Allegations of electoral fraud linger, but the recent presidential election in Afghanistan has been declared a resounding victory for Hamid Karzai over his nearest rival, former foreign minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah. For many Afghani women, however, it didn’t really matter which of these men won — because it seems that whoever rules this country, they are condemned to lives of pain and suffering.
I spent over two weeks in Afghanistan in the run up to the presidential elections investigating this issue. My trip began on the outskirts of Kabul at one of the city’s largest women’s prisons. Inside, I met women whose experiences are a damning indictment of the Karzai government’s attitudes towards women under the law.
I met Zara, a 25-year-old mother of seven. She ended up here after her husband accused her of having an affair with another man. "He beat me and broke my leg," Zara tells me, wringing her hands as she speaks. Unable to put up with the abuse any longer, Zara fled with the help of her husband’s nephew to a nearby town. The real trouble began when her husband reported her absence to the local authorities. "He told the police ‘my nephew is having illegal relations with my wife’," Zara says sorrowfully. Instead of listening to her testimony of years of domestic abuse, the police arrested Zara.
This is because today, in Karzai’s Afghanistan, women are imprisoned for up to four years if they are found guilty of "running away from home" or if they are believed to have committed adultery.
The prosecutors on Zara’s case stated that she "left her house without her husband’s permission with a strange man". This was enough to earn her a three-year jail sentence and she’s now one of the 20 women currently serving time in this prison for adultery. Twenty five other women are being held here for the crime of "running away from home", a charge that sees women jailed for little more than disobeying their husbands.
I flew west of Kabul to Herat, a relatively safe town, with fewer attacks compared to other large cities like Kabul or Kandahar. For abused women who can’t bear the thought of being arrested, another desperate and horrific option is becoming more common.
In the burns unit of Herat’s main hospital, I find 18-year-old Zia covered in bandages. Married at 13, Zia decided to set herself on fire after five years of beatings by her abusive husband. "When I got married I was too young. I was still playing with kids. He was pulling me out of the group of kids I was playing with and beating me," Zia whispers, lying on her back in the hospital bed. "I couldn’t resist anymore after all those things he was doing to me, so I committed to setting myself on fire."
Standing by Zia’s bed is Dr Mohammad Aref Jalali, the director of the burns unit. He tells me that self-immolation is becoming increasingly common among young Afghan women. "There are some other ways as well for women to kill themselves, but the women prefer to set themselves on fire," he solemnly explains. "This is the new trend, which the women have been committing since 2003."
Due to a lack of specialised equipment and a high rate of infection, the survival rate for burns victims is very low. Of the 84 self-immolation cases Dr Jalali has treated over the past year, 63 of the women died.
Zia is one of the lucky ones. Now that her burns have healed, she will soon be discharged. But her future is uncertain. Her husband came to visit a few days ago and told Zia he wants to take her out of the city and to his village a few hours away, but she doesn’t want to go. "If I go to the village he will do whatever he wants. There will be no one to protect me," she explains quietly. "Imagine what he did here [in the city], what he will do when he takes me back to the village?"
Sitting up awkwardly in the bed opposite is 20-year-old Annar Gul. Her body is covered from the neck down in bandages. "I didn’t have any other option other than setting myself on fire. I didn’t have anyone to go to. I was under lots of pressure, I had such a hard time that I lost my mind and I set myself on fire," she tells me miserably. Like Zia, Annar said it was years of abuse by her husband that drove her to it.
Annar has now been in hospital for over eight months but her wounds are infected and are not healing. Dr Jalali hasn’t got the facilities to treat her and has recommended she travel to Pakistan where the hospital facilities are more advanced. But Annar says that her family can’t afford for her to go. "We don’t have the money," she tells me. "I can’t find anyone to borrow money from to go to Pakistan for treatment and my brother doesn’t have more either."
Outside the ward, I find Dr Jalali talking to one of his previous patients, a shy, veiled 13-year-old called Jamila.
Last year, Jamila was admitted with burns to more than 45 per cent of her body and she was lucky to survive. Jamila explains that her parents had sold her to a 25-year-old man in return for some sheep a year earlier. After he kept her locked inside each day and refused to let her continue her education, Jamila went to the local village elder to complain. Warning him that if her situation didn’t improve she would kill herself, he told her that she had no right to complain and that he would "fetch her the petrol". A few days later, Jamila set herself on fire.
Lifting up her veil to show me the red angry looking scars that now cover her arms and hands, Jamila tells me that while she now regrets her actions, she doesn’t blame her parents for marrying her off so young. "People are poor, and they marry their daughters off just to make some money and feed their family," she tells me matter-of-factly. And does Jamila ever want to get married again someday? "Never" is the reply.
Back in Kabul, I meet "Amina", a 25-year-old activist with the underground women’s rights movement RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. She can’t tell me her real name. Due to death threats, all members of the group keep their membership secret.
Amina is scathing about Karzai’s efforts to improve the lives of Afghan women over the past eight years. And because of the continued involvement of warlords in Afghan politics, Amina didn’t think the elections provided women with any hope that their situation would improve soon, "Look at the men running in the elections!" she exclaims. "Karzai is supporting many warlords. Dr Abdullah Abdullah is also a warlord. Things are getting worse for women in Afghanistan, not improving."
It’s certainly true that the men who’ve run the different armed groups in Afghanistan have long set appalling standards for the treatment of women. Human Rights Watch has documented allegations of widespread rape of women and children and forced marriage in areas under their control.
Meanwhile, Karzai’s own record on women has come under the spotlight recently.
In February, Afghanistan’s parliament passed a controversial new law that applied to the country’s six million Shia Muslims.
Among many draconian articles, the legislation prevented women from leaving the house without male permission, reduced women’s rights in divorce proceedings and even decreed that wives be sexually available to their husbands at least four nights a week — effectively legalising the rape of a wife by her husband. This law prompted widespread international condemnation and Karzai was forced to call for a review of it, claiming he hadn’t been fully informed about its contents.
But supporters of the law tell a different story. I travelled to the outskirts of West Kabul to meet the Shia cleric and Member of Parliament, Sayed Hussein Alemi Balkhi, who was an initiator of the legislation. Balkhi graciously welcomed me and began to explain the process of passing the law. Did Karzai know about the contents of the bill before it was passed, I asked. "Yes, absolutely," said the cleric puzzled, as if the answer to my question was obvious. "Because this bill went to President Karzai many times. Before it went to Parliament, the cabinet’s legal committee studied the bill and then took it to cabinet for approval," Balkhi continued firmly. "Cabinet, led by Karzai, approved the bill."
Balkhi told me that I obviously had "read a wrong translation" of the law, that, in fact, it would actually "protect" women’s rights. "Yes, I believe men and women are equal," he insisted. But, when the politician went further to explain why the law was needed, his attitudes were laid bare. "It says in the Quran that a wife must obey her husband," Balkhi told me. Such legislation was needed, he said, because traditionally in Afghanistan, a woman runs the household. If the wife was able to go out whenever she felt like it without her husband’s permission, the life of a married couple would be "a mess", Balkhi explained.
Karzai promised that a review of the law would remove the discriminatory articles. But two weeks ago, a new final draft was quietly released. It still permitted Shia men to deny their wives food if they refused their husbands’ sexual demands. It still required women to get permission from their husbands to go and work.
"These kinds of barbaric laws were supposed to have been relegated to the past with the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, yet Karzai has revived them and given them his official stamp of approval," Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch announced in a statement. "Karzai has made an unthinkable deal to sell Afghan women out in return for the support of fundamentalists in the 20 August election," said Adams.
So this is why it doesn’t really make a difference to many Afghan women that Karzai has been declared president again. Discrimination and oppression are so deeply entrenched in this patriarchal, tradition-bound society that it will take years of advocacy, aid and education to drastically improve their lives.
And it does pose a difficult question to us citizens sitting comfortably in the West. Before invading Afghanistan in 2001, President George W Bush talked about the need to "liberate" the country’s women from the archaic ways of the Taliban regime. But today, more than eight years since the Taliban was overthrown, the systemic abuse and mistreatment of women in Afghanistan continues.
In Australia, we need to ask ourselves the question: why are our troops in Afghanistan at all if it is to support and defend a government that treats women like second class citizens?
Names have been changed to protect identities.
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