Strict code rules Afghan women

Monday, December 17, 2001

HERAT, Afghanistan -- The prosecutor reads the charges: leaving your husband and spending the night in another man's home. The suspect rises from the floor.

"No one touched me, not even my hand," Gol pleads. "I swear there was nothing improper."

Not according to the stern Islamic code of justice in Afghanistan, where she could receive up to several months in prison for leaving her husband without permission. If adultery is proven, she could face death.

The demise of the Taliban freed Afghanistan from five years of severely restrictive social regulation. But a deeply conservative version of sharia, or Islamic law, still guides the legal system during a time when some women are testing the new boundaries of society.

"We had sharia before the Taliban corrupted it. We will continue with it. The West helped us defeat the Taliban, but they will not dictate the laws we live by," said Noor Mohammad, general prosecutor in the western city of Herat.

The Taliban were seen by many around the world as warriors of an ultra-puritanical brand of Islam that found evil everywhere: jobs for women, schooling for girls, men without beards, television, music, non-Islamic art, kite-flying. The shroud-like burqa for women became one of the most recognized symbols of their rule.

The Taliban's collapse cast off some restrictions for women. A traditional chador, which shows the face, is now acceptable. Women can appear in public without a male relative as escort, which was required under the Taliban. But there appears to be no revision of the basic social restrictions for women despite appeals from Western rights groups for the rules to be relaxed.

"We are not a country that can legislate new laws and rules like in the West," said Mohammad, the prosecutor. "There will only be trouble if outsiders try to change our ways."

Morals charges

About a dozen women have been arrested on morals charges around Herat since the fall of the Taliban last month, officials said. Most of them apparently tried to use the confusion to leave their families -- a crime -- either for new relationships or in hopes of reaching nearby Iran.

Four women are marched under armed escort from their ramshackle quarters outside the main prison, where most prisoners held under the Taliban have been freed. One woman carries her young daughter. The other children staying with their detained mothers remain behind.

The women flip back the face covering of their burqas when they enter the interrogation room. At desks are two women prosecutors, who earned law degrees at the University of Kabul before the Taliban took power in 1996.

Gol, the first to be questioned, sits on a carpet so dirty its design was almost indiscernible. It is the first step to possible trial.

"Age?" asks prosecutor Maria Bashir. "I really don't know," Gol says.

"Education?"

"Nothing. I am illiterate."

Bashir explains the charges of leaving her husband for another man's home and hints at the dire consequences of adultery.

Two other women are interrogated on similar charges. The fourth is accused of hiding loot taken by relatives in an armed robbery shortly after the Taliban collapsed.

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