Afghanistan: where religious beliefs are private, but religious laws are not.

Één van onze lieve vrijwilligers, een Afghaanse vluchtelinge die haar thuisland heeft moeten ontvluchten omdat zij zich voor vrouwenrechten uitsprak, heeft haar verhaal voor ons opgeschreven. Omdat zij haar hart moest luchten, maar ook om haar schreeuw om rechtvaardigheid te laten horen.

I am a woman from Afghanistan, a country where traditions and customs are highly value. A country where men go into the public and women stay inside. A country where people have private religious beliefs and public religious laws.

Religion has an important position in Afghanistan and many ‘religious’ laws are in place, laws that people believe originated in the Qur’an and the Sunna, the practise of prophet Muhammad. However, in Afghanistan many people do not have the opportunity to study Qur’an and Sunnah outside of religious schools by teachers who don’t know the Arabic language, the language of the Qur’an and Sunna. Thus, there is no direct access to Islamic sources and even religious leaders are taught their religion by Afghan translations and interpretations. The lack of knowledge of Arabic together with Afghan culture has led to many misinterpretations and false beliefs on Islam, especially on women and girls. As a woman from a poor, rural background, who has fallen victim to these patriarchal and misogynistic customs and laws to the extend I had to flee the country I call home, I believe it is my duty to do everything I can to put an end to these dehumanizing practises.

The people of Afghanistan are not merely religious people. They are far more traditional people. But they believe that most traditional beliefs have religious roots. We have been taught to accept these traditions as religious practise from generation to generation. We are taught to obey these rules, and that non-obeying entails a punishable offence. Most of these traditions pertain to the role and obligations of women and institute a violation of international women’s rights. When they are old enough to play outside, boys are allowed to, but girls are not. A girl must stay home and help her mother with managing the household. While her brother is outside playing with his friends, she is inside playing with her dolls; the only friends she is allowed to have. From a young age, she will learn to obey others and not dare to have a mind of her own.

This stems from the belief of many Afghan men (and even women) that the position of women is lower. The oppression of Afghan women and girls and the deprivation of their rights is rooted in the belief that God tells us this Himself, utilizing a misogynistic translation of verse 34 of Chapter 4 in the Qur’an, Surah alNisa;

Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband's] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance - [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.

This translation is used to tell us women that we are not worth as much as men; that we are not entitled to the same level of respect as men; to deprive women of our rights that were inherently given to us by God. Discrimination against girls starts at birth. When a girl is born into a family, many family members are not happy or even ashamed. This girl is not even given the same love and care as her brother, who, from birth, received better parental care and a completely different upbringing.

In my rural town there were some parents who send their daughters to school, but the backlash from within more traditional families in their society was great. They believe that education would stop girls from obeying their families and husbands. So in order to keep them week and submissive, they would marry off their daughters at age ten, or when lucky, fifteen. They would speak behind the back of those families who did value education for their daughters, the marriage prospects of those girls became severely limited, and sometimes they even got harassed on the streets. In effect, this meant societal pressure was so much that even those parents who wanted to educate their daughters wouldn’t do so out of fear.

So, many more girls are forced to marry young, even by those who think it’s bad. They say it’s part of our religion. Young girls become slaves of their husbands, who punish them when they don’t fully obey, whatever that means. Women don’t have the right to go out of their house, verse 33 of Surah Noor is used to make women sit at home. Even if they want to pursuit education, or work to help sustain her family, she can only do so with prior permission.

This is the society I grew up in. Luckily, my family was a little different than other families. My dad, a farmer who never set a foot in a school himself, was one of these brave people who did send his daughter to school. He encouraged me to go to school, and even encouraged me to pursuit a university degree. But that made me and my family experience great problems within our society. I was laughed at daily by other students for how I was ‘aspiring goals beyond my means’. Being a woman who wanted to pursuit a career in law made us the laughing stock of other students. Wherever I went, whether it was a grocery shop or the university, I got told I was just a woman. Being a woman was a crime. A crime all women in my society committed, without choosing to do so. Everyday we’re told we should hide ourselves from men, not interact with men, and how bad and incompetent we are. Our days start with threats, abuse, discussion.

Women in Afghan tradition are a commodity. A commodity that is first owned by her father, and then by her husband. She is an object that can be inherited when her husband dies. She has no right to ever leave her late husband’s house, and is often forced to marry his brother. She has no choice but to accept, as this would be her only chance of livelihood.

In most cases, the girl is sold into marriage by their father. Or, sometimes a father exchanges one of his daughters for another girl to marry himself, or to give to his son. It sounds unbelievable, but Badal happens on a daily basis. The girls can’t protest. They must remain silent.

Another of our traditions is called Bad Dadan. When someone from one family kills a member of another family, a girl is gited to that family, as reparation. Even though the girl herself is innocent, she has to be punished according to Bad Dadan. Shee must live like a slave with her new family. This is the story of many women and girls in my homeland. One of them is Aysha, she used to live in the Orozgan province. She and her sister were given to another family in Bad Dadan. Her husband treated her horribly, and she ran away. Soon, her husband found her, and cut her nose and ear off as punishment.

I used to volunteer with the Commission on Human Rights in …. There, I saw many women who were jailed together with their infants and even babies, for not following these traditional practises. One of these practises is that girls must marry someone their family choses for them, sometimes a girl’s future husband is chosen right after she’s born. There are many child brides in Afghanistan, girls who should be in school or even playing with dolls. Often, she is married of to a cousin or other relative. She has no choice to obey her family’s decision. A terrible destination that these girls years later often inflict on their own daughters out of fear of them becoming a social outcast. Nobody is there to help them, we don’t have a strong government to implement the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Who supports us women? Our governments? Our families? No. We are alone, but we never lose hope to change our infliction. There are brave women who try to run from their circumstances, but they are often found by police, arrested and put to jail for not obtaining her husband’s permission to go out.

But, the problem is much greater. Even in 2016 my people talk about stoning women for so-called ‘honour’. They want to treat women like we were treated before Islam. Whenever I talked about women’s rights at university, they could not leave their old ideas and accept my new ones. They opposed me but never could find solid Islamic grounds to do so. They would resort to calling me a non-believer, a kaafir, so that they could treat me as an outlaw. This is what happened with Farkhonda, a young woman living in Kabul. She was a firm believer of Islam, and opposed wrongful interpretations. This made her to speak out against the leader of a local mosque one day. The result? Being beaten to death by hundreds of men and bystanders, and eventually she was burned aliove by them. In the middle of the streets.There is no justice in my country. There is no freedom. I used to have dreams that I would help women, but now I also had to flee. I’ve felt their pain. We must fight for our lives. We must fight our wrong traditions and beliefs. But we need your support. We need you to respect women, to support our right on education. To look further than just another refugee woman. We are born free, and should live free

I’m writing to you to let you know what happens to us in Afghanistan.

I’m writing to you in my pain, to let you hear my screams of discrimination, injustice, and oppression.