"Happy the day when I will break the cage
When I will leave this solitude and sing with abandon
I am not a weak tree that sways with every breeze
I am an Afghan girl and it is right that I always cry."
- Excerpt from “Useless,” Nadia Anjuman
Among war toppled minarets and watchful Taliban, dozens of women donned faded blue burqas and hurried through Herat’s dusty backstreets before stopping abruptly at a yellow wrought-iron door. “Golden Needle Sewing Classes,” a nondescript sign announced; but for five years no student had sewn a single garment. Hastily discarding tangles of yarn, placed conspicuously at the tops of their bags, they rummaged for notebooks and sat poised on embroidered cushions, listening as Muhammad Ali Rayhab spoke not of sewing and stitching but of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky.
Amongst his students sat 16 year old Nadia Anjuman, unassuming yet quietly brilliant, and already a talented poet. Under Rayhab’s tutelage Nadia’s poetry flourished, and when the Taliban fell in 2001, she was finally free to pursue a degree in literature. Yet in November 2005, a month before her 26th birthday, she was dead, murdered not by the Taliban but by her own husband. Bruised and knocked unconscious following a violent argument, she died before reaching the hospital. Her husband was convicted of murder, despite his confession only to slapping her; yet he was later released quietly as the courts ruled suicide.
Nadia is not alone. Eighty seven percent of Afghan women experience some form of domestic violence, with 150 girls murdered each year in so-called “honor” killings. “A woman should only leave her house twice,” according to one Afghan saying, “once at her wedding to go to the household of her husband, and once when she dies to be taken to the graveyard.”  While the notorious Taliban era brutality has vanished from international headlines, domestic violence lurks behind Kabul’s closed doors.
Permanently disfigured by their husbands’ attacks, sexually abused or regularly beaten, countless wives are driven to suicide, with 47 women in Herat alone setting themselves alight within a single six-month period. For many, such violence is considered inevitable, with 31% of Afghan women justifying beating for merely burning food; yet not for all. Together, Afghanistan’s activists have braved assassination attempts and oppression to open shelters for battered wives, push for law reform and challenge the status quo.
Secret Schools and Hidden Cameras: RAWA’s Campaign to End Violence against Women
As the last leaves lingered on a cool winter’s afternoon, two years before September 11 catapulted the Taliban to international notoriety, thousands watched horrified as a struggling woman was dragged across Kabul’s Olympic Stadium. Accused of murdering her abusive husband, 35-year-old Zarmina was condemned to death, forced to kneel, and shot by her trembling brother-in-law. Watching aghast and secretly filming the execution, one young activist slipped out of the stadium, and hours later the grainy footage appeared online, shocking viewers worldwide.
Working with the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), housewives-turned- undercover-photographers meticulously documented the atrocities that “condemned the Taliban more surely than a thousand words.” Operating from a one-page website in Pakistan, activists beamed the abuse from Afghanistan’s streets to international audiences. “We never expected the Internet would bring such a positive result for us,” recalls one member, “it was very important and something that now we can’t imagine we’d work without.” As RAWA’s advocacy reached American television audiences, 30,000 visitors overwhelmed the organisation's website promising support; within weeks they secured sophisticated digital cameras.
Although it was Taliban oppression that propelled the organisation into the international limelight, RAWA’s story began with a 20-year-old law student more than two decades prior, shortly before Soviet tanks rolled into Kabul on Christmas Eve 1979. Outspoken and altruistic, Meena followed the streams of refugees to the desert camps of Quetta to fight against “illiteracy, ignorance and… misogynistic culture.” To combat the widespread domestic violence, RAWA established innovative men’s and women’s Shura councils to mediate abuse cases, leading to the possible expulsion of violent husbands.
With abuse lowest amongst educated women, RAWA believed supporting literacy was essential and funded numerous secret schools in both Quetta’s camps and Afghanistan. “Education is our weapon,” RAWA’s supporters assert confidently, “we are firmly of the opinion that knowledge itself is great power.”  Alongside schools, nursing and first aid classes, medical facilities and even legal advice were provided to “draw women out of the incarceration of their homes and into social and political activity.”
Despite the diversity and impact of RAWA’s activities, securing funding during the Soviet years proved problematic. Branded CIA stooges by the Soviets and communists by the US, supporters resorted to more mundane means of raising money including “weaving carpets, raising chickens and sewing little mirrors onto ornamental cushions.” Controversially demanding a secular republic and decrying the esteemed mujahidin as mere “bandits,” Meena made powerful enemies, soon attracting the attention of Afghanistan’s dreaded secret intelligence agency KHAD. Fearing retaliation, RAWA members ensured she was never alone but on February 4, 1987 Meena vanished. Betrayed by a trusted friend and translator, she was assassinated by KHAD operatives and her body never found. 
Despite these challenges and Meena’s murder, RAWA’s numbers swelled. The clandestine publication of the Payam-e-Zan (Women’s Message) magazine in miniature, easy to conceal editions during the most dangerous years helped publicise RAWA’s work and attract supporters nationwide. After flicking through a copy at a friend’s house, Mohammed Hassan was outraged by RAWA and decided to write to them. “My letter was quite impertinent. I asked a million questions and some were intended purely as provocation,” he admits, “But... they responded patiently... That reaction alone already brought me closer to them... It was so different from what I was accustomed to in my school… [Where] you weren’t allowed to ask questions.” 
Tirelessly campaigning throughout the Soviet invasion, decades of civil war and Taliban control, RAWA struggled to end violence against women. As Kandahar fell in November 2001, men flocked to the streets shouting and celebrating, refugees hoped to finally return and President Bush announced jubilantly that “women and daughters were no longer captives in their own homes.”  “Kabul is free!... the Taliban just left like thieves in the night,” remembers one woman of those heady first days following liberation, “Our new neighbors have small children and they are laughing… How long it is since we heard laughter - now imagine that was banned too. I’m so happy. I think we will celebrate every year on this date - I marked it on the calendar with a big red circle.” Yet RAWA was more circumspect. “Though the Northern Alliance has learned to pose… as a supporter of women’s rights,” they warned presciently, “In fact they have not changed at all, as a leopard does not change its spots.”
Light a Candle Instead of Cursing the Darkness: Inside Afghanistan's Women's Shelters
”We are determined to work to improve the lot of our women,” announced Hamid Karzai in 2001, “after all their suffering under the narrow minded and oppressive rule of the Taliban.”  Parliament reserved a quarter of seats for women, a new constitution enshrined gender equality and international conventions on women’s rights were ratified, yet the obstacles to women’s empowerment proved intractable. “Real peace has never entered their sphere of life. A different kind of conflict continues to haunt our women,” lamented Masuda Jalal, former Minister of Women’s Affairs, “They live in constant fear of being beaten, harassed and verbally discriminated against... war has never been over for them.”
A toxic mix of “harmful traditional practices” coupled with “a total lack of security and the erosion of bonds of trust… tested to the limit by war, social upheaval and poverty” has perpetuated violence within the home. Through the outlawed tradition of baad, daughters are used as pawns to atone for the loss of family honor. When her brother committed murder, 12-year-old Fauzia was ordered to marry the dead boy’s brother as compensation. “Her mother-in-law hated her,” recalls one family member, “She would never forgive Fauzia because her brother killed her son. She would beat her up and not give her food.” Unsurprisingly, many wives would flee, but until recently had nowhere to go.
Shocked by the numbers of women sleeping on the streets, Kabul’s Mary Akrami opened the country’s first women’s shelter in 2003 and over two dozen have followed. With the looming threat of family reprisals, their locations remain secret. Offering not only security, but counseling, legal aid and medical tests, these shelters currently provide refuge for over 2,000 women. Through numerous mediation sessions between daughters and families, counselors assess whether returning home is viable while lawyers file criminal charges and pursue divorces if necessary. “This shelter has helped us a lot,” explains 18-year-old Mumtaz, “If they had not been there to help me, I would have been dead by now.”
Fostering independence through classes in literacy, tailoring, and carpet weaving, shelters help women find jobs as secretaries, cooks, and cleaners. “I may never be independent,” admits 25-year-old Arzo, “but at least I know that I could earn money for myself if I got the chance.” Following death threats and beatings, Mariam too left her husband and is now determined to become a lawyer. “I want my divorce and then I want to study,” she asserts determinedly.
Despite their success, these grassroots shelters were threatened with closure in 2011. Denounced as being “controlled by foreigners and used as brothels,” a right-wing talk show host launched a concerted campaign to undermine their work. As a prominent religious leader called for the burning and looting of prominent women’s rights NGO, with two employees promptly resigning, Mary Akrami remains resolute. “It is my responsibility as a human, as a woman, to do this work,” she says simply.
Resisting government efforts to bring the shelters under its control, introduce eligibility screening by an eight-member panel, and possibly demand virginity tests, local NGOs continue to campaign together to protect women. “We don’t have military power,” explains advocate Orzala Ashraf, “What we have are grassroots connections through our social networks among the communities. We may not have guns, but we have the ability to mobilize.”  Exploiting this powerful social pressure, advocates are campaigning to prevent abuse through legal reforms, as although shelters provide essential protection, an estimated 15% of women are never able to leave due to continued threats of family violence. “Everybody likes to have their freedom,” explains 22-year-old Mariam, “but I cannot have mine.”
Custom, Convention, and Pashtunwali: Afghanistan’s Legal Quagmire
With its complex blend of custom and tribal and Sharia law overlaid with international human rights conventions, Afghanistan’s law is a legal minefield often endangering rather than protecting domestic abuse victims. “In Afghanistan we have rules and regulations. We are rich in laws,” explains Rohullah Qarizada, head of Afghanistan’s Independent Bar Association, “The problem is that we are having trouble implementing these laws… It is two years since the passage of a law created to stop violence against women, it has only been used in about 100 cases.” 
Until recently there was no prohibition against rape, with courts charging perpetrators with adultery instead; but with four male witnesses required to satisfy the burden of proof, convictions were rare. “Because no-one is being put on trial for his crimes,” argued Orzala Ashraf, “a criminal culture is being promoted: violators have no fear of the law, prosecution and a meaningful penalty.” Domestic abuse cases were often farcical with a husband’s guilt hinging on his wife’s “disobedience,” while President Hamid Karzai nearly passed a law requiring “a woman to be ready to have sex with her husband every four days.” Yet in August 2009, the legal landscape changed as President Karzai passed the Elimination of Violence Against Women Act (EVAW) by executive order.
Criminalizing rape, child marriage, and forced self-immolation for the first time, this legislation led to prosecutors in 28 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces opening 594 violence cases in the first year of its implementation. A prospective husband and his father, found guilty of the murder of two teenage girls, were sentenced to 16 years in prison under the EVAW provisions. Similarly, after a 21-year old woman committed suicide following abuse, her husband was handed a three-year prison term. “We have made great gains,” insists politician Fawzia Koofi, “...but we need to arm ourselves with solid laws like the EVAW to fight violence and the other ills of society.”
Despite this progress, challenges remain. Although there is no express provision forbidding running away, for example, the Penal Code specifies that where there is no legal provision on an issue, the courts should rule “the limits of the Constitution in accord with the Hanafi jurisprudence and in a way to serve justice in the best possible manner” – a provision so wide that judges can rule arbitrarily in line with their personal convictions. In 2012, an estimated 95% of women in Afghanistan’s prisons were incarcerated for “moral crimes,” running away, or alleged adultery. Even the future of EVAW itself remains precarious as parliamentary approval is required to enshrine its precepts permanently into law.
To improve conviction rates, campaigners are calling not only for law reform but also for improved reporting procedures. With women often viewing the police as “a threat rather than an impartial, professional law enforcement agency,” NGOs are working hard to challenge this system. Hundreds of paralegals have been trained across the country while new Family Response Units staffed entirely by women have been created.
A Zero Sum Game? Men vs. Women?
While campaigners tirelessly chip away at Afghanistan’s deeply engrained legal hurdles, others are calling for men themselves to play a more active role in ending domestic violence. With harrowing images of disfigured teenagers, accounts from survivors, and stories of unimaginable abuse, “it is easy to condemn the barbaric men of Afghanistan and pity the helpless women;” yet men too are fighting to eradicate discrimination and domestic violence.
“Husbands, fathers and brothers, they come for help,” explains women’s shelter director Esther Hyneman, “They want a peaceful life... a family life and want to be able to support their children rather than marry them off at a young age. “Parliamentary speaker Ahmad Shah Behzad strongly backed the EVAW bill, while Kabul MP Shinkai Kaokhail typically garners more support from male MPs than their female counterparts. On International Women’s Day in March 2015, a small group of men donned burqas to mark the occasion. “A lot of the problems that men face in this country arise from how we men look at society,” prominent activist Barry Salaam explains, “unless we men change ourselves and the way we view women, we won’t be able to bring fundamental changes.”
Scholars compiled booklets on the role of women in Islam, together with quotes from the Qur’an and Sunnah, which were subsequently distributed to 25 imams across the country who worked together to revise the text. This information formed the basis for a series of Friday sermons in 20 of Afghanistan's prominent mosques, and within six months over 100 imams were involved.
Initially, these sermons were greeted with skepticism and suspicion, but over time attitudes softened. One imam recounted the story of a man who had just heard his sermon on marital rights. “No one can help me. Time is gone. I have committed all sorts of violence against my daughters,” he wailed, “I took the dowry for each of their marriages. They are suffering every day because of my wrongdoings.” The imam replied, "It is not too late; we have a younger generation to bring up."
From the Soviet invasion to the overthrow of the Taliban, Afghanistan’s recent history has been tumultuous, but the last two decades have proved fundamental in the campaign to end domestic violence. Rape, child marriage, and forced self-immolation have been criminalized, women’s shelters have remained independent despite government pressure, and lawyers have tirelessly prosecuted abusive husbands. Much still remains to be done, but it is clear that the women of Afghanistan will only continue their struggle.
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