Photo: Ellie Foreman-Peck/TNH

Out of Taliban’s hands, honour killing and domestic abuse follow Afghan women to the West

By Kazim Ehsan

On 16 February a regional court in Germany convicted two Afghan brothers of killing their sister and sentenced them to life in prison. 

Sayed Mahdi H, 24, and Sayed Yousuf, 28, killed their sister, identified by the court as Maryam H, 34 and mother of two, in July 2021. Her mutilated body was found in a suitcase buried on a hill in southern Bavaria region, where the older brother lived. 

Mother of two, Maryam H, was murdered by her brothers in Germany.

Maryam, according to the Daily Mail, fled Afghanistan to Germany in 2013, divorced her husband, which enraged her brothers, who began “cracking down on her freedom and forcing her to abide by strict Islamic laws such as wearing a headscarf and only going out in public when accompanied by a familial male escort.” The brothers disapproved their sister’s Westernised way of life and went to the extreme to put an end to it. 

On 4 June 2019, police found the remains of 24-year-old mother of two, Arezu Kashify, hidden inside a freezer in the apartment she shared with her husband, Wahid Kashify, in Spokane County, located in the western state of Washington, USA.

Wahid Kashify fled to Afghanistan after killing his wife, but was arrested in Europe in October 2022 and is currently being held there while awaiting extradition to the US. He worked as a translator for the US Army in Afghanistan before being resettled in the US in 2013.

Mother of two, Arezu Kashify, was killed by her husband.

The gruesome murders of Maryam H and Arezu Kashifi are not isolated incidents, as Afghan men have been convicted of murdering their wives or female relatives in various countries, including AustraliaNew Zealand, and Canada. And indeed, not all cases of domestic abuse result in murder.

Since the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, over a million people have fled Afghanistan. Tens of thousands have been resettled in the US, Europe, and Australia, while the majority remain in Iran and Pakistan. Many still await resettlement in a Western country. But some who have settled in the West have brought with them a quiet culture of domestic abuse and violence against women. Women who already face significant challenges such as language barriers, cultural shock, and social isolation, which further limit their access to support services.

N Ahmadzada (not her real name) works as a counsellor and translator in immigration services in Maryland, US, says most of the newly arrived women are unfamiliar with the legal systems and institutions which are available to protect them from domestic abuse. Many of the women, Ahmadzada says, are illiterate and unable to communicate with people outside their immediate family members, who are often far away from them. “These women are completely isolated and have little or no access to support services. They cannot work, or in some cases, they are not allowed to work by their husbands or their families. So, they remain dependent on their husbands which make them more vulnerable,” she said. 

Ahmadzada also notes that another problem for these women is their lack of familiarity with their new environment and the loss of their traditional support systems, such as their parents, siblings, and other relatives, whom they can approach for help. By leaving Afghanistan, the have also left a family support network. “Most of the women I work with have no one except their husbands and in-laws,” she adds.

She further adds that some new arrivals are also targeted by ultra-radical religious organizations, which take advantage of the opportunity for ideological infiltration into families. She says that some Islamic organizations are promoting an extreme version of Sharia with misogynistic practices, which adds another layer of difficulty for women. “Families connected to these organizations strongly oppose diversity and assimilation,” she says.

While not all Afghan immigrants perpetrate violence against women, cultural and societal factors can contribute to the normalisation of such violence in specific communities. In Afghanistan, traditional gender roles and patriarchal values have long been entrenched in the culture, leading to a tolerance for violence against women. Women are often expected to be subservient to men and prioritize their families above all else, making it difficult for them to speak out against the violence they experience or leave abusive relationships. These attitudes and behaviors can persist even after Afghan immigrants move to Western countries.

Leila (not her real name), a mother of two children, lives in Germany. She says her husband and his family are preventing her from learning German and forcing her to look after five children – two of her own and three belonging to her brother-in-law. “I have to clean the house, cook, and take care of the children. If I don’t, everyone will fight with me and even beat me,” she complains.

Leila says that her husband’s family not only fail to appreciate the work she does at home, but also physically and verbally abuse her if she tries to make any financial contribution to the household. “My day and night of laboring in the house is not valued. Everyone keeps telling me that they are providing me with shelter, food, and clothes. The other day, when I asked for a moisturizing cream, I was slapped in return,” she explains.

Cultural differences between Afghanistan and the host country can also play a role in perpetuating violence, as some men may feel Western influences threaten their Islamic and traditional values. Many Afghan immigrants resist assimilation and firmly hold on to conventional practices even tighter than they would in their home country, even in families that immigrated decades ago. 

Sisters Susan and Laleh (not their real names) live in France with their families. Laleh escaped from Afghanistan hoping for a peaceful life in Europe, but is now stuck in an abusive family situation. Both sisters say that they are constantly subjected to mental and physical abuse.

“My brother regularly abuses us and doesn’t let us to leave the house. He believes it is his right to control our lives,” Laleh complains. 

Susan says that her brother always reminds them not to dishonor the family, their religion, and cultural values by not living like Western women. “We are not allowed to seek help from social workers or counsellors, even if they are female. We are tired of how he treats us, but if we let the authorities find out about it, his future will be ruined, and he will be sent back to Afghanistan,” she adds.

Betul Heydari, a psychologist and former university professor in Afghanistan who recently moved to Europe, says that due to cultural shock, differences in values, psychological trauma, identity and behavioral crises, as well as a lack of language skills and employment opportunities, there can be immense tension among newly arrived immigrants, which may even lead to murder or deadly consequences.

For Ahmadzada, violence against women among Afghan immigrants is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted approach, including education, advocacy, and support services for victims and survivors of violence. Additionally, more needs to be done to challenge harmful traditional gender roles and beliefs and to promote a culture of respect and non-violence towards women.