Bittersweet Success for Afghan Woman Freed From Jail

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

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.”

To learn more on how you can make a difference, go to and forward our Care2 petition to your friends!

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.


Related Stories:

Afghan Woman First Raped, Then Charged With Adultery – EU Bans Documentary

Abortion After a Rape Is Not Like Murdering Your Mother’s Killer

Senate Forces Women in the Military to Carry Rapists’ Babies


Photo credit: AWJP


Debbie L.
Debbie Lim6 years ago

I hope she takes a different path and change this vicious cycle where she will be mistreated, as well as her children.

sharon b.
sharon b6 years ago

it is the mothers fault that they are raised like this. that mothers had influence and could teach them a better way. These little boys are taught from the earliest age that women are less. The males have far more influence over the growing child. And the prejudices and beliefs built into the culture are passed fron one generation to the next.

sharon b.
sharon b6 years ago

I am nauseous It makes me just want to give up. Concerning the confusion about her being forced to marry. She was originally sentenced to 12 yrs for being raped. After world outcry the judge "graciously" decided she could be realeased on condition that she married her rapist. Voices were heard and petitions were signed and the court released her with no conditions. All well and good and everyone patted themselves on the back. Then the news came that she would be marrying her rapist. Some thought that what was the point, if she was just going to marry him. But her reality is different then ours. She had no chance of marrying someone else. As an adulterous woman with a child she wouldn't be socially acceptable and there were really no options. there was nowhere to go, and her child would be punished also. Marrying him gave her child some protection, made her more socially acceptable. She explained in the following: 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

The sweet part is that a precedence was set opening the door to the possibility that more may be helped. Bitter because the society didn't change and she still had no options. I hope I've explained this properly. There is one more thing I'd like to say to abdul rahim. you imply that it is the mothers fault that they are raised like this. that mot

Abdul Rahim A.
Abdul Rahim A.6 years ago

It is disgusting to see women still being treated like garbage in some parts of the world. President Hamid Karzai, installed as an American puppet, should be held responsible. And all the Afghan women who raised their sons to become monsters among men should also be held responsible. Women can change many things from within. Seriously the rest of the world is unable to help them unless they themselves want a change. Blame the Koran or ancient cultural practices as your shield for not trying to do anything. Throughout history mothers always had great influence over their sons. Mothers are the ones that feed and teach their sons when they were still tiny tots. Teach them to love, respect and protect all mothers, sisters, wives and daughters and they will. The problem with women is typical of the once ill-treated bride who herself would become the monster mother-in-law. She could have stopped that cycle of abuse. Likewise in this case, could someone please instigate, I meant teach, all the abused and yet to be abused Afghan women including young girls, that they can change the future from within. It starts with those cute and helpless little boys !

Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran6 years ago


Erika M.
Erika M6 years ago


Martha C.
martha Carlisle6 years ago

To feel that you have no other option, and for the sake of your child, other than to marry your heart breaks for her.

Shan D.
Shan D6 years ago

"I forgot to add, one of the trials raising the most discussion in the province of Ontario, is the murder trial of male members of a family who eliminated 3 members of their immediate family as an act of "honour"... " - Shanie M. -

A couple of small corrections: It's two men and a woman (the father, brother, and 2nd wife) on trial for the murder of the 3 daughters and the 1st wife. The fact that the 2nd wife is the mother of the dead girls utterly chills me. There is no way - NO. WAY. that any sensible jury could fail to find these three horrible people guilty.

Read more:

Shanie M.
Shanie Mangulin6 years ago

I forgot to add, one of the trials raising the most discussion in the province of Ontario, is the murder trial of male members of a family who eliminated 3 members of their immediate family as an act of "honour"... The fact that such behaviour is condoned in many areas of the world should give rise to outrage and concern on the part of all peoples. In my humble opinion....

Shanie M.
Shanie Mangulin6 years ago

Chad evidently feels that I have no right to make the comments that I did which critize the present day treatment of women in SOME Islamic cultures...I have live in No. Africa, I have been to Timbuktu and to Turkey...I am an Anthropologist as well as a historian. And yes, No. America is also in trouble...query, why when men wish to glorify maleness, it is always done at the expense of those who are not adult males? Chad, I suggest that you review some historical sources that look at the real Koran as revealed and remember that Sharia Law is man-made, not revealed as dogma! Many men can only feel powerful when denigrating other sectors of their society, including most often, the women who underwrite their existence. Please note that this is MY opinion...altho' I frequently opened my lectures on Religion with: More evil has been done to humankind in the name of God [by whatever "name" said God is called] than for any other reason. I respect other religious beliefs - that is why I read the Koran and numerous other religious writings, but I cannot morally condone the degradation & murdering of others based upon religious grounds, which ultimately, are written by humans.