Fate of women still tied to arranged marriages in post-Taliban Afghanistan

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Just before she leapt from her roof, Farima thought of the wedding that would never happen and the man she’d never marry. Her fiance would be pleased to see her die. It would offer relief to them both.

Farima, 17, had resisted her engagement to Zabiullah since her grandfather ordained it when she was 9. In post-Taliban Kabul, where she dreamed of becoming a doctor, she faced a fate dictated by ritual.

After 11 years of Western intervention in Afghanistan, a woman’s right to study and work had been codified by the government. Modernity had crept into Kabul, but not enough to save Farima from marriage to a man she despised.

Farima’s father, Mohammed, was eating breakfast when he heard her hit the dirt. He ran outside. His daughter’s torso was contorted. Her back was broken, but she was still alive.

Farima realized she’d survived. It was Allah’s providence, she thought. But it left her without an escape. Suddenly, she was a mangled version of herself, still desperate to avoid the marriage.

“We still must get married,” Zabiullah told his brother. “The engagement must remain.”

Her father agreed that Farima’s pursuit of a formal separation was unwise.

“We are not a liberal family,” Mohammed said. “This is not how we handle our problems.”

Farima had been afforded opportunities her mother couldn’t imagine. In 2001, the coalition brought dozens of girls schools. Farima heard about female physicians. She was first in her class; medical school was really possible.

Farima’s mother had never gone to school. She dressed in sky-blue burqas that hid her face. Farima wore only a head scarf, applying lipstick and eyeliner for the world to see.

When she was engaged, a 9-year-old Farima crawled into her mother’s lap, confused. Even as Kabul grew more modern, that engagement was unbreakable. Zabiullah was a distant cousin. If she broke it, the family could splinter.

But when Farima got to know Zabiullah, she couldn’t stand him. They talked on the phone, and he chastised her for going outside. He demanded she stop speaking even with members of her family. “She was too close with her relatives, getting ice cream and going to the market with her father’s cousin,” he said.

“If he was like that when we were engaged, what would marriage have been like?” Farima said. “I couldn’t bear it.”

Zabiullah attributed her stubbornness to values he demonized. “She’s too liberal, too modern,” he said.

Mohammed scooped up his injured daughter. He hailed a taxi, and they sped to Ali Ahmed Hospital, where Taher Jan Khalili performed surgery for three hours. The family was ashamed to tell Khalili the truth. Her father said Farima had an accident.

“I wasn’t sure if she would survive. Her back was badly broken,” Khalili said. In the past year, he has handled nearly a dozen attempted female suicides. “This is the situation in Afghanistan,” he said.

Farima spent nine days in the hospital. When she re-entered the world in late September, bandaged and carried on a stretcher, her relatives cried and thanked God that she had survived.

Zabiullah, a plumber, insisted the wedding date remain unchanged. He had spent $30,000 on gifts for his fiancee, he said. He had paid for a big engagement party. Farima had sat sullen, while relatives sang and danced and ate kebab.

“Everyone was having a great night, but she did not,” Mohammed said.

Dozens of women in Afghanistan kill themselves each year to escape failed, and often violent, marriages. Other women run away, typically leading to prison. About 500 women are imprisoned for fleeing from forced marriages or domestic violence, according to a Human Rights Watch report released this year.

A failed suicide is even more complicated. Farima had given up on another suicide attempt; she could not walk without help and was too weak to inflict much damage. She opted to resolve her failing engagement in Kabul’s nascent family court. “People told me I was crazy to go to a court,” Farima said.

She would have to plead her case in front of a room full of judges and lawyers, who’d decide whether she was entitled to a separation. In Afghan culture, men can divorce wives without any justice system.

The chief judge, Rahima Rasai, looked at Farima while she adjusted her back brace. “You have ruined your life,” Rasai said.

A woman is entitled to plead for divorce or custody of her children, but only if she has five male “witnesses,” or defenders, and often only if her husband or fiance condones the separation. The court, funded by Western NGOs. adheres strictly to sharia law.

Farima sat opposite from her fiance. She tried mot to cry. “How are you feeling?” Rasai asked. “Terrible,” Farima said. Zabiullah ground his teeth.

Every year, Kabul’s family court handles about 300 cases, mostly women seeking to divorce their negligent or abusive husbands. Established in 2003, it was seen widely as progress after the Taliban’s stoning of adulterers and dismantling of women’s rights.

Now it is a window into the tumultuous lives of Afghan families. Women whose fiances emigrated from Afghanistan seek separation from absent partners. Girls whose husbands sold them as prostitutes beg for divorce certificates. Some are granted, and some are not.

Last month was typical at the court: Some women screamed at their husbands. Some brought their small children to testify. Some beat themselves with their fists to demonstrate the abuse they’d endured. Some watched as their husbands were dragged out in handcuffs. Some arrived in burqas, and some in blue jeans. One had an epileptic seizure. Many were crying as they left the courtroom.

Farima’s father sat in the corner. For years, he’d tried to avoid this moment. “I told my daughter not to do this. We don’t want a bad name. We don’t want our family to fall apart.”

Farima had told him many times she was thinking about killing herself, he said. When he looked at her, crumpled and frail, he knew he could have prevented it. “I just never thought she would really do it,” he said.

“What is wrong with this man?” Rasai asked Farima, pointing to Zabiullah.

“He treats me terribly,” Farima said. “Our marriage would be hell.”

The judge looked to Zabiullah. “And what do you think of your fiance?”

“She is confused. She has become so liberal,” he said.

Rasai sipped her tea. She was tired. It was the last case of the morning. None had been resolved. There weren’t enough male witnesses, or Rasai simply wasn’t convinced that a separation was warranted.

“It haunts me. Even when I’m praying, I think about the sadness of my job,” Rasai said later.

Rasai asked Farima what Zabiullah had given her. Farima’s mother left and returned dragging a trunk.

It was full of clothes, jewelry and cosmetics. Her mother pulled out each item and held it up. Everything was still wrapped in plastic.

“Where are the other rings?” Zabiullah burst out.

“That’s all that you gave me,” Farima replied, exasperated.

“Even if Karzai demands it, I will not allow my daughter to marry this man!” Farima’s mother suddenly exclaimed, invoking the Afghan president. It was the kind of support Farima had never received from her parents.

Rasai started scribbling.

“Your engagement is scrapped,” she said. “You no longer have any relation to each other.”

Farima and Zabiullah dipped their thumbs in ink and touched them to separation certificates.

“Keep this with you forever,” Rasai said, giving each a copy.

Two weeks later, Farima was at home. She was reading a book called “The Gift of the Bride.” “It’s about relationships between wives and husbands and children,” she said.

In her novels, girls grow up to be happy mothers. There is no clash between values. Arranged marriages are full of love. Husbands are patient and accepting. “For me, it is not always like that. Life is complicated,” Farima said.

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