A year after she was pardoned from prison on the condition she agree to marry her rapist, a young Afghan woman, faced with distressingly few options, has now reluctantly wed her attacker.
In 2009, Gulnaz, then 16 years old, gained international attention after she was raped by her cousin’s husband and sentenced to 12 years in an Afghan prison for “forced adultery,” during which time she gave birth to a daughter fathered by her defiler.
Unfortunately, being imprisoned for having the temerity to be a victim of rape is not unusual in Afghanistan, evidenced by the fact that more than 50 percent of Afghanistan’s female prison population has been jailed for moral crimes, such as “forced adultery” or “zina” (extramarital sex).
Yet, nevertheless, after spending two and a half years in jail, Gulnaz was offered a pardon in December 2011 by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, albeit on the condition Gulnaz marry her rapist.
Karzai’s decision, however, wasn’t particularly surprising given that the Afghan police and judicial response to violence inflicted upon women – deeply rooted in Afghan custom and Islamic law – is to either ignore the crimes or, in most cases, send the women back to their abusers.
Still, Karzai’s decision engendered enough international and domestic outrage to prompt the Afghan president to graciously release Gulnaz without the precondition she wed her rapist.
Sadly for Gulnaz, presidential decree notwithstanding, her family was bent on having her marry her attacker, a decision based on the fact Gulnaz’s status as an unwed mother made her a social pariah who had brought shame upon her family.
In fact, reports surfaced that prior to her release Gulnaz’s brothers had threatened to kill her daughter, threats which prompted Gulnaz to seek sanctuary in a women’s shelter. There Gulnaz spent over a year while her family and the rapist’s family haggled over terms of the marriage.
Those marital conditions included a reported demand for the rapist’s family to give a daughter to Gulnaz’s family, part of the traditional Afghan practice known as “baad,” whereupon women are given away to pay family debts or settle disputes.
Unfortunately for Gulnaz, the Afghan government was reportedly tag teaming with her family to help persuade the young woman to go ahead with the marriage, persuasion which, according to Gulnaz’s lawyer, Kimberley Motely, included Gulnaz being “systematically brainwashed” by Afghan officials.
Moreover, Motely said Afghan officials were “repeatedly denying her documentation for an asylum application” for Gulnaz, making Gulnaz a virtual prisoner in the women’s shelter.
Unfortunately, given the traditional Afghan hostility toward allowing women the freedom to escape abusive male relatives and family members, women’s shelters in Afghanistan more often than not resemble prisons masquerading as sanctuaries.
To that end, the Afghan government requires that a woman can’t move out of a shelter, most of which are run by NGOs and the United Nations, unless she is going to the home of a male relative.
However, that rule can prove problematic if, as in many cases, those same male relatives have abused or threatened to kill the woman or girl in the first place, a fact which leads many Afghan women afraid to seek help from Afghan police and judicial authorities.
Moreover, the Afghan government has taken extra steps to ensure that women’s shelters are not seen as enticing options for women fleeing abusive homes and marriages. As the head of Afghanistan’s juvenile prisons has said, “People really hate it when girls run away.”
To that end, the Afghanistan Supreme Court in October 2010 ruled that any Afghan woman who fled her home and went anywhere other than to the police or a close relative would be locked up as a precaution against them having illicit sex or engaging in prostitution.
So for Gulnaz, the only unsavory options open to escape her torment entailed either a return to jail or forcible return home, unpalatable choices which led to her decision last week to leave the women’s shelter to go marry her rapist.
While some may question Gulnaz’s decision as one which will leave her still vulnerable to further abuse or worse from her new husband or her family, others are more pragmatic in their opinion.
One such person is filmmaker Clementine Malpas who first brought Gulnaz’s plight to world attention in a documentary she made aimed to shed light on Afghan women jailed for moral crimes.
Malpas said, “Marrying the man she told us had raped her isn’t what we had hoped for Gulnaz but the current cultural context of Afghanistan leaves very few options, especially for a woman with a child out of wedlock.”
To that end, Gulnaz reportedly made her choice in order to give her daughter hope for a better future. Specifically, Gulnaz’s little girl, having been born in prison, was considered to be illegitimate, a disgrace to her family and, as a consequence, never to be accepted by Afghan society unless her parents marry.
For Gulnaz and her little daughter, as well for as countless other Afghan women and girls mired in similar situations, acceptance back into the good graces of Afghan society can come at a terrible price.
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