Ghor province, in western Afghanistan, has been in the headlines in the past few years. Not only was the appointment of its first female provincial governor overturned, there has also been a series of extreme cases of violence against its women. In this unsettling provincial case study, AAN’s Salima Ahmadi takes a closer look at how conservative attitudes and customary practices, combined with insecurity and a failing justice system, result in an environment of near-constant violence against Afghan girls and women, where perpetrators literally get away with murder. (Written in cooperation with Ehsan Qaane and Sari Kouvo).The family of Zahra, a 14-year old girl who was 4 months pregnant when she was burnt to death by in-laws in Ghor, sit in a protest tent in Allauddin Park, in Kart-e Seh area of Kabul, to seek justice for Zahra. Photo: Tolo News.
Women’s leadership: too soon for Ghor?
On 28 June 2015, Sima Joyenda (1) was appointed governor of Ghor province. Joyenda was one of two female governors introduced by the National Unity Government (the other one being Masuma Muradi, governor of Daikundi). On 4 July 2015, a week after Joyenda’s appointment, the Ulema Council in Ghor sent an official letter demanding her resignation. The letter was written and signed by Ghor’s former Ulema Council Head, Mawlawi Esmatullah Nadim, and stated: “Considering Sharia provisions, the current chaotic situation in Ghor and the will and opinion of the people, the governor of Ghor should step down from her position and respect the will of Ulema. The Ulema will not be obedient to a female governor.” (The letter can be found here). The council’s spokesman, Mawlawi Haidari, on his social media account, called women “incomplete” (see here and here). Tolo News quoted another of the Ulema Council members, Mawlawi Muhammad, saying: “We expect the government to introduce a male governor, noting that a woman cannot be a prayer leader for men,” from which he concluded that neither could women govern a province. Senator Muhammad Dawud Ghafari from Ghor province also opposed her appointment and said that: “A woman cannot manage one million people. There is conflict in Ghor; no one listens to a man, much less to a woman.” In response to these positions, there was also pushback by activists and certain clerics who described the opposition to the female governor’s appointment as being “against Islam and against the will of the people.”
The aggressive protests and pressure from religious figures, local officials and armed groups continued, and, on 17 December 2015, Joyenda was replaced by Ghulam Nasir Khaze, a man with close connections to Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah (see here). Joyenda told AAN that she had been removed because she was a woman and “the conservative people in Ghor do not want a woman in a leadership role” (although she later hinted that the opposition may have also been due to her stance vis-à-vis land grabbing). After her removal, she was reappointed as deputy governor of the country’s capital, Kabul, but she refused the post.
Increased reporting of violence against women in Ghor
Joyenda’s appointment and her subsequent removal did result in increased attention on the plight of women in Ghor province. According to Latifa Sultani, gender coordinator at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), this increased attention resulted in more reported cases of the violence faced by women in the province.
Masuma Anwari, who heads Ghor’s Department of Women’s Affairs (DoWA), said that in 1394 (2015) her department registered 90 cases of violence against women, 30 cases more than during the previous year (see here). The rise in reported cases seems to have continued into this year: in the first five months of 1395 (corresponding roughly to April-August 2016), 50 cases had already been reported to the DoWA, 17 of which were of suicide, rape or self-immolation (see here). More cases may have also been reported to the departments of the interior ministry, the judiciary and the local office of the AIHRC (although the extent to which the reports to the different institutions overlap is unclear).
An increase in reported cases does not necessarily signify an increase in cases of violence, as there has been – and continues to be – considerable under-reporting of violence against women. But it does suggest an increased awareness that violence against women is a crime that needs to be addressed by the state authorities. This trend is likely to continue now that a female attorney general, specifically responsible for violence against women, has been appointed to Ghor province. Nagina Ghori is the first senior female attorney general in Ghor’s history. Women’s rights activists welcomed her appointment in July 2016. As noted by Farida Nasiri, a women’s rights officer at the provincial office of the AIHRC: “A female attorney increases our hopes that cases of violence against women will be properly addressed in the future” (see here). Like former governor Joyenda, Ghori will face many challenges, including widespread reluctance to see her bring to light extreme cases of violence against women. Several recent high-profile cases illustrate how a conservative culture, insecurity and the failure of the formal justice system often force girls and women to live with extreme violence and allow their perpetrators to literally get away with murder.
Recent cases of violence against women: The stoning of Rukhshana (25 October 2015)
On 25 October 2015, 19 year-old Rukhshana was stoned to death for alleged adultery (see here ) in Ghalmin, a village not far from Feroz Koh, the provincial capital of Ghor (previously named Chaghcharan – see here). Tolo News reported that Rukhshana’s father had married her off to a disabled man at the age of 13. She had not accepted the marriage, however, and had run off with her childhood love to Saghar district. There she was arrested by security forces and handed over to her parents. Her father then married her off to another man but she ran away again, this time to Murghab district.
A local commander, Mullah Yusuf, who had apparently asked Rukhshana’s hand for his brother several times, allegedly captured her and handed her over to a group that was identified by the media as Taleban (see here). (2) According to Tolo News, the men told her father: “If you give us five million afghani, we will give back your daughter. Otherwise we will kill her.” When her father refused to pay the amount, one of the members, Mullah Hashem, ordered the stoning.
The two-minute video of her death went viral on social media, showing a teenage girl placed in a hole in the ground and surrounded by a group of men who hurled stones at her until she died (a link to the video can be found here and here). After Farkhunda’s murder in March 2015 in Kabul (see AAN’s reporting here, here and here), this was another brutal murder of a woman, to which the public reacted with outrage.
During the parliament’s plenary session on 4 November 2015, female MPs strongly condemned the stoning of Rukhshana. They said that, given the presence of the Afghan judiciary, no one should be tried in an arbitrary court (mahkama-ye sahrayi, lit: desert court). Fawzia Kufi, the head of the Wolesi Jirga’s Women’s Affairs Commission, criticised conservative male MPs who had opposed the passing of the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law in 2013. Kufi said, “If parliament had approved the EVAW law, the culprits would have feared punishment and Rukhshana would not have been stoned to death.” She argued that MPs who had called the EVAW law anti-Islamic should be held responsible for the increase in cases of violence against women. Another female MP, Gulalai Nur Safi from Balkh province, noted:
The stoning of a young woman in Ghor province in such a barbaric way is an inhumane act and is against Sharia law. Forced marriages compel our women to escape from their houses. When the EVAW law was on the parliament’s agenda, most of our male MPs were against it and said that this law was against Islam. I do not think that killing a woman in such a barbaric way is according to Sharia. I wonder how Sharia and conservative MPs would interpret this act of barbarism.
In response to the demands of the predominantly female MPs and women’s rights activists, the government sent a delegation to Ghor to investigate the case. The delegation, however, was led by Mawlawi Balegh, a prominent member of the National Ulema Council and adviser to President Ghani on religious affairs, who, according to a New York Times article, had justified Rukhshana’s stoning in a Friday sermon. He said: “If you are married and you commit adultery, you have to be stoned … the only question is whether this was done according to Sharia Law, with witnesses and confessions as required.” The other members of the delegation were representatives from the Attorney General’s Office, the National Directorate of Security, AIHRC and the interior ministry. The delegation and local authorities assured the victim’s family that justice would be done and the perpetrators would be arrested. The committee did not release a formal report, and, despite the fact that the police reportedly identified 28 suspects related to her murder, none of them has been arrested at the time of writing. Joyenda, the former governor of Ghor, told AAN that the government had been unable to arrest the men who killed Rukhshana, as it has no control over the area where the stoning took place.
The victim’s family has since received death threats from the armed group who carried out the killing and has moved to Feroz Koh, after the government proved unable to protect them.
Recent cases of violence against women: The burning alive of child bride Zahra (12 July 2016)
On 12 July 2016, in an unusually shocking case, Zahra, a 14 year-old girl who was four months pregnant, was tortured, stabbed and finally set on fire by her in-laws, after she refused to work in a poppy field. When she was taken to the central hospital in Ghor, doctors found that 90 percent of her body had burn wounds. She needed serious treatment, which was not possible in Ghor. The AIHRC and women’s rights groups, with the help of the newly appointed female attorney, Ghori, urged the government to help transfer her to Kabul; Ghori made all the arrangements and Zahra was transferred to Esteqlal Hospital in Kabul, where she died on 17 July 2016.
Zahra had been married off a few years earlier, at the age of eleven, to settle a dispute about a bride price payment. Wida Saghari, a women’s rights activist, told AAN that after Zahra’s mother had become paralysed, Zahra’s father, Muhammad Azam, took a new wife. At the time, he promised his new in-laws 500,000 afghani as the bride price (see here for more background on the customs surrounding bride price). Since Azam was a poor man and could not afford to pay this sum, his in-laws demanded that he settle the dispute by giving three of his daughters as well as a (smaller) sum of money. According to Saghari, “the victim’s father had no other option but to give his daughter to settle the matter through the practice of baad.”
Baad, or the giving of a girl to another family to settle a dispute, is a common practice, particularly in the more remote and rural areas of Afghanistan. Girls who are given in baad often face a lot of violence and hostility from their new families. A survivor of baad from Nangarhar told AAN: “From the day a girl is given as baad, she is given into slavery and is never treated like a normal member of the family. She is often abused and beaten by the in-laws. Zahra was also the victim of baad. She could not withstand the abuse and died.” (There are also men who oppose the practice of baad. For instance Khan Wali Adel, a civil activist from Paktia province, protested against the practice by putting up a tent on the Darulaman Road near the parliament. He kept up his protest for six months (until 19 October 2016). His protest stemmed from the fact that years ago two of his sisters had been exchanged in the practice of baad and that recently his father had wanted to take ten girls from another tribe in revenge for the killing of his brothers (see here). He told AAN that his own sisters were treated badly by their in-laws and he did not want to let his father ruin the future of ten other innocent girls.)
After losing his daughter, Zahra’s father pledged to seek justice in Kabul. On 17 July, supported by women’s rights activists, he set up an advocacy camp for Zahra and other victims of violence against women, in Allauddin Park, in the Karte-ye Seh area of Kabul. (see here) The group put forward three key demands to the government: the transfer of Zahra’s case from the provincial court to Kabul, the arrest and transfer of the culprits to Kabul, and a public trial. They said that until the government arrested the culprits, no funeral would be held for Zahra. The fact that the case received extensive coverage from both the national and international media put pressure on the government to respond to the protestors’ demands.
According to one of Zahra’s relatives, Zahra’s father in-law and mother in-law have indeed been arrested and are being detained in Pul-e Charkhi prison in Kabul. However, the main culprit, Zahra’s husband, is still at large. A local source from Ghor told AAN that the governor, Ghulam Nasir Khaze, and the provincial council head, Fazl-ul-Haq Ehsan, are not cooperating with the husband’s arrest: “Zahra’s husband is at home; he has not escaped anywhere because he is being protected by the local authorities.” According to the local source, when civil society activists from Kabul approached the governor, he said that no one had issued an arrest warrant, so how could he, the governor, arrest the husband. On 10 August 2016, twenty-five days after Zahra’s death, she was laid to rest on Bibi Mahro Hill (see here).
Earlier, Zahra’s father had told Tolo News: “They [the victim’s in-laws] have power. The court works in their favour. The police headquarters and the provincial council office are also in their favour. Whatever they say will be done by the judicial organs.” The fact that provincial courts are often directly influenced by prominent warlords or local government officials explains why a victim’s family would demand the transfer of their case to the capital. Moreover, according to a representative of AIHRC: “Five districts of Ghor province are insecure and the government’s presence is weak, so delivering justice and guaranteeing a fair trial there is hardly a possibility.” The attorney general, Ghori, also wanted Zahra’s murderers to be prosecuted in Kabul. She was certain that due to family ties, local officials would prevent Zahra’s in-laws from being punished.
Victims’ families thus demand the transfer of cases to the capital in the hope that law enforcement will be better there and women’s voices will be heard. The transfer slows down the prosecution process, but increases hope for justice to be delivered.
Other reported cases of violence against women from Ghor province
On 31 August 2015, Ghor’s primary court ordered the public lashing of a woman and a man for committing adultery. The couple received 100 lashes after the primary court of Ghor had ruled that the young couple were unmarried and had had unlawful sexual relations (see here and here). When asked later, Atta Muhammad Faruqi, a primary court judge, said that the penalty was in line with article 130 of the Constitution and article 1 of the Penal Code. (3) Moreover, he said, “the couple confessed four times before the court that they had a sexual relationship” (see here). Abdul Hai Khatib, who was the governor’s spokesperson at the time said: “They had relations a long time ago, but were arrested only early this month. Their punishment is based on Sharia law and will teach others a lesson” (see here).
On 20 November 2015, a 26-year old woman named Shirin Gul, who was accused of running away from home, died after a public lashing (see here). Shirin Gul was originally from Herat province; she had gone to Shahrak district in Ghor to visit her uncle’s family. There, she was accused of running away from home. Details are scarce, but the former governor of Ghor, Sima Joyenda, said that the girl had received the lashings from armed men in public, after which she died of her injuries: “Although the police chief of Shahrak district denies this, the victim’s father says his daughter died of the lashings.” The interior ministry launched an investigation into the crime (see here).
In late July 2016, Gharib Gul, a 6-year old girl was reported to have been married off to a 60-year old imam in Obeh district of Herat, in exchange for a goat (see here). This was such an extreme example of child marriage that it caused a public outcry. The people of Gehr village in Herat, where the wedding took place, asked the imam to leave the place; he was eventually arrested in Feroz Koh, in neighbouring Ghor province (for more details see this report). Women’s rights activists in Kabul and Ghor demanded justice for Gharib Gul and called for the prosecution of the old man, saying that “an example has to be made of a 60-year-old cleric who marries a six-year-old girl.” After the outcry by women’s rights activists, Sayed Abdul Karim, the cleric, was sentenced by Ghor’s provincial court to seven years in prison while the victim’s father received a four-year term (see here).
On 25 August 2016, Reyhana, an 18 year-old girl originally from Feroz Koh district in Ghor, was killed by her in-laws in Badghis province. When Reyhana was only three years old, her father had found her a spouse named Abdul Ghafur. “Ba naam kardan-e dukhtar” is another customary practice of early marriage, where a girl is promised in marriage at birth, or at an early age, to a specific man. She is not sent to her in-laws until she reaches a certain age (sometimes the girl is the legally required age, which is 16, sometimes she is married off well before that). Reyhana’s father died when she was fourteen years old. At the age of 17, she was sent to her in-laws in Jund district in Badghis. During the nine months of her marriage, her in-laws abused her badly because she did not become pregnant, according to the women’s affairs department head in Ghor who told AAN the details of the case. When Reyhana went to Feroz Koh to visit her mother, her family tried to file a case against her in-laws with the local courts, but they were told they had to go to the court in Jund district. When Reyhana tried to stay with her parents in Ghor, her powerful in-laws took her back to Jund. Here she was left helpless, as she had no relatives to help her register her case. Unemployment and poverty prompted Abdul Ghafur, Reyhana’s husband, to travel to Iran and seek employment there. “Seven days after Ghafur left for Iran, Reyhana was decapitated by her in-laws and her dead body was sent to Feroz Koh,” according to the head of the women’s affairs department. Reyhana’s mother in-law, sister in-law and brother in-law were the main suspects in this murder (Dari report here). The case was registered with the AIHRC and the DoWA’s office, but there has so far been no attempt to prosecute the in-laws.
The limits and importance of trying to change the law
This provincial case study from Ghor illustrates the challenges women and women’s rights activists face when trying to promote equality and increased respect for women’s rights in Afghanistan. Women’s active participation in society and girls’ rights to decide about their own bodies and lives remains fiercely contested. Legal changes that seek to promote equality and women’s rights, although they often remain on paper only, are still important tools for those who want to fight for equality and rights, as they can contribute to gradual changes in the justice system, institutions and in people’s minds. But these laws are also vehemently – and sometimes violently – contested.
The challenges are compounded by ongoing conflict and poverty: conflict enables those with power to intimidate and kill with impunity, while poverty contributes to the upholding of customs that treat girls and women as commodities. These challenges demand an intense struggle by the government and women’s rights groups to expand awareness programmes – to educate women, and their families, about their basic rights and protections under the law – to more remote places. Such awareness programmes, on women’s rights and the laws that protect women, should also focus on local mullahs who are influential at the community level.
On a positive note, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, together with the Supreme Court of Afghanistan, took the initiative in January 2016 to demand that all marriages be registered in the family courts and that marriage certificates be provided. According to Delbar Nazari, the Minister of Women’s Affairs, registration will start in Kabul city and its four provincial zones, from where it will expand to the provinces (see here). It is meant as a measure to help decrease, and ultimately overcome, violence against women in Afghanistan (see here). Based on statistics released by AIHRC in 2012, “Eighty per cent of Afghans have marriage certificates that are not registered in any court.” It is hoped that marriage registration in the courts will help push back the proportion of forced marriages and child marriages (in which women and girls are often particularly vulnerable to violence and mistreatment). This may be a small step forward, but it is another step towards providing women and girls with greater legal protection against violent exploitation and abuse.
Edited by Sari Kouvo and Martine van Bijlert
(1) Sima Joyenda, an ethnic Aimaq, was born in 1971 in Feroz Koh district of Ghor province (at the time it was still called Chaghcharan), where she attended primary and secondary school. Joyenda was a delegate to the Emergency Loya Jirga in 2002 and the Constitutional Loya Jirga in 2003. She was a candidate in the parliamentary elections in 2005, but did not win a seat in the Wolesi Jirga. After her unsuccessful election campaign she got her Bachelor degree in Law and Political Science at Kateb University in Kabul. In 2010, she ran again in the parliamentary election and was elected as MP for Ghor province. In June 2015, President Ghani appointed Joyenda to replace the former governor of Ghor, Sayed Anwar Rahmati. She was replaced on 17 December 2015, after continued protests by the religious figures and reappointed to the position of deputy governor of the capital, Kabul, which she refused (see here ).
(2) For more details on the complicated background of this group, see recent AAN reporting here. AAN’s Borhan Osman has found that the perpetrators of this and other acts of violence was an armed group that has been alternately linked to the Taleban and the Afghan government, and has been largely operating as a criminal gang:
[The group] had previously been referred to as Taleban, a pro-government force or merely an illegal armed group. For example, when the Murghabi network fought Mullah Ahmad Shah’s men in the Gorken area of Charsada district in July 2015, local officials hailed them as an uprising loyal to Shah Wali. The ANSF joined the Murghabi network in the battle for Gorken, an important Taleban stronghold. However, in another incident in the same year, in October 2015, when Faruq, Taj Muhammad and Abdul Rahman Muzammil stoned to death a 19 year-old girl named Rokhshana for alleged adultery, local people and officials said they were members of the Taleban. This description was then picked up, largely unverified, by both the local and international media.
(3) This means the primary court chose to try the case based on legal articles that allow a judge to turn to Hanafi jurisprudence in cases where there is no specific applicable law. In this case, however, there was an applicable law: Article 427 of the Penal Code, which applies to adultery and has a more lenient sentence.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020
violence against women