Origins of violence against women

By: Zaman Khoshnam  

A two-minute video clip shows a group of angry men throwing rocks on a covered woman who is lying in a hole dug in the ground. “Hit her, hit her,” shout a seemingly happy crowd of spectators. The woman cries out loudly, calling for help, and the crowd of spectators chant Allah-u-Akbar, God is great. The woman, who was stoned to death in Ghalmin village in the outskirt of Firoz Koh, the provincial capital of Ghor, was later identified as Rokhshana.

According to report, a local commander, Mullah Yusuf asks Rokhshana’s hand for his brother several times but she declines to marry Mullah’s brother. Caught by fire of revenge, Mullah Yusuf, arrests Rokhshana and hands her over to an armed group—that according to local media—were operating under the Taliban leadership in the area. A report by Tolonews later claimed that the armed men, who had taken Rokhshana as captive, asked for a five million afghanis ransom. “We will give back your daughter if you pay us five million afghanis, if not, we will kill her,” the gang of armed men told Rokhshana’s father, according to local media.

When the poor father excuses paying the amount of money, Mullah Hashem orders his men to stone Rokhshana to death. Though the Taliban commanders refused to claim responsibility for this tragic death, accusing pro-government militias for stoning, local officials blamed the Taliban for the 2015 execution. The victim, Rokhshana, was stoned to death on accusation of having premarital sex with her fiancé.

Rokhshan’s death in the hands of angry men is a case study which shows that violence against women is a socially accepted norm in the country.  In Afghanistan, origins of violence against women are far deep than one can imagine. Conservative Afghan society sees women as second sex. Not only the hardline Taliban violate basic women rights, the State, the government of Afghanistan, and Afghan judicial institutions have hands in some kind of structural violence being committed against women on daily basis. Undeniable facts and cases of violence show how structural violence against women is in our country. In rural Afghanistan, customary rulings prevail over judicial process and rule of law is not implemented properly.

Afghan girls undergo virginity test in case they are suspected for adultery and extra-marital sex. The myth behind virginity test, though is invisible form of violence against women, seems to come out of a perception the conservative Afghan society has developed over years. It is as old as the history of the country and as deep as conventional faith—which is part of daily life of every conservative Afghan family.

At national and international levels, women rights activists, national and international rights organization have put efforts to raise voices against structural violence but little has been achieved, when it comes to practice. Rights groups have not been able to completely ban virginity test. For instance, World Health Organization (WHO) report clearly shows that virginity test is conducted forcefully in Afghanistan. Legal Medicine Directorate (LMD) and some public health centers routinely perform virginity test and anal examinations in situations where women and girls are suspected of extra-marital sex (zena), attempted extra-marital sex (qasd zena) or running away from home (faraar az khana). The discriminatory and humiliating virginity test, though has no scientific origin, it is being conducted in circumstances of duress and under pressure by legal institutions. A fresh amendment in penal code of Afghanistan states that the ‘tests’ now may be conducted only with the ‘consent of the female’ or under a court order.

A group of human rights activist in Kabul have called for “Protection of Women and Standardized Forensic Examinations Advocacy Group (PWSFEAG), advocating for a complete banning of the test in Afghanistan, however, it will take time to completely ban virginity test given that a cultural context where women are treated as object to be ruled over is dominant in the country.     

Focus on physical violence can lead to a neglect of non-physical and structural violence, which is understood as part of social norm. Though the 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women Law forbids all forms of physical, sexual and emotional violence against women, it makes no mention of honor killing. Most cases of honor killings remain uncovered in the country, particularly in the areas under control of the Taliban militants.

We as a nation have a collective responsibility to protect women.

For women, forms of ‘dishonor’ include communicating with ‘stranger men’, being in a room with a man who is not a family member, alleged or actual adultery, eloping, premarital pregnancy, and challenging patriarchal gender norms. A report by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission says that most cases of domestic violence against women remain unreported in patriarchal society of Afghanistan. Even there are cases showing that strongmen and perpetrators can easily influence decisions made by legal and judicial institutions.

It is sad to say that violence against women is on the rise in our country. Murder of female journalist, Mina Mangal in Kabul, gang rape of a midwife in Samangan, rape case of a 10-year-old girl in Badghis, whipping of a woman in Lal Bibi area of Faryab, and lashing of Hamida, a woman in Bamyan, are incidents of violence against women reported over the past eleven months of 2019. Most of these incidents have taken place in the provinces where the Afghan government and human rights organizations do not have influences.

Figures provided by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission show that 2,762 cases of violence against women were registered in seven months (late March 2019 to October 2019) which shows an eight percent increase compared to the same period in 2018. The provincial directorate of women’s affairs in Helmand released a figure two years ago, indicating that there was a 20 percent increase in cases of violence against women compared to 2018.

Violence against women, though it is part of routine, is yet a less debated topic in academic circles of the country. Knowing that the Afghan state and women rights organizations short fall to protect women, we as a nation have a collective responsibility to protect women. To uproot structural violence, we need to bring structural reforms in judicial system of the country.  National and international human rights organization need to advocate for amendments in some provisions of the Afghan penal code.

In Afghan culture, women serve as dignity of family; to change this perception and most importantly to avoid extra-judicial killing such as the tragic death of Rokhshana, we need to bring fundamental cultural changes.  

Zaman Khoshnam is Program Manager at AFSO, a Kabul-based NGO. He holds master degree in IR.