Two years ago, a 19-year-old Afghan woman named Gulnaz turned to the police after she was raped. For months, she had kept quiet about the attack. She was afraid of the retribution she might face for having tainted her family’s “honor.” She had already begun to show signs of the pregnancy conceived through the rape.
What happen next only worsened her trauma. She was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the crime of adultery, for having had sex outside of marriage. She was given a choice: marry her rapist or go to prison.
Recently, Gulnaz’s case has grabbed headlines. Her lawyers have mobilized a petition that gathered nearly 5,000 signatures in just a few days, demanding a pardon for Gulnaz from Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
So far, there has been some good news. Karzai has agreed to her release, but accounts differ as to whether she will still be required to marry her rapist.
Meanwhile, this case has revealed how far we still have to go when it comes to the conversation around Afghan women’s rights.
Some have taken this opportunity to remind us women of how glad we should be to live in the US. It’s a convenient story that too many like to tell themselves—that human rights violations only happen “over there.” It puts forward the falsehood that women’s rights are the property of “Western” cultures.
There is no denying that Afghan women face terrible human rights violations. Gulnaz’s case alone amply demonstrates that. Ten years after the US invasion, girls are still threatened for going to school. Women are still not free to work outside the home, choose whom they want to marry and exercise their most basic human rights without fear of violent reprisals.
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But these threats cannot be attributed to some simplistic notion of Afghan culture. Culture alone explains very little, since it’s always shaped by social and political factors, like poverty, war and occupation. We shape our cultures through our words and actions, including our work to promote women’s rights. Culture helps create the context of our lives, but it can be changed—yes, even in Afghanistan. And the ones best prepared to do that are Afghan women themselves.
The fact is that few societies anywhere upheld women’s rights until women were successful in demanding those rights. The difference in Afghanistan is that, despite years of struggle, women’s rights are still not recognized. If you look only at Afghan “culture” for the explanation, you miss the fact that US militarism has contributed to the crisis of Afghan women.
First, the war has threatened the safety of Afghan women and their families routinely in the line of fire. Second, the US occupation has supported a government whose record on women’s rights includes sending rape survivors like Gulnaz to jail and passing a law allowing husbands to refuse food and shelter to wives who deny them sex. Most recently, the US-supported government shut Afghan women’s rights activists out of the Bonn Conference, a gathering of world leaders who will make a plan for the country’s future. Women had to fight tooth and nail to create even the smallest space to be heard there.
Having US soldiers in Afghanistan didn’t stop Gulnaz’s cousin’s husband from raping her. It didn’t stop her from being jailed. It won’t stop the same from happening to another woman. The hope for ending those abuses is not an occupying army but the activism of Afghan women. Women in Afghanistan have shown tremendous courage in standing up for Gulnaz, and we must support them.
When people in the US congratulate themselves for not being from Afghanistan, we put up a wall that divides Afghan women from the rest of us. We see them only as victims in need of saving.
Instead, we should see Afghan women as our partners in shared work to protect human rights, in our own communities and across the world.