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‘To Kill a Sparrow’ shows Afghanistan’s double standard on adultery

BY Larisa Epatko  April 4, 2014 at 1:49 PM EDT
Soheila, with her child, is imprisoned in Afghanistan. Image from the documentary "To Kill a Sparrow"

Soheila, with her child, is imprisoned in Afghanistan. Image from the documentary “To Kill a Sparrow”

A young Afghan woman named Soheila ran away with a man after her father forced her to marry a 70-year-old. She and her lover were caught after three years and both were jailed for adultery.

Soheila tells her story in the documentary “To Kill a Sparrow,” produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting. The PBS NewsHour will air an excerpt on Friday.

While covering women’s issues in Afghanistan, freelance Iranian photojournalist Zohreh Soleimani visited women in prison and safe houses who faced abuse by their fathers or husbands for resisting arranged marriages. There behind bars, she encountered Soheila taking care of her toddler son.

Unlike some of the other women, Soheila was willing to go in front of a camera and describe her ordeal. “I think she’s a very brave woman and she was the one who could talk and tell her story, but many others that I’ve met in the same situation, basically they didn’t do any crime according to the constitutional law of Afghanistan,” Soleimani told Kelly Chen, news engagement specialist for CIR.

“They want to live as any human being. They want to live with the partner that they want to, not the one that fathers force them to be with because of a piece of land, or money or because of exchange in the family.”

Soheila’s brother had “stolen” the much younger wife of the 70-year-old man. To keep the brother from getting into trouble, Soheila’s father promised her to the older man to marry. “Soheila was exchanged for her brother’s crime,” said Soleimani.

Photojournalist Zohreh Soleimani interviews the family of a woman who was imprisoned for adultery in Afghanistan. Image from documentary "To Kill a Sparrow"

Photojournalist Zohreh Soleimani interviews the family of a woman who was imprisoned for adultery in Afghanistan. Image from documentary “To Kill a Sparrow”

Like many women, when Soheila is eventually released from prison, her problems will not end. The women will continue to be dependent on sometimes hostile male relatives. “In Afghanistan as a woman, you can’t really live alone. There is no way to see that an Afghan woman can live on her own without family or without a main member of the family. That’s why the future for these women is really unclear,” said Soleimani. “Most of them, they have to go back to their family, or otherwise many of them will be killed or they end up in a shelter forever.”

In August 2009, the Afghan government for the first time passed a law criminalizing practices such as handing over a woman to settle a dispute. In all, the Elimination of Violence Against Women outlawed 22 such practices, including child marriage, forced marriage and rape. It also defined punishments for the perpetrators.

But a report issued by the United Nations in December showed implementation of the EVAW law has been slow four years later. Although Afghan authorities registered more cases of violence against women (an increase of 28 percent from the previous year), the use of the EVAW law itself for indictments had increased by only 2 percent in 2013.

Instead, police and prosecutors tend to use mediation to settle the alleged cases of violence, and therefore the perpetrators don’t get the full punishment under the EVAW law.

“It’s an uphill battle in so many ways for women in Afghanistan,” said Patricia Gossman, a senior researcher on Afghanistan at Human Rights Watch. “In general, few cases of crimes are prosecuted in Afghanistan, and women are always getting the least sort of support in the law in Afghanistan.”

The Afghan government also recently has tried to restrict the law. Parliament proposed prohibiting relatives from testifying against defendants, which critics said would make it difficult to prosecute domestic abuse of women, since it usually happens within the home in sight of other family members. At first, President Hamid Karzai supported the measure but later backed down under international pressure. Groups such as Gossman’s are watching to see what the Parliament will do next.

Gossman said human rights organizations are concerned there will be even more attempts to roll back the advancements made since 2001 after U.S. and NATO troops leave at the end of this year and fewer eyes are on the country. “That’s all the more reason the international community needs to continue to be engaged so that women are not abandoned and those gains are not completely eroded.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., is one of the lawmakers looking into possibly granting Afghan women asylum in the United States in domestic abuse cases. “It seems to me this issue of violence against women is something we ought to revisit,” she said in an interview with CIR. You can watch part of the interview below:

“When half of a country’s population is not allowed full equality, then what’s their future going to be? It’s going to be half as promising as it could be if everyone enjoys the same rights and opportunities,” said Shaheen.

But filmmaker Soleimani says laws and their improved implementation can only do so much. “The problem in Afghanistan is not the system — it’s the tradition. I think it’s because tradition is still more strong than laws, and also because of the Taliban and extremists,” who still reign supreme in rural areas.


Watch a trailer of the documentary, “To Kill a Sparrow”.

View all of our World coverage.