hyneman said.
Meanwhile, her father has attempted to retrieve his daughter. When he arrived at WAW’s Kabul headquarters with the Afghan minister of interior, who also agreed that the young woman should return home, the staff in Kabul said they would only send the woman back if the minister of interior could guarantee her safety.
WAW has yet to receive a confirmation letter from the ministry. “We’re holding off, but eventually, if she insists on going back, despite our warnings, we have to let her go,” Hyneman said.
The young woman is “fairly normal” in the shelter, according to Hyneman. There, she also has the opportunity to take classes and study — something that had probably never been offered to her — but she is anxious to return to Kunduz province.
In such ambiguous cases where the woman pushes to return to shaky grounds, WAW requires that the family agree to a negotiated resolution, which includes such terms as allowing an unannounced visit for follow-up.
“We do everything we can to protect the client when they leave our facility and we hope for the best, but sometimes, they move to a difficult area, and we can’t send our staff to unsafe areas. We do the best we can,” Hyneman said, also acknowledging the cultural limitations in a country that actively derails acceptance toward women’s roles.
Gaining a voice in a silenced environment
“We are trying to teach women what is their own right and how they can claim their own rights because they don’t know their rights,” Mina said. “They think it’s [their] husband hitting them [that] is their power because they’re men and they’re women.”
According to the United Nations, Afghanistan saw a 28 percent increase in attacks on women and girls last year amid low numbers of prosecutions and convictions.
Earlier this month, a jarring piece of legislation backed by conservatives and tribal chiefs sought to ban relatives from testifying against each other.
Under the new law, the young woman beat in the Afghan province of Parwan for not bearing a son and the wife accused of adultery in Kunduz would be stripped of any power to prosecute their husbands. Safeguarded by the law, their husbands would be allowed to freely walk away from their crimes.
Feeling the heat from public outcry and international backlash, Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered amendments to the controversial law, known as article 26.
But for the woman in Parwan who Mina believes is still living with her husband and the woman in the WAW shelter in Kabul, itching to go back home, there’s maybe only one way to describe foreseeable change in the status of Afghan women: out of reach.