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The honor system Afghan women still stifled by ancient traditio

Saturday, July 20, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Wrapped in blankets and bright scarves, the six inmates were scattered like wallflowers on the side of a cell inside Kabul's women's prison.

There was Marzia, 28, whose 55-year-old husband won't give her a divorce. She claimed he chained her feet and locked her in a small damp room in his house for a month.

There was Nilofar, 16, and Fariba, 19, who fell in love with boys next door, and tried to elope. When Fariba refused to marry a cousin, she said, her father threatened to "chop me up and give me to my cousin in pieces" -- while her fiance, the cousin, sent her a message in jail that he would kill her as soon as she was freed.

On Nov. 13, when the Taliban left Kabul, the women's jail emptied. But in the last six months, women and teen-age girls have started trickling back in, arrested for many of the same crimes that got them jailed during the Taliban era.

Of 29 current prisoners, 60 percent were jailed for eloping or leaving their homes, and 20 percent were accused of adultery. There was one charged with murder, one with theft and a third charged with selling her married daughter.

'It's a custom here'

Despite Western pressure for greater attention to the rights of women in Afghanistan, the legal system remains a great question mark. Many laws pertaining to women have not changed in Afghanistan, and there is confusion in legal circles and among investigators as to what the law actually is. Afghanistan now runs under a dual legal system, with both Sharia, or Islamic law, and some parts of the civil code that existed before the Taliban took control in 1996 and burned all the contemporary laws, legal records and books.

But Martin Lau, an Islamic law specialist at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, said some offenses, such as the "honor crimes" in which male relatives kill females for dishonoring the family, are more a matter of tradition than law.

"It's custom here. It's not Islamic law," he said in a recent interview in Kabul, the capital. "There is nothing in Islam that says a betrayed husband has the right to take the law into his own hands."

Sherin Aqa Manawee, deputy of Afghanistan's Supreme Court, said that under Sharia law, a man or woman is entitled to choose a spouse, provided neither is engaged -- and the woman's father has no legal right to interfere. But it rarely works out that way. The law clashes with the long-held Afghan tradition that families select the spouse. Women and girls who run away from the homes of their fathers, husbands or other male relatives are arrested and taken to jail, where they stay unless claimed by a male relative.

Lau was in Kabul recently on a project for the International Commission of Jurists, a Geneva-based human rights group of legal experts, to examine the compatibility between Afghanistan's law and international human rights standards. But he said there were contradictions between judges and legal experts about what laws are in force.

"Just trying to find out what the substantive law is, is impossible," he said. "There seems to be a huge amount of legal uncertainty."

Treated as minors

The detention of women for running away from home is part of a culture that treats them as though they were minors, their lives ruled by their male relatives. Under the law applied by the Taliban and still widely in force, a woman has to be represented by her male guardian or husband in all legal proceedings. In a country where clan connections are all-important, a woman must rely on her male relatives to push her cause with police and court officials. For Afghan women, the legal system is opaque and terrifying. Marzia spent eight months in prison because she wants a divorce. A month ago she was released pending the divorce trial, but she may be sent back to her husband, if the court refuses a divorce.

Now she is living with her one male relative, a 95-year-old uncle.

Manawee, 35, appointed to the Supreme Court after the fall of the Taliban, believes getting a divorce should be difficult.

"Have you noticed the problem in the West, that there's more divorce cases in foreign countries than in Afghanistan? We don't want these unfavorable changes or the experiences that Westerners face," he said.

Although widows can choose whom to marry, single women traditionally have no say. Many young men have no choice either. The match is arranged by their parents.

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