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Banished or battered at home, Afghan women share stories of surviving abuse

April 4, 2014 at 6:24 PM EDT
Despite some progress in the treatment of Afghan women since the 2001 fall of the Taliban, there are thousands of females accused of so-called moral crimes who have been jailed or have fled to safe houses in fear of their lives. The Center for Investigative Reporting teams up with filmmaker Zohreh Soleimani, who has directed a documentary, "To Kill a Sparrow,” that sheds light on their oppression.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This weekend’s elections in Afghanistan are expected to produce the country’s first democratic transfer of power. And in one sign of social progress, hundreds of women are running for provincial council seats.

Afghanistan, however, remains a hostile place to many women. Thousands have been held in jail or safe houses, accused of — quote — “moral crimes,” such as refusing to accept forced marriages or running away from abusive husbands.

That’s the focus of this report from the Center for Investigative Reporting and filmmaker Zohreh Soleimani. It’s narrated by Amanda Pike.

AMANDA PIKE, The Center for Investigative Reporting: Filmmaker Zohreh Soleimani has been covering the issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan for more than a decade.

She’s reported progress for women since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. But, today, women’s rights and security are under assault from all sides, Taliban insurgents, tribal warlords, even members of Parliament.

Roshna Kaled is the spokesperson for a provincial governor and a prominent advocate for Afghan women’s rights.

WOMAN (through interpreter): I received threats. These days, the enemy is focused especially on women. The enemy never wants women in Afghanistan to advance.

AMANDA PIKE: Soleimani went with Kaled to a safe house in Kabul. The safe house is a haven for women who have escaped from domestic abuse or forced marriages.

WOMAN (through interpreter): Hello, everyone? How are you doing? I would like to hear about your cases. Hengemeh Dir, describe your problem for me.

HENGEMEH (through interpreter): My problem is my brother-in-law. He raped me in my father’s house. He also raped my 12-year-old sister. For the next two-and-a-half years, my family wouldn’t let me leave the house. Finally, I escaped and I came here to the safe house.

WOMAN (through interpreter): What do your parents say?

HENGEMEH (through interpreter): I told my mom and she said, I can’t do anything about that. If I had told my father, he would have beaten me. My mother said, what’s done is done. I’m not strong enough to do anything about it.

WOMAN (through interpreter): I hope that people like the man who raped Hengemeh will be arrested soon and are forced to face the consequences of their actions.

AMANDA PIKE: A young woman named Basireh came to the safe house to escape a forced marriage.

BASIREH (through interpreter): I loved a young man, but my father wouldn’t let me marry him. He forced me to marry someone else. I went to my husband’s house. He beat me and screamed at me all the time.

I told my father, I don’t want this man. Why did you marry me to him? Why did you marry me away that night? You should have killed me and buried me in your garden rather than marrying me to him. Parents who don’t want the happiness of their children — I love them so much and I still love them. They don’t even come to ask about me. They don’t ask if their daughter is alive or dead.

AMANDA PIKE: Manizha Naderi runs a network of safe houses throughout Afghanistan. We met with her on a recent visit to Washington, D.C. She recalls a time in the 1960s and ’70s when Afghanistan was a very different place.

MANIZHA NADERI, Executive Director, Women for Afghan Women: Afghanistan was being called, you know, little Paris. It was very modern and also for that region. Women were in schools. Women were in universities. They were walking around like women here, wearing skirts, pants, whatever they wanted.

AMANDA PIKE: But Naderi says 30 years of war have eroded rights for women. Today, tribal traditions are gaining strength, most notably cases of fathers forcing their daughters into early marriage.

MANIZHA NADERI: In some parts of the country, it’s a way of life, really. We don’t know what the numbers are, probably thousands and thousands and thousands of women. The girls who have been given away don’t have a voice or a way to protest. And the father, he’s the father. He could force his daughter to do whatever, marry at whatever age he wants. And in the majority of the cases, they think that this is their God-given right.

AMANDA PIKE: Many young girls run away from forced marriages and abusive husbands. If they’re discovered, they can end up in prisons like this one, Badam Bagh in Kabul.

SOHEILA (through interpreter): My name is Soheila. I ran away with the man I loved and I lived with him three-and-a-half years. When my father found me, he had me arrested. I was sentenced to six years in prison. My son was born here in prison.

AMANDA PIKE: This Soheila was only 5 years old, her father pledged her in marriage to an old man to settle a blood feud between their families. We first met Soheila several years ago. Her father had come to visit her in prison and was unapologetic about putting her there.

MAN (through interpreter): Our religion, Islam, doesn’t let a woman do whatever she wants. According to Islamic law, a daughter must marry whoever her father chooses. Islam says whenever a father wants to marry away his daughter, 8, 9, 10 years old, it doesn’t matter, the woman belongs to him and the woman has no right to refuse.

AMANDA PIKE: But Manizha Naderi says this is a tribal custom, not Islamic law.

MANIZHA NADERI: The men have never heard this before. The father has never heard that it’s against Islam to force your daughter to get married.

AMANDA PIKE: In 2012, President Karzai released Soheila from jail as part of a general amnesty for women. But it was impossible for Soheila to go home. She’s been living in a safe house run by Naderi’s organization.

SOHEILA (through interpreter): My father doesn’t recognize government laws. He only recognizes tribal law.

AMANDA PIKE: Naderi and her lawyers are trying to help Soheila obtain a divorce from her arranged marriage.

You went home once. What happened?

SOHEILA (through interpreter): Six months ago, I went to my father’s house with my divorce papers from the court. They all attacked me and started beating me.

MANIZHA NADERI: We took a police escort with us because we knew that it was a dangerous situation. As soon as they saw Soheila, the women in the family started to attack her. The men in the family came out with guns. They was a shoot-out on the street, and the police had to take — whisk her and take her away in order to save her life.

AMANDA PIKE: Filmmaker Zohreh Soleimani was able to convince Soheila’s father and brother to meet with her. It was Soheila’s brother who had started the blood feud by eloping with an old man’s wife, the man Soheila would later be forced to marry to avenge her brother’s crime. Her brother refuses to let Soheila marry the man she loves.

MAN (through interpreter): If Soheila is not coming back to us and goes with that donkey of a man, she will be killed. We are not afraid. We are not afraid of dying. We are not afraid of beating. We are not afraid of killing. For us, it’s like killing a sparrow. It’s nothing.

MANIZHA NADERI: I think the only option she has is to leave the country, either go to a neighboring country or some other country, but if she stayed in Afghanistan, I’m pretty sure that her father or brother will find her and kill her.

We have other cases like Soheila, some that are more dangerous than Soheila. Our work is very controversial. We have resistance from all over. The Taliban is an obvious threat to us, but also members of Parliament, ministers. The minister of justice maybe a year ago went in front of Parliament and was calling shelters brothels. Eventually, he apologized, but it shows how people think.

AMANDA PIKE: As the country prepares for presidential elections and the U.S. and other international forces aim to withdraw later this year, many wonder what kind of future lies ahead for young women like Soheila and the women who work to protect them.