The Bush Administration claims to have established democracy in Afghanistan–but what can “democracy” possibly mean when more than half the population is property? By tradition, every Afghan girl or woman has to be attached to some man–her father, husband, brother, son, uncle. Afghan men routinely sell their daughters in marriage–often well under the legal age of 16–and claim a “bride price” as payback for raising the girl. Sometimes they give away female relatives as compensation to settle debts or quarrels with other men. Call it tradition or quaint local custom, but Afghan girls and women are still bought, sold and traded as commodities.

So far, the Bush administration has met that problem by ignoring it and spinning the official line that Afghan women were “liberated” when the Taliban dispersed, as if ideas of women and social control so deeply embedded in religion and culture could be thrown off like old burqas–which, incidentally, most women still wear. It’s also a big problem for international organizations trying to rebuild the Afghan state and civil society. How can they advance human rights for women as commonly understood in the West while at the same time negotiating a culture that understands things so differently? Sometimes they get things badly wrong.

All of this is made painfully clear by the story of the Herati shelter girls.

These twenty-six women–most of them were teenage girls, really–first came to the attention of human rights workers in January of last year when a man reported to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) that refugee girls and women were imprisoned in a guesthouse belonging to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, held in “protective custody” by Ismail Khan, the notoriously dictatorial governor (or warlord) of Herat, in western Afghanistan.

It took three months for UNHCR to gain admission to the guesthouse–known locally as “Freedom Garden”–to speak to the women. Through interviews, the UNHCR investigators slowly pieced together what had happened. The women proved to be double refugees. Most had fled Afghanistan for Iran with their families during the Afghan civil wars. Growing up in Iran, they’d learned to enjoy more freedom than they would have known in Afghanistan–walking freely in the streets, going to the bazaar or to the houses of their friends. Then–to each of them–something bad happened. L. was sold in marriage at age 13 to an old man who raped and beat her until she ran away. M. ran away from home after her Iranian stepfather sexually assaulted her when she was about 14. Others were beaten and put out of the house by stepfathers who refused, as Afghan men often do, to support another man’s child.

One by one, the runaways made their way to the shrine of Emam Reza in Mashhad, Iran’s most important pilgrimage site, where they found temporary refuge in pilgrims’ hostels. There some of them fell in with the pimps, traffickers and drug smugglers who haunt the place, and they were put to work. Some who were repeatedly spotted by security cameras were picked up by the police. Officially–or semi-officially, for reports of this affair remain “internal” and incomplete–the girls were classed as “unaccompanied females.” They were women on the loose, unattached to any male relative, and thus loose women, by definition “bad.” Some of the women say they were taken to court in Iran for cursory deportation hearings, but in the absence of documentation, it seems possible that many of them were simply handed over to an Afghan border official, a nephew of Ismail Khan, and subsequently to the Herati governor himself. Several of the girls told investigators that one day “Ismail Khan’s men” picked them up and drove them across the border to “shelter” in nearby Herat.

What happened there is unclear, and the women have not been eager to talk about it. Unlike Western women, who may report victimization, Afghan women know they’ll be blamed for anything “bad.” (Rape victims can be imprisoned for criminal sexual activity.) In the guesthouse the women lived in very close quarters, guarded by men. Some of the younger girls report that a dominant group of five or six older girls had “relationships” with the guards, and that this group often went off on “picnics” with men. The UNHCR investigator found evidence of beatings by the guards, fights among the women, self-mutilations, repeated suicide attempts and profound psychological disturbance. S., age 20, feared her family would kill her because she had had sex. N., 18, had tried to kill herself with an injection. K., 18, had tried to jump down the well. F., 21, had tried to hang herself. M., 21, had doused herself with kerosene and was saved from self-immolation only by the intervention of other women. The list went on, recording physical illnesses and mental “handicaps” that probably indicated post-traumatic stress. Two or three women were unable to speak at all.

After the investigation Ismail Khan was persuaded to turn over the women, now officially classed as “returnees,” to UNHCR. The UN agency, which does not provide hands-on care, consigned them to Shuhada, an Afghan nongovernmental organization fronted by Dr. Sima Samar, Afghanistan’s best-known champion of women’s rights. Dr. Samar, a physician, was Afghanistan’s first Minister of Women’s Affairs and now heads the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. She quickly established a “shelter” for the women in Kabul, promising them literacy and vocational training.

But in Kabul things got worse fast. Though none were charged with wrongdoing, the women were again locked up–this time in smaller quarters, and again with male guards. The promised vocational training turned out to be carpet weaving, a grueling profit-making venture meant to defray the cost of keeping them. The women refused to do it. They began to act out. They made themselves up. They dressed provocatively. They played loud music. They danced.

UNHCR called in Medica Mondiale, a German NGO experienced–in Bosnia, Kosova, Albania–in helping women doubly victimized by war and male violence. Their psychologists and doctors diagnosed the women as deeply traumatized by physical and sexual violence, and by great loss–the loss of home and family and in some cases children they’d had to leave behind. But according to Sylvia Johnson, a German psychologist who spent many hours at the “shelter” over a period of months, most of the girls were not depressed. They were angry at being locked up.

“They were defiant,” Johnson says, “like a gang of street kids–but not aggressive, not malicious. They were a bunch of young girls who drew their fantasies from Indian Bollywood movies. They wanted to be film stars. They had spirit. They were survivors.”

A few managed to escape, although Kabul police later caught two of them walking “unaccompanied” and sent them to prison. At least one, with her young daughter, was sent to a mental asylum, where she spends the days obsessively scrubbing the child’s genitalia. Desperate to get rid of the rest, Dr. Samar shipped half a dozen of the brightest girls to a Shuhada-sponsored clinic in the central mountains, ostensibly to train as nurses. And then last spring she offered the remaining girls up for marriage. That is, she let it be known that women were available, and men from the neighborhood began to stop by to inquire. When a match was made, Dr. Samar would ask the prospective bride for her consent. She could agree to the match or stay locked up. Only two women refused to marry.

Unlike most Afghan brides, these women were handed over for free. That put them within reach of men who couldn’t afford or expect much. One reportedly married a relative of a Shuhada cleaning woman.

An Afghan representative of UNHCR, Kabul, praised the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission for coming up with such a creative solution to the otherwise insoluble problem of independent women. Dr. Samar herself maintains that she did the women a big favor by vouching for them and restoring them to a legitimate place in Afghan society. “It was only my recommendation that got them husbands,” she says. “And what else could we do? We couldn’t keep them forever.” She asks the question rhetorically, as if one couldn’t possibly think of another thing–and as if she’d had some legal right to keep them at all.

In recent months, international aid workers in Kabul have been warned not to raise the issue of women’s rights before the Afghan presidential election, now scheduled for October, lest it spook a “conservative” reaction, topple the fragile Karzai government and reflect badly on the nation-building abilities of George W. Bush. Women’s advocates are reminded that armed rebellion brought down the reformist King Amanullah in 1929 after he attempted to abolish purdah, and President Taraki in 1979 after he allowed girls to attend school. Human rights advocates call for similar changes today–minimum legal age for marriage, an end to bride price, equal education–and having signed international human rights agreements (such as CEDAW, the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women), Afghanistan is bound to comply. But these days the shadow of the resurgent Taliban–the same sort of “conservative” force that, in the past, crushed king and Communist alike–hovers over Kabul like a darkening cloud.

Nevertheless, I wanted to know what had become of the Herati shelter girls. Shuhada gave me the newlyweds’ addresses so I could see for myself how happy they were. I found one young woman, badly bruised, who said her husband and his brother often beat her. She said she hoped to run away. I heard that another new bride had already escaped. But the other addresses on the list came up empty. The women were unknown.

In July Dr. Samar told the two marriage refuseniks, now 18, that they were too old to live in the shelter. They were given a choice: Marry or leave. They signed a document saying that the shelter owes them nothing, and they walked out the door–loose women again, or maybe, for the time being, free.