Hundreds of Afghan women imprisoned for 'moral crimes,' says new report

But the response of local journalists at Human Rights Watch press conference shows how tough it may be to persuade Afghans to end criminalization of 'crimes' that include fleeing abuse.

Mohammad Ismail/Reuters
Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth shows a new report on the imprisonment of women and girls for moral crimes during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan on Wednesday.

Ten years into the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, those who seek to bring social reform to Afghanistan still face a major problem: selling it to large segments of the population who remain averse to change.
On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch issued one such call for change with a new report that highlighted the ongoing issue of women who are arrested and imprisoned for fleeing abusive family situations.

At a conference hall at the Serena, Kabul’s 5-star hotel, packed with mostly local journalists but also with a smattering of foreign reporters, HRW representatives outlined the report, which describes the situations of about 400 women, half the female prison population, who are imprisoned for moral crimes such as having sex outside marriage or running away from home.

Among the personal stories in the report, the authors recounted tales of women who were given away as brides when they were as young as 12 years old to settle disputes, only to be abused by their new family. Others were married off to men who turned out to be abusive drug addicts. When these women fled, they were imprisoned for running away from home without permission.

The authors advocate that the Afghan government stop imprisoning women who run away from home to escape abusive situations. Putting woman in jail for this is not supported by the Afghan penal code or Islamic law, say HRW officials. The threat of imprisonment also discourages women from reporting abuse or trying to leave dangerous situations.

Challenging the status quo

But when the HRW representatives began taking questions from the press, they were immediately confronted with the challenge Westerners have faced for more than a decade as they try to change Afghanistan.

One local reporter asked, “If this is not considered a crime and it becomes rampant in the society and everyone does it, don’t you think that in a society like Afghanistan it will lead to a kind of anarchism here and everything will get out of control? What will be the consequences?”

Several questions later, another local reporter closed his question saying, “I think that to prosecute running away with strangers, it helps families to be more organized and it fortifies the family relationships in Afghanistan, so I think it is better for Afghanistan to prosecute this crime.”

While far from representative of all the local media in attendance, such responses, especially from Afghan journalists who are considered among some of the more educated people in Afghanistan, underscore the difficulty of challenging the status quo here.

To be certain, women have seen marked progress since the NATO-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime in 2001. There are now more than 2.4 million girls enrolled in school compared with just 5,000 during the Taliban’s rule. Women are also engaged in civic life as politicians and many have managed to get jobs outside their homes.

Still, women's status has a long way to go in Afghanistan. As the HRW report points out, among other problems, fewer than half of girls are enrolled in school, and every two hours an Afghan girl dies of pregnancy-related causes.

There are also high-profile abuse cases, like a woman named Gulnaz who was imprisoned after police found out she was raped and impregnated. She received a pardon from President Hamid Karzai only after her case received international attention. After her release, she told the media that she would likely marry her rapist to avoid the shame associated with having an illegitimate child. 

What happens when Western troops leave?

“The situation of women in Afghanistan today is precarious. There has been progress around women’s education, women’s access to medical care, women’s ability to travel and to work. That’s all good, but the question is [how] we preserve that and can we improve upon it?” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, speaking to reporters on Wednesday.

Despite recent and frequent disagreements with the US and NATO, Mr. Karzai has enjoyed strong international backing. Yet earlier this month, he came out in support of a statement by a government-sponsored council of religious scholars that said women were not equal to men and should not mix with men in public. Explaining his support of the statement, Karzai said the council was not putting limitations on women, but rather was enforcing the Islamic law that binds all Afghans and Muslims.

The remarks sparked concern about what level of support women here will receive from their government when international forces leave.

When it comes to Afghanistan’s interpretation of Islamic law regarding women who run away from home to escape abuse, Human Rights Watch says Afghanistan is the only Muslim nation to interpret such behavior as prohibited under Islamic law.

Sima Samar, chairperson for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, says that those like the reporters who questioned Human Rights Watch’s findings seem to conflate women who run away to escape abuse with those who run away for other reasons such as adultery.

“I think the resistance was due to the mentality of the specific person who asked and which television channel he belonged to. That is their personal mentality rather than the common beliefs and thoughts of the people,” says Dr. Samar. Asked if the new report will help effect change, she says, “It might help, but I don’t think it will help overnight. We have a lot of people within the judiciary system who think the same way as these journalists.”

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