Forced Marriage and Women's rights

  1. Preferring Suicide Over Forced Marriage
    ABC News | December 16, 2004

    Dec. 11, 2004-They had fled the Taliban, returned home to a "new Afghanistan," and were looking forward to continuing their education when Khusboo and Heena heard the calamitous news.

    School, the two Afghan sisters were told, was a luxury the family could not afford. Instead, the girls-who were 14 and 15 years old at the time-would be married off to older men in exchange for money, or the customary "bride price" paid by Afghan grooms to the bride's family.

    For Khusboo and Heena, whose last names are being withheld to protect their identity, the news was devastating. Raised by their grandmother in Kabul, the family fled to Pakistan after the Taliban swept into power in 1996. And though life as refugees in Pakistan was extremely hard, they did manage to go school.

    So when the U.S. invasion ousted the Taliban and the sisters returned home to the Afghan capital, they had every reason to believe they would join the army of girls across the city trooping to schools, enjoying a freedom they were denied under the repressive regime.

    But that, their grandmother told them, was not to be. "I was so sad because I didn't want to get married," said Heena, speaking through a translator. "I wanted to go to school."

    Rather than be sold into marriage, the two girls decided to run away-an extremely audacious and risky act in conservative Afghan society.

    'Afghanistan Has Been Transformed'

    After decades of civil war, peace and stability-of sorts-are finally returning to Afghanistan.

    On Tuesday, Hamid Karzai was sworn in as Afghanistan's first democratically elected leader. Speaking at Camp Pendleton, Calif., as Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld attended the inauguration in Kabul, President Bush hailed the historic milestone in Afghanistan's history.

    "Afghanistan has been transformed from a haven for terrorists to a steadfast ally in the war on terror," Bush told a gathering of Marines. "And the American people are safer because of your courage."

    But even as Afghan females are finally enjoying basic human rights, such as the right to an education, to work and to vote, Afghanistan remains a profoundly conservative Muslim nation.

    Cultural traditions-including age-old, honor-bound codes of conduct-still shackle and oppress several women, especially those living outside Kabul.

    Escaping Forced Marriages by Suicide
    In the past few years, there have been an increasing number of news reports about suicides by self-immolation among Afghan women. Although nationwide statistics are hard to come by, hospitals and aid agencies in cities like Kabul and Herat in western Afghanistan have recorded a number of female burn cases.

    Forced into marriages-often with older, richer men-and faced with a life of endless exploitation and drudgery, an untold number of Afghan females are dousing themselves with kerosene used in cooking stoves and setting themselves on fire.

    "There is an absolute level of despair, that you will never be able to make a choice about your life and that really there is no way out, and knowing that you will have to live with a man you have not chosen, who is probably older than you are, who is not going to allow you to work, to go out of the house," explained Rachel Wareham of L'Association Médicale Mondiale, or World Medical Association, an international physicians group.

    Self-immolation is a horrific act that often results in a slow, torturous death in hospital burn wards even as medical officials desperately struggle to save lives.

    Medical officials and journalists such as Stephanie Sinclair-who spent weeks photographing patients in a hospital burn ward in Herat-say there is a marked difference between patients of accidental burns and those who have attempted self-immolation.

    "In the burn ward, you can tell the self-immolation cases from the regular burn cases," said Sinclair, who was on assignment in western Afghanistan for Marie Claire magazine.

    A Life of Unending Drudgery

    One such case was Shakila Azizi, a 27-year-old woman who returned to her native Herat from Iran, where her family had gone to escape the Taliban.

    But when Azizi arrived in Herat, she had to live with her in-laws, Sinclair said. She found herself at the bottom of the family pecking order, forced to do all the cooking and cleaning for the family.

    One morning, Azizi apparently complained to her in-laws about the way they were treating her, but she said they would not listen. In desperation, she went into the kitchen, doused herself in kerosene and set herself on fire, Sinclair said. Doctors tried in vain to save her life, and the young woman suffered a torturous death. She leaves behind two small children.

    Making a Fatal Pact

    Khusboo and Heena said they had made a pact that if they could not escape the forced marriages, they would kill themselves.

    Luckily for the sisters, they heard of a women's shelter in Kabul and they decided to run away from home. Founded by Afghan women's rights activist Mary Akrami after the fall of the Taliban, the women's shelter is the only one of its kind in Kabul. Its location is a secret, since Akrami says angry family members sometimes want to harm her or the women fleeing social and familial persecution.

    A Kabul native who fled the Taliban for Pakistan, Akrami returned to her homeland after performing years of social work in the destitute refugee camps of Pakistan. But although the situation for women in Afghanistan has improved since the ouster of the Taliban, Akrami says there's still a long way to go.

    "Government and the [Afghan] constitution say that women have rights, but still I am not happy with this much rights we have for women," she said.

    Indeed, while the constitution, passed in 2003, recognizes basic women's rights, international rights groups such as Amnesty International have warned that it fails to protect the rights of women. What's more, experts say there is a huge gap between the law and its enforcement is huge.

    But while Afghanistan is still trying to build its tattered judicial system, Khusboo and Heena's ability to escape forced marriages is testament to a nascent hope in a country that once had one of the world's worst records on women's rights.

    Interesting article.
  2. 14 Comments

  3. by   Roy Fokker
    Bride price eh? I thought the bride usually was the one paying dowry!
  4. by   Spidey's mom
    The terrorists may not be in power but hundreds of years of culture and religious practice are hard to overcome.

    Very sad story.

  5. by   pickledpepperRN

    Afghan Women's Struggle Continues

    An Interview with RAWA's Sahar Saba

    By Laila Kazmi
    Sahar Saba is the spokesperson for the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), an organization based in Afghanistan and Pakistan. RAWA has been carrying out its struggle for Afghan women's rights for the last 26 years. When the Taliban banned education for women, RAWA members repeatedly risked their lives simply by teaching girls to read and write, an activity which they were forced to carry out in secrecy. Saba herself first came to RAWA as a student of age nine. Her father who was dedicated to having his daughter educated enrolled her in a RAWA school himself. Today, in her late twenties, Sahar Saba is a passionate voice for RAWA and the rights of Afghan women.
    She recently toured the US speaking about the continued struggles of women and the US role in the current crisis in Afghanistan. The following interview was conducted after her lecture at the Elliot Bay Bookstore in Seattle, WA, on March 14th, 2004. We would like to thank the Afghan Iranian Women's Alliance and Elliot Bay Book Co for making this interview possible.

    MWU!: You said during your lecture that you joined RAWA at the age of 9. Your parents had to make the difficult decision of sending you away from home at such a young age so you could get an education. Why did your parents decide to send you to the RAWA underground school which you said was very far from the camp?

    Sahar Saba: There were no schools in the camps. So in the beginning there was no question to have such access to education there. There were some Pakistani schools but just for boys and not for girls. Also, even if there [had] been some for girls, we couldn't afford to pay the fees. Where I was living in the camp, it was a tribal area. Even in the recent years, there are no schools for boys or for girls, no schools, no education.

    MWU!: The women who were running the RAWA schools, who were they and where did they get their education?

    Sahar Saba: They were RAWA members who got their education in Afghanistan before schools closed down. Today most of our members, like me, [are those who] studied in RAWA schools as children. There are also a number of those who have studied in other schools and then joined RAWA. Some started with the [adult] literacy classes and then became activists.

    MWU!: When you were a child at the RAWA school, how many women were teaching there?

    Sahar Saba: When I was in school, I just had two teachers. They were there all the times with us. They were our teachers, they were our mothers, they were our sisters, taking care of everything, our food, our sleep, our clothing. I remember we needed someone to give us baths and they did that. They were teaching us in the classroom and then they were making food and doing everything [else] for us.

    MWU!: Among the families living in the refugee camps, was education considered a priority, especially for girls?

    Sahar Saba: In the camp where I was living, there were a number of people who really wanted to have a school. In fact, my father was one of those who later on established a school for boys first then for girls. But since most of the camps were and still are controlled by the fundamentalists, there are restrictions like the ones which [were enforced by the] Taliban. These restrictions were there long before the Taliban, that mentality was there and still is.

    You do not see a woman going even from one house to another without burqa [a full body veil]. Music is something which is banned in many [camps]. TV is not allowed. I know many many households who want to have TVs [but] they are not allowed by the counsel of the camp that controls everything in the camps. In fact, it controls people's lives, everything!

    So these restrictions were there for years and years. Also, there was no encouragement, no support from the United Nations or from any other international agencies. Just in a few camps which are closer to the cities like Peshawar or Quetta (as opposed to rural areas), there were some minor educational projects. I know many camps where there is still really no access to education.

    MWU!: The state of Afghan women was not always as it has been in the past couple of decades and still is today. Afghan women have seen better times when they were free to go out, to work, to attend schools, there weren't all these restrictions on their dress. How did Afghan women lose all these basic human rights?

    Sahar Saba: It started with the Russian invasion. When we say this it is because first of all [when] Afghanistan was invaded everyone including women lost their freedom, everything. Secondly, the Russian invasion [provided] a big chance for the fundamentalists to become stronger [and gain] power because they got financial and military support. They were created, in fact, by the support they got from the United States [to fight the Russians]. That was a big opportunity for the fundamentalists because in the name of jihad [they took control] to fight the Russians which the United States wanted.

    So we usually say that the tragedy with the Afghan women began with the Russian invasion. Before that, the fundamentalists really had no place in Afghanistan; they were hated by the Afghan people. They didn't have any popularity. But suddenly they were imposed on us and they made themselves accepted [by the people] by force. They were there and people couldn't do anything. That certainly made life more terrible for Afghan women.

    MWU!: You talked about the history of criminal acts and human and women's rights violations carried out by the Northern Alliance group, including murders, rapes, and tortures. They are rivals of the Taliban and are now allied with the US. Aren't members of the Northern Alliance part of the current US backed Afghan government?
    Sahar Saba: Yes, they are the main allies of the US. In fact, the Northern Alliance has the upper hand in the government of President [Hamid] Karzai. For example, the most powerful ministries are in the hands of the Northern Alliance; the defense ministry which rules everything, the foreign ministry, and the used to have the interior ministry but now they have changed that. Few others like educational and some other ministries are in the hands of the Northern Alliance. The most dangerous [of these] is the defense ministry which rules over everything. The intelligence services are in their hands, the army, all decisions in fact are [made] by NA, and they are the best allies of the United States.

    MWU!: Why do you feel the United States is using the Northern Alliance as their main allies? It's not a secret what the Northern Alliance did to the Afghan people, or do you think the US is unaware of their history?

    Sahar Saba: Of course they are aware but the United States doesn't really care about what happens to the Afghan people. What was important is their own interest, their pipeline issue, their bases in the region [so they can] control it. That's only possible by giving support to such fundamentalists. Because in the presence of a truly independent, democratic government there is no way for the United States to have military bases in Afghanistan or to build a pipeline which really doesn't have any benefit to Afghanistan. (Pipeline from Tajikistan, through Afghanistan, to Pakistan).

    MWU!: So how do the people of Afghanistan see the United States today?

    Sahar Saba: Well, in the beginning there was different kind of reaction. People were deceived because they were really tired of the Taliban and all the miseries, the restrictions, the terrible life they had under the Taliban. So people thought maybe there will be change with the US intervention in Afghanistan but now after these two years they saw that United States has failed in all its claims and promises and nothing has really changed. The reaction of people now is really more and more against the United States. The reaction is of course different from that of the Iraqis. [In Afghanistan] what people really [care about] today is how to survive, how to feed their families. If you talk to people, they say we don't care if there is US or someone else because we want food, we want shelter, we want our children not to die of very simple diseases.

    So as long as the United States remains in Afghanistan and there are all these failures, [they are] not fulfilling the promises that they made to the Afghan people, there will certainly be a different kind of reaction because Afghans have a history of opposing foreigners and not really accept them. [If the Afghans] see them as occupiers or invaders than there will be no way for the United States to continue [to control Afghanistan's future].

    MWU!: Pakistan has its own share of problems with religious fundamentalism, especially in the Northern areas where RAWA has been working. How much support do you have from the government or the grassroots organizations in Pakistan?

    Sahar Saba: We have good relations with the people in Pakistan in different areas, some NGOs, some women's groups, but unfortunately, I would say that their support has been very very little. RAWA has been working there longer than the last 20 years but there was very little voice or support of RAWA by the Pakistani women's groups or other human rights activists. Just in the last few years some of them, like Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani and a few others have started supporting RAWA and voicing their support. But generally we faced lots of problems in Pakistan too with security issues and financial issues.

    MWU!: Why do you think there was such a lack of support until recently, especially since women in Pakistan have themselves been fighting for their rights for so long?

    Sahar Saba: The reasons most of them give us are just some excuses because they must have known that RAWA is there and RAWA has had demonstrations [in Pakistan]. We really don't know why [they didn't support us], maybe they were afraid for their own security, fundamentalists, their own government which really doesn't [help]. We really don't get any kind of support from [Pakistani] government. Also, I think there is a lack of information because many of these women's groups are really not trying to know more about the problems of other countries, especially Afghanistan as a neighbor and an organization like RAWA.

    MWU!: Current and previous Pakistani governments have been known to support or co-operate with the Taliban. Do you think that has completely changed now? Do you feel that President Musharraf's government is supporting the cause of the Afghan people and groups like RAWA?

    Sahar Saba: Not really, there is no change in this sense. Now, they of course don't talk in defense of Taliban like they were doing before. President Musharraf has said many times that they don't want to support fundamentalists and terrorists and all those groups, but on the other hand they really cannot quit with the Taliban because they need to have involvement in Afghanistan and they don't have good relations with Northern Alliance. They try to make it look like the two countries have good relations but in reality they really don't like Northern Alliance.

    MWU!: Now that supposedly the Afghan people are free, are schools open? Are the young people in Afghanistan, girls and boys, getting an education?

    Sahar Saba: Well, it is different [now]. There are no restrictions on paper, not like [there were] during the Taliban. So education is allowed. There should be schools for both girls and boys but in reality that's only limited to Kabul and just few other cities. In villages, you can hardly find any schools. People really want [education]. People have tried their best to establish schools. They have had classes in destroyed places, houses, and tents, under trees, wherever possible they've tried to establish schools and educate themselves. But the fundamentalists really don't like that and a number of schools have been destroyed or burned by 'unknown people' but everyone knows who these unknown people are.
    Also, the biggest challenge for education in Afghanistan especially for girls is the security issue. Even if there is a school, many parents really don't trust sending their daughters to school because they are not sure what might happen to them. There are many cases of women being kidnapped, the young girls, if they are seen by a commander or a Northern Alliance men, the parents are often forced to marry their daughters to any of them. If they don't [comply] then the families are in big trouble, they can be killed. So security is still a big obstacle to education.
    In Kabul and in some other places, the schools are open. You can see students going to school. But from the inside, they are destroyed schools. They don't have chairs, they don't have proper textbooks, teachers are not paid salaries, or very low salaries so they have to find another work. They are too tired to teach in a proper way. There are no proper equipments to teach. So these are the problems really. When we talk about education, its not only just to have [it in] name. Just to say that schools are open but what is inside the schools?
    Many of the students are so depressed mentally, psychologically. They have very bad economic problems in the family, many of them have lost one of their family members or their parents. So they really cannot while sitting in the class like we have literacy classes but we have heard from our teachers that they are there apparently in the class but when you talk to them they are really not there. They are thinking about what to have for dinner, or a family member who is sick, how to take care of them. All these are the issues that must be really considered and then its not only about Kabul when we talk about Afghanistan. In Kabul the situation is really different, in terms of the school conditions. What about the other cities, what about the 32 provinces of Afghanistan, all the villages and all the people who live in the rural areas who have really nothing. There are areas that people have just grass to eat, no food. How you can really think of education there?

    MWU!: On your tour here in the US, so far, what type of reaction have you received from people? Do you think that Americans understand the current situation in Afghanistan today and the US role there?

    Sahar Saba: The reaction I got [has been] what I expected because the media really doesn't talk about the reality. So people somehow were a little surprised when I talked about what is the true situation in Afghanistan. There were questions. They wanted to know more and get some explanation, some justification and reasons [for] what I have said. Which is somehow a little difficult because, as I always say, 'If you want to really know the reasons, the best way is to really see it. Otherwise you have to really believe us.' And I hope that they will because the reality is what not only I have said on behalf of RAWA but other human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International [have also said it]. People who were in these meetings (Saba's lectures), they were interested but the numbers [of people] who were there were very few, small numbers. So I can see that there is not really that much interest [in the subject] as there was before.

    MWU!: Sahar, what is your main message for Americans before you return to Afghanistan?

    Sahar Saba: The most important thing is that Afghanistan shouldn't be forgotten. It is still a tragedy. Unfortunately, it can still be a dangerous example for others and it can still have a Taliban. [Americans] must keep an eye on Afghanistan and be aware [of] what their government is doing in their name in Afghanistan. At the same time, realize the importance of the long and hard struggle of Afghan women in bringing peace and democracy to Afghanistan
  6. by   gwenith
    Pretty emotive article isn't it??? One almost designed to have the western reader - especially the western female reader leap up in indignation and cry out against oppressors and outdated religious/cultural practices.

    So should we ignore this as propaganda?? No because there IS a lot of injustice committed towards women but not just in Afghanistan but all over the world (check hindu customs and Indian bride murders)

    What we should NOT do though is assume that this is how everyone within that culture feels. There are many many muslim women who are more than happy with the idea of arranged marriages.
  7. by   Mkue
    Thank you for posting the interview spacenurse.
  8. by   fergus51
    There is a big difference between arranged and forced. Forced marriages are obviously something that needs to be erradicated. Women should have every right to decide for themselves if they want to be married and who they want to marry.
  9. by   SmilingBluEyes
    I feel luckier than ever for my freedom and blessings.
  10. by   mercyteapot
    Quote from gwenith
    Pretty emotive article isn't it??? One almost designed to have the western reader - especially the western female reader leap up in indignation and cry out against oppressors and outdated religious/cultural practices.

    So should we ignore this as propaganda?? No because there IS a lot of injustice committed towards women but not just in Afghanistan but all over the world (check hindu customs and Indian bride murders)

    What we should NOT do though is assume that this is how everyone within that culture feels. There are many many muslim women who are more than happy with the idea of arranged marriages.
    Are there statistics to support this? Granted, the people that I know from cultures where arranged marriages are prevalent all now live in the U.S., so their feedback is probably not wholly representative of their culture, either, but I just can't imagine that many Muslim women are "more than happy" with being told who they have to marry (and worse yet, stay married to, whether they like it or not).
    Last edit by mercyteapot on Dec 17, '04
  11. by   donmurray
    Not to put words in Gwenith's mouth, but in our western culture the norm is that individuals, male or female, select their own marriage partner. Most of us are "more than happy" to accept this as it is the norm.
    Other cultures have differing norms, one of which is arranged marriage. Why should members of that culture not be happy to accept their own cultural norms? They might even think that basing a lifelong partnership on emotional responses as we do is strange or unnatural.
  12. by   Roy Fokker
    check hindu customs and Indian bride murders
    While I DO acknowledge this inhumane practice - I must hasten to point out that it is an abberation and it is pursued fully to the book under law.

    Many in the "West" do not under stand the motivationsa nd reasons behind an arranged marriage - similar to how many in the East cannot comprehend a "love" marriage.Having withnessed hundreds of arranged marriages (many within my own family), I can assure you that it isn't as evil as it sounds. Those cases of bridal abuse are no different than the cases of wife battering and spousal abuse in the "West". Abuse is abuse.

    Traditionally, the East has always been much more conservative than the West. I'm not saying this is neccesarily a good or a bad thing - just that it's a whole other world. Familiy relationships are much more intense and close structured. Individuality is not as encouraged as much as community.

    but I just can't imagine that many Muslim women are "more than happy" with being told who they have to marry (and worse yet, stay married to, whether they like it or not).
    My first girlfriend was a Muslim (from Herat, Afghanistan to boot). As I posted above, the "view" of "marriage" is entierly different in Eastern cultures than the West. And I must point out that under no circumstances will a muslim woman remain married to someone if she doesn't really will it. There are many provisions for divorce for a woman from her husband and he is obliged to pay her "support" monies, even after a divorce. However, the "motivation" for seeking a divorce needs to be very strong - by and large, divorec is a BIG HUGE stigma in the East, it isn't exactly encouraged - more so if there are children born of the union.

    Again, my whole point of the post is to be a tad more understanding - you can't really compare or criticise a practice unless you have walked a mile in their boots.
  13. by   pickledpepperRN
    Thank you Roy.

    A good friend of many years is a nurse I precepted when she was new on our unit.
    Of Indian descent but born in Nurth America she met her husband at age seven and saw him next two weeks before her wedding. Either could refuse risking family disapproval

    She says she fell in love with him gradually after they married.
    She is beautiful. He is very good looking. Both smart, polite, and well educated.
    They have two wonderful kids. Full of fun and joy
  14. by   Roy Fokker
    Quote from spacenurse
    She says she fell in love with him gradually after they married.
    She is beautiful. He is very good looking. Both smart, polite, and well educated.
    They have two wonderful kids. Full of fun and joy
    Most couples report that - that they gradually learn to love their partners, warts and all.

    Allthough I'll frankly admit - my parents won't have it so easy with me! I'm in a bit of a fix. Personally, I'd LOVE to meet and know and fall in love with the person I'm about to marry. She's got to be my best friend and all.

    But I don't know. If it meant the world to my parents, I doubt I would say no....

    Arrrgh! I dislike having to make choices like these!