Afghanistan: Women Still Jailed for 'Moral Crimes'

Wednesday, December 7, 2011
The Washington Times
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

Many Afghan women find themselves suffering from violence and abuse, with virtually no legal protection. Recently, authorities sentenced Gulnaz, a 21 year old rape victim, to 12 years in prison for adultery.

Under Afghan law, the woman is guilty of breaking sexual taboos when she engages in sexual acts outside of marriage, whether those sexual acts are consensual or not. When international authorities criticized the decision, the Afghan authority reduced Gulanz's sentence from 12 years to three years, for her failure to report the rape incident on time.

Gulnaz told CNN that she didn't immediately report the rape because she knew authorities would imprison her for adultery rather than prosecute her attacker. Last week, president Karzai pardoned Gulanz after she agreed to marry her attacker.

The president subsequently lifted the condition of forced marriage after facing continued international pressure.

Unfortunately, Gulnaz's story is common in Afghanistan. A 2011 report by the United Nations concluded that the Afghanistan government has made few changes to uphold women's rights. The report found that violence against women remains prevalent throughout the country.

Experts argue that the current status of women in Afghanistan is a result of strict enforcement of Sharia law reinforced by societal norms and customs. Some worry that because the secondary status of women is so deeply engrained in Afghan society, even if authorities enact new laws, society will ignore them and Afghan women will never see the light of the day.

Current laws make it almost impossible for victims to receive justice. In terms of sexual assault or rape, Sharia law requires a victim to prove that the sexual intercourse was non-consensual. To meet the burden of proof, the victim must either obtain four male witnesses of the incident or receive a confession from the rapist.

Moreover, the Sharia court does not accept circumstantial evidences as a proof of a rape. The court considers the victim's complaint, her physical scars, torn clothes, and pregnancy as evidence of adultery rather than of sexual assault.

Additionally, many Afghan's do not use the traditional court system. Instead they prefer to take cases to the jirga, a grand assembly or council, to resolve differences. The role of the jirga often is to maintain stability in a tribe or village, rather than to implement decisions based on the law. Members of a jirga are considered “wise,” but have no formal training or knowledge of national laws.

Instances of divorce and accusations of murder and rape are often brought before the jirga particularly when the dispute involves family law matters or a woman is a party in dispute.

The jirga is often preferred in Afghani culture, as an official court visit to resolve a legal dispute “can cause serious harm to the prestige of both parties.”

What's more, women often consider going to court as a shameful act.

In 2011, a jirga heard the case of two girls who were raped by their father and brother. The jirga decided to pardon the men to best resolve the conflict, executing the girls and the lawyer they had hired to take the case to to the jirga.

To fully enact change in Afghanistan, the country needs to change the culture and the laws. Women in Afghanistan pride themselves in passivity and submission and many consider domestic violence as a fact of life.

Such culturally distorted views of women stem from the roots of the Taliban regime that leads people to believe that women are unnecessary and dangerously tempting.

Today, many Afghanis haven't completely abandoned such view of women.

Women in Afghanistan want and need a voice as well as protection, but change must occur within the Afghan framework. The Afghanistan situation is unique, with its own culture, history and circumstance.

Afghan society would more likely embrace the concept of women's rights if it was cloaked under the umbrella of improving the rights and lives of the entire Afghan society and family members. It must be structured to the benefit of an oppresive male dominancy.

But Afghanistan must find a way for change, and to improve individual rights, making life palatable for its women