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.