This post is written by Karen Day, journalist and founder of the Afghan Women’s Justice Project.
Nearly 93,000 people from around the world helped change Afghan history this week. Signing a petition proffered by Afghan Women’s Justice Project and Care2, you came together and asked President Karzai to pardon Gulnaz, the Afghan woman sentenced to twelve years in prison for refusing to marry her rapist. This victory for women’s rights, however, is tainted by two facts: more than 600 women and their children remain behind bars in Afghanistan for similar “moral crimes,” and Gulnaz has agreed to marry her rapist.
I met Gulnaz, and hundreds of imprisoned women and children, on my sixth trip to Afghanistan earlier this year. As a humanitarian journalist, I spend my life in places most people prefer to never see — refugee camps, warzones and third-world disaster areas. After years of reporting bad news from the worse places in the world, it was immediately clear these female prisoners in Afghanistan won the sad honor of being the most disenfranchised women anywhere on the planet.
The US investment of troops and aid have brought assured progress to Afghan women, especially in Kabul, a city filled with cell phones and hotels — but burkas still flow down every street. One need only travel five kilometers outside the city to return to the 15th century. Afghan society is an ancient patriarchy, built on a centuries-old faith in Islam and Sharia law — the cultural code of honor that dictates women hold less status and value than men. Legal “due process” for women is non-existent. It simply requires two men accuse a woman of a crime and she is automatically condemned as guilty. Typical moral crimes like having an affair (or being accused of it), running away from your abusive husband and murder-by-proxy, where a male family member kills someone and a woman is blamed, still continue to send Afghan women and children to jail every day.
Without basic education, healthcare and safety, Afghan women face unimaginable daily hardships. They also have the highest maternal mortality rate in the world: one in six women dies from childbirth-related causes. By comparison, with basic meals and isolation from men, the women and children I met in these horrific Afghan prisons could almost be considered lucky — as US prison consultants in Afghanistan deduce, many are still being “honored-killed” since fewer than 25 females are imprisoned in Taliban-dominated provinces like Kandahar and Helmand.
Gulnaz is a round-faced young woman of 20 with a daughter who toddles around the prison yard. She was 18 when she was raped, impregnated by her husband’s cousin and sentenced to prison for refusing to marry her rapist. Clementine Malpas, an English filmmaker, spent six months documenting Gulaz’s story in a film called “IN-JUSTICE” produced by the European Union. The story also relates the fate of two other female prisoners accused of “moral crimes.” When the film was finished, the EU decided to block its release, speculating that exposure of these victims would endanger their lives.
The filmmaker received an e-mail explanation from the European Union attaché for justice, the rule of law and human rights, Zoe Leffler. It noted the European Union had decided “Even if the women in the film ‘were to give their full consent,’” the EU would not be “willing to take responsibility for the events that could ensue and that could threaten the lives of the documentary’s subjects.”
Clementine was undeterred. We met in Kabul early this year, when I helped her gain entry into the prisons in hope her film would increase awareness and improve the lives of these disadvantaged women and child. As the founder of Afghan Women’s Justice Project, I’d written on the situation and in May, premiered the “banned” film in Sun Valley Idaho as a benefit to raise funds for in-prison literacy training and kindergartens. To me, the film censorship by the EU seemed a double injustice. The In-Justice trailer remains posted at www.awjp.org.
The argument on whether to release the film encompasses two compelling realities facing Afghan women today. Earlier this year, Afghan conservatives in the government almost succeeded in shutting down the women’s shelters after TIME magazine displayed one child bride who had her nose cut off as punishment by her Taliban husband. They argued the publicity failed to show the progress that has been made in women’s rights. They believed allowing these women in the safe houses to talk to the media damaged Afghanistan’s honor.
One Afghan woman who spoke to me anonymously puts it more succinctly. Working with Afghan Women’s Education Center to provide literacy training to the women and children in prison, she could endanger herself and her family by revealing her identity. “Articles or movies on the plight of Afghan women may tell the truth, but they can also make my work more difficult — and make the situation worse.”
Yet not exposing the situation means it will never change — so what’s the answer to this ancient Afghan puzzle?
Clementine believes the truth must be told. She continues to lobby for the release of her film and organized the grass-roots effort and petition to free Gulnaz. With the help of Kimberly Motley, the American attorney who defended the young prisoner on a pro-bono basis, media attention and thousands who signed petitions, we’ve finally taken a historic step forward with President Karzai’s pardon of Gulnaz. It seemed a clear victory for all of us until Gulnaz announced she’ll be marrying her rapist.
Again, cultural norms trump progress. Clementine said that Gulnaz told her, “My rapist has destroyed my future. No one will marry me after what he has done to me. So I must marry my rapist for my child’s sake.”
Several organizations have offered Gulnaz alternatives — whether she will make a different choice remains as unclear as the futures of the thousands of Afghan women and children still behind bars for “moral crimes.”
AWJP’s mission is to to demand and provide humane treatment and legal defense for Afghan women and children incarcerated for the gender-based inequality and injustice. They do this by funding defense attorneys, literacy teachers and medical services for the imprisoned women and children in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan.
Photo credit: AWJP