“A woman who wants to marry the man who raped her. . . . Brides ending up mutilated after their first sexual experience. . . . Women with university training and a career condemned to live with husbands they do not love because, if they divorce, they would lose their children.” These are captions to a moving photo exhibition in Barcelona illustrating the lives of nearly 200 Afghan women and the injustices they suffer. Spanish journalist Mònica Bernabé put it together (with photos by Spanish artist Gervasio Sánchez), telling stories she encountered running a NGO focussed on women’s rights in Afghanistan. Thomas Ruttig, who went, recommends seeing it, if not in Barcelona, then in your home town – because this exhibition can come to wherever you offer to host it. Portrait Masume. Photo: Gervasio Sánchez.
Few big exhibitions about Afghanistan are political and get a lot of public attention. The last one I saw, in 2010 in Potsdam near Berlin, showed the heart-rending portraits of the victims of an anti-Taleban airstrike – ordered by a German officer on 4 September 2009 in Kunduz – and their closest surviving relatives, collected by reporter Christoph Reuter (an occasional contributor to AAN) and photographer Marcel Mettelsiefen. Some relatives brought a compensation case against the German government that has been refused by a local court in Cologne in April 2013 and is currently waiting for a revision in a higher-level court.
Now there is another recommendable and successful Afghanistan exhibition. It is open at Barcelona’s Palau Robert, a beautiful palace at central Passeig de Gràcia boulevard until 15 February 2015 and shows Afghan portraits, too. Simply titled “Mujeres/Women Afganistán”, it consists of photographs by Spanish artist Gervasio Sánchez. He has been much acclaimed for documenting so-called ‘disappearances’ (men and women ‘being disappeared’ by governments or security forces intent on eradicating political opponents) in a dozen countries around the world. His photographs of Afghan women are accompanied by texts by Mònica Bernabé.
Bernabé is a Barcelona-based Spanish journalist who was daily newspaper El Mundo’s Afghanistan correspondent from 2007 until last year, and has frequently contributed to AAN (see her last dispatch about Baloch refugees in Afghanistan here). She also set up the Catalan women rights advocacy organisation Association for Human Rights in Afghanistan (ASDHA), the only Spanish NGO that permanently worked in Afghanistan. She started ASDHA after she first visited Afghanistan in 2000, then still under the Taleban regime, and was inspired by underground girls’ schools run by an Afghan women’s association.
Meanwhile, due to funding cuts in crisis-ridden Catalonia, after almost 15 years, ASDHA had to close its Kabul office last year. With this exhibition – which, upon request, is available for shows in other cities – ASDHA and Mònica Bernabé present an impressive visualisation of their work in Afghanistan.
The show is organised along a number of themes that are central to Afghan women’s lives and that organisations like ASDHA come across in their daily work: marriage, forced more often than not, motherhood and the resulting problems, such as drug addiction; escape from their families, for which they often end up in prison or in shelters; attempted suicide, often through self-immolation. But they also show the opposite: women’s ventures into domains considered to be for males only. Under the title “Women against the current,” policewomen, women football players and boxers are portrayed. The last part is titled “Impunity: The scars of war.” It picks up a theme of the Kunduz exhibition mentioned above, showing portraits of women and children who have lost relatives in different periods of the on-going war but also of those who stood and spoke up. Like Afghani Kohdamani who organises sewing courses for other widows, telling them not to remain quiet about the injustices they experienced. “I want there to be justice so that what happened to me won’t happen to other women. I will fight for it until I die,” Ms Kohdamani explains.
Afghani Kohdamani’s sewing circle. Photo: Gervasio Sánchez.
The exhibition is accompanied by a beautiful photo book. It includes the testimonies and photographs of nearly 200 Afghan women and structured similarly to the exhibition. It ends with a gripping image of 13-year-old Muzdia Harif holding a photo of her uncle killed in a bomb attack in inter-factional fighting and staring into the camera with the eyes of an adult who has already seen too much.
Portrait Muzdia. Photo: Gervasio Sánchez.
“The violence begins in the heart of the family”
“When I visited Afghanistan for the first time in the summer of 2000, during the period when the Taliban was in power, I believed the fundamentalist regime was the main reason for the misfortunes suffered by Afghan women,” Mònica Bernabé writes in the foreword to the photo book. The violence against Afghan women, she states, is “endemic.” “The more I learn about the reality of Afghan women, the more I realise that the Taliban’s restrictions on women, which so outraged the West as well as me on my first trip to Afghanistan, were merely anecdotal compared to the drama Afghan women live day in and day out in their own homes, behind closed doors. The violence against them begins in the heart of the family and is rampant, regardless of whether the Taliban is in power or not.” Photographer Gervasio Sánchez calls this “a demi-world of permanent abuse.” According to him (but also to many women’s rights advocates), it has been underpinned not only by the government of former President Hamed Karzai and his attitude of accommodating the demands and ideas of the most conservative sectors of the Afghan political establishment, but also by the connivance of the West, that has often been camouflaged as ‘neutrality’ or respect for ‘culture’ and ‘traditions.’
Both Bernabé and Sánchez line up horrific examples that also show how deeply female victims are frequently enmeshed in social paradigms that still dominate Afghan society but can truly be called medieval, without even realising that they are abused:
A woman who wants to marry the man who raped her. A 14-year-old girl beaten up by her husband. A young woman mutilated for abandoning the matrimonial home. . . .
Brides . . . forced to marry [men] they do not want and have never seen before . . . [often] old men who quadruple them in age, [ending up mutilated] after their first sexual experience. . . . Women with university training and a meteoric professional career condemned to live with a husband they do not love because, if they divorce, they would lose their children.
In other words: the Taleban’s abysmal record on women’s affairs covered up the fact that Afghan women’s second-class citizenship and their exclusion from large spheres of Afghan society are the result of an inherently patriarchal system. Attempts to modernise Afghanistan, and to liberate women from that kind of oppression, throughout the 20th century and under hugely different political conditions (under Amanullah between 1919 and 1929, in the so-called ‘decade of democracy’ from 1964 to 1973, during Daud’s republic 1973-78, under the communist regime 1978-92 and, recently, after the overthrow of the Taleban regime in 2001) have barely scratched the surface. They only temporarily changed living conditions for a minority of women, mainly in some urban areas – most likely because these modernisation attempts were done top-down and its individual measures often abruptly introduce and violently enforced. (Think the ‘discovering’ of women under Amanullah and King Zaher or coeducation under the communists.) Similarly, ending the Taleban regime did not automatically end violence against women.
There continues to be violence and oppression of women in all social classes in Afghanistan, deeply penetrating even families that consider themselves progressive. In some cases this might be the result of overwhelming social pressure, in others deeply engrained in men’s and women’s thinking. Any change – in the laws and particular in real life – is meeting stiff resistance from the conservatives. That does not only include the Taleban but also forces opposed to them in the Afghan government or the wider current political set-up. Many of them consider any improvement on the rights of women or even protection against abuse a kind of ‘Western violation’ of Islamic culture.
In Afghanistan, such thinking is epitomised by (as we have reported earlier; see also our comprehensive thematic women’s rights dossier here) the non-application of the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law by many judges, the wide-spread perception that shelters protecting women from domestic violence are places of prostitution, and the fact that being raped is still often considered a crime (often more than the rape itself). In the same realm falls the highly ambiguous March 2012 Ulema Council declaration outlawing bad (the ‘traditional’ practice of giving a girl to another family to resolve a dispute) and forced marriages, but at the same time prohibiting women from traveling without a mahram (a male guardian) and ‘recommending’ that women do not fraternise with men in places of work or study. In the legal sphere, this ambiguity is reflected in the relationship between the constitution and Islamic law, particularly in the constitution’s article 130 that provides the primacy of Islamic law over other constitutional (and internationally accepted) values.
At the same time, Muslim majority countries, such as Tunisia, Turkey or Morocco, have improved the status of women and show much more tolerance toward self-determination in their lives (although that by far has not been a linear and unopposed development either). The resistance shown in Afghanistan to similar change displays either a deep lack of information about such developments or a choice of not wanting to know, even implicitly or explicitly denouncing this as deviations from ‘true Islam.’
At the bottom of the UN’s gender equality list
The exhibition’s section on policewomen, young women playing football and women boxing is encouraging. These photographs show that change has trickled down through the system and that, especially in the main urban centres, a young generation of Afghans is emerging who want to make their own life choices. Even rural and uneducated women have become more aware that they have rights. There are, of course, also happy marriages in Afghanistan and even married young couples living alone, without their parents – against what ‘tradition’ would require. It is also encouraging that behind such ‘non-traditional’ behaviour often the influence of enlightened families can be felt. As Mònica put it in an email to AAN:
I also know a lot of young girls who are encouraged by their parents to read and take part in discussions, but one thing is to take part in discussions (and speak with foreigners . . .) and another thing is to allow them to get married to the person they themselves would choose or to decide on their own lives and future. . . . There are also a lot of men who say that they defend the rights and freedom of women, but it is just theory, not reality at their homes. And a lot of women say that they are happy with their husbands. They hide their problems because they are ashamed or they think having those problems is just normal.
But, as she has experienced in her organisation’s years of work in the country that’s still a tiny minority:
I think that there are very few women that got married by their own wish. They accept to get married because their own mothers and grandmothers also did. I think that the marriage is something that they “have to” do, it is a social obligation, even if they don’t want to. Once the women are married, and if their husbands treat them well, give them money for the expenses, and in some cases allow them to work out of home, they can consider themselves completely happy. At least if they compare their lives with the ones of other Afghan women.
Gervasio Sánchez’ conclusion is mind-blowing for those of us who deal mainly with Afghanistan:
I must confess that in Afghanistan, I have encountered the worst of the human species – its incapacity to feel empathy or pity for the victims, and levels of violence and impunity difficult to find in other countries. . . . I pray some day the people of Afghanistan will understand that women are more than objects of social, marital and sexual exchange.
But actually his words simply illustrate what we all have read many times: Afghanistan is among the bottom three countries in the UN ranking for gender equality.
To improve the situation, apart from modernising laws, opening up real opportunities for women will help in the long run – including opening space for them to earn incomes independently, to live alone and, importantly, take their children with them when leaving abusive family situations. For the years of gradual international disengagement from Afghanistan it is crucial that those international actors and organisations that have developed knowledge and partnerships in Afghanistan continue to advocate for serious engagement for women’s rights there. This includes seeking ways to continue to support Afghan women’s rights engagements at the national level in Kabul, but also in the provinces, to protects the whole range of non-governmental self-organisation from women’s service delivery and advocacy groups to legal aid bodies and shelters and build dams against attempts to a roll-back.
Bernabé’s and Sánchez’ exhibition serves as a good reminder.
Fauzia the boxer. Photo: Gervasio Sánchez.
AAN thanks Mònica Bernabé and Gervasio Sánchez for the permission to reproduce their photos and parts of their text.
The exhibition “Mujeres/Women Afganistán” is open in Barcelona until 15 February 2015, and it is free of charge.
The exhibition is also for loan. Please contact ASDHA for more information (via: email@example.com).
The accompanying book can be found here.
The Reuter/Mettelsiefen book (Kunduz, 4. September 2009: Eine Spurensuche) can be found here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020