KABUL, Afghanistan --
Ghazal laughed as she clumsily knocked the soccer ball around the
dusty, walled-in courtyard with her sandaled foot, passing it off to a small
cluster of teenage girls. But even as she smiled, the corners of her mouth
turned down delicately, a hint that she knows her joy will vanish soon.
For four months, the 21-year-old civil liberties activist has been
teaching 120 local women and girls to read, write, take care of their health
and not be afraid to stand up for their rights. But two months ago, her work
at the Afghan Center, a humanitarian organization that provides general and
vocational education for women in Kabul, was undercut by her own family.
They made clear to her that because she is an Afghan woman, she has no
Ghazal (front) hides her agony during a soccer game. The activist fights for women's rights but is being forced to marry her cousin. Chronicle photo by Chris Stewart
In February, Ghazal's parents informed her that they had engaged her to
marry her cousin, Rafi, 28, an unemployed carpenter in the tiny village of
Reshkhor. They expect the striking young woman with an arresting Sandra
Bullock-like smile to move from the cosmopolitan capital of Kabul and to be
confined to a lifetime of cleaning Rafi's house, cooking his food, washing his
clothes and bearing his children.
"It is so ironic. I help women to defend their rights, but my family is ..
." suddenly, awkwardly, Ghazal whispered an English swear-word and immediately
"It's a tragedy! He is stupid. I don't want to marry him," she said, and
her thin, golden bracelets jiggled as she dropped her slender hands in
In theory, women have constitutional rights equal to men's in post-
Taliban Afghanistan. But in reality, their lives have improved little since
the demise of the ultraconservative Islamic regime, which banned women from
attending schools and public baths and whose Police for the Protection of
Virtue and the Prevention of Vice ordered women to cover themselves in
traditional head-to-toe burqas -- beating those who disobeyed.
This country supposedly was liberated by the U.S.-led military campaign
that ousted the Taliban, but the conservative warlords who run Afghanistan's
far-flung provinces support strict rules that bar women from public life and
turn a blind eye when their armed militias rape women and girls.
As many as 1 million girls between 7 and 13 do not attend school, the
United Nations' Children's Fund reports. Parents continue to sell their
daughters, often as young as 8, into marriages that often resemble
imprisonment, turning girls into housewives who rarely, if ever, are allowed
to step outside their husbands' mud-brick compounds.
"Nearly two years on, discrimination, violence and insecurity remain rife,
despite promises by world leaders, including President Bush and Secretary of
Sate Colin Powell, that the war in Afghanistan would bring liberation for
women," Amnesty International wrote in its most recent report on the
conditions of women in Afghanistan. The organization documents widespread
domestic violence, forced marriage and rape of girls and women by armed
Ghazal's family is in fact liberal for Afghans. Her father, now 82, is a
former carpenter who shepherded his wife and children out of the Kabul area
during the savage factional fighting of the early 1990s. They spent 12 years
in a Pakistani refugee camp, where Ghazal received an education and learned to
speak fluent English.
"My family didn't used to be like this," she said. "But now, my father
tells me: 'You mustn't complain. This is the Afghan way.' "
Ghazal fears that in the village where her betrothed lives there will be
little tolerance for her worldly manners or for her desire to promote women's
rights. In rural Afghanistan, husbands and their families often treat their
wives little better than cattle, she said, and leaving abusive relationships
continues to be socially unacceptable for women.
"If an (abused) woman tries to seek refuge in her parents' house, most
parents would reject her or possibly even kill her or call the other family
and say 'come get your wife,' because for them it's a disgrace," said Duaine
Goodno, who runs the Afghan Center.
Women rarely seek divorces, because typically it would leave them
homeless. There virtually is no place for them as single workers in
Afghanistan's devastated economy.
According to the Amnesty report, women who try to seek redress with the
police or with courts usually face extreme bias: "The current criminal justice
system ... is more likely to violate the rights of women than to protect and
uphold their rights."
For example, Goodno said, Kabul's few government-run safe houses for
battered women encourage the women to return home. He said police typically
take the husband's side in domestic conflicts.
In the absence of reliable shelters, with no place to go, some Afghan
women use Kabul's Alaoddin One Hundred Bed Mental Hospital as a safe house.
Despite its unequivocal name, the hospital has only 60 beds.
On a tattered cot by the entrance to the women's ward, Anaita, a 27-year-
old from central Ghazni province, said that during her two-year marriage, the
constant abuse she endured from her in-laws drove her to lock herself up in
her room for months, only going to the bathroom at night when everyone else in
the house was asleep.
Shaima, 30, is being treated for depression at a hospital in Kabul. She says she lost her appetite trying to care for 10 children while receiving abuse from her husband. Chronicle photo by Chris Stewart
"They insult my mother and father and myself, using words I cannot repeat,
" she said in a near whisper, a black shawl framing her pale face. "When I
hear their bad words, I would just start shaking."
Two cots away, Shaima, 30, said she had lost her appetite and sleep
trying to manage her 10 children -- ages 9 months to 14 years -- and serve
her uncaring husband, Mohammed Ayub.
Married against her will at the age of 12 to a man 20 years her elder,
Shaima said she had never gotten any help around the house from her
schoolteacher husband, who she said "is very rude with me and with the
"When my baby cries, he yells: 'Can't you shut him up?' When I serve his
lunch five minutes late, he yells, 'Don't you know to make lunch at noon?' "
said Shaima, who bears a tribal tattoo that dots the spot between her arched
"Her husband is an awful man, and he treats her badly," said Khanin Gul,
Shaima's sister, who had come to visit her at the hospital. "Afghan women have
two problems: children and husbands."
Desperate to get out of abusive marriages, women are increasingly turning
to suicide, an unspeakable sin in the Muslim faith.
Human rights groups say that between 50 and 80 women have set themselves
ablaze in the past year in the western city of Herat. Most of them were
married or engaged; one was a 13-year-old bride. Goodno said that unhappy
marriages also drive women to self-immolations in other parts of the country,
but they rarely get reported.
Ghazal theoretically has some protections under the law -- she could
get the engagement annulled if she could persuade both families to appear
before a judge, then convince the jurist that she is being forced against her
will to marry her cousin.
But Afghan customs have conspired to override what is written in the
legal statutes. Both sets of parents refuse to go to court. Ghazal could ask
the police to compel their appearance, but her older brother has threatened to
kill her if she does.
"The West needs to educate the Afghan government so that it protects
women's rights," Ghazal said, her mouth twisting again into a tragic smile.
"Right now, the mind of the people of Afghanistan is very dark."
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle