HAVING TO FIGHT FOR EVERY LITTLE THING: BEING A FEMINIST IN AFGHANISTAN
INTERVIEW with BATUL MORADI By Francine Sporenda
Batul Moradi was born in Iran from an Afghan family. She moved to Kabul in 2003. She is a journalist, poet, children’s magazines’ illustrator and has directed several movies. Married and a mother of two, she got divorced and had then to fight the accusations of adultery made by her ex-husband. She became famous in Afghanistan for having resorted successfully to DNA testing to disprove these accusations and having written a book, « Qharf » (Slander) about her ordeal. Her letter about the plight of Afghan women has been read at the last FiLiA conference in October 2018 by Kate Smurthwaite.
FS: In Afghanistan women have no name, they are always named in relation to a man,"husband, father, son, brother". They don't have a name of their own, since pronouncing the name of a woman in public is seen as soiling the family's honor; outside their private circle, nobody knows or use their first name. Even some sons don't know the first name of their mother, and there is no name on women's graves. A movement has been launched by women in Afghanistan on social networks, it's called "where is my name?", can you tell us about this " no name problem" and this movement on social networks?
BM: Yes, unfortunately women’s names are absent in so many places in my country. Neither on their wedding invitation nor on their grave can you see their names. It’s her relation to a man which is written on her wedding invitation and there is just her last name or her father’s name written on her grave. You can find an invitation card or a grave with a woman’s name on it, but it’s as rare as finding a girl who has anything to do with making a decision about her own marriage.
There are also no women’s names on their official papers as well. When they write a resume or fill out a form for a job application, for the entrance exam to universities, employee card, birth certificate or even passport, you can only see their father’s name. Afghan identity certificate is an A4 paper filled with different information. Under the person’s name is her father’s name and then, her grandfather’s. After that, there is age, race, job, sex and status. But among all this information, no one felt the need to mention the mother’s name. So looking at Afghan identity paper makes you realize that we come from a long chain of men’s information and boundaries.
Even in the new electronic identity certificates, there no mention of the mother’s name. That's why a woman is never qualified to get identified by her own name or get for her children any papers including a passport because this system only identifies men. Even the most distant male relatives have more rights regarding the children than their mother.
The #metoo campaign opened up a very important and serious subject and this campaign had the potential to bring more justice in other fields as well.
Speaking about women’s name can be very effective to break a shame that has been in people’s culture for so long that it makes women live like shadows all the time. Unfortunately, this campaign didn’t last long. Like so many others civil movements in the past few years that have grown out of the ground, like sprouts in the desert that wither and die.
FS: Can you tell us about the notion of 'moral crimes' in the name of which hundreds of raped and battered women are jailed at the "Badam Bagh" jail in Kabul ?. Some articles say that the life of Afghan women is so hard that some of these jailed women are better off in jail rather than with their violent husband and families. Can you tell us why these women are in jail, what happens to them in jail and when they are released?
BM: Badam Bagh is a prison in the Afghan capital where inmates are in a better situation than in other prisons in Afghanistan. Like in other prisons, most female inmates are charged with moral crimes. If a girl was seen with a boy, talking in the streets or even over the phone, she would probably end up accused of « moralcrime » and be tested for virginity, as it is routine in the jail system. Women who are accused of relations outside marriage are in most cases put in jail -- if they are lucky enough not to face the consequences at the hands of their families first. The tiniest doubt from their husband and family is a sentence for them and they never get a chance to defend themselves.
"Clause 398" of Afghan Islamic law says that if a man saw his spouse with another man in bed, he is free to kill him or both, and he will be sentenced for at most two years in prison.
The children of these women charged with moral crimes are usually not accepted within their families so, if they are younger than the legal age to go to school, they have no choice but to endure the sentence with their mother in jail.
Among these women, there are victims of rape who are charged with adultery because putting them in jail is far easier and less controversial than protecting a woman who is pregnant from an unwanted relationship while she is facing huge outpouring of hatred from everyone.
But most of the women charged with moral crimes are those who ran away from their home as a result of domestic violence, forced marriages or living unmarried with someone they love. The Afghan culture demands women to have a very high tolerance toward violence, so women who are running from it are those who have tolerated it for a long time and are probably just a few steps away from death. In the judicial system's view, their crime is so big that no one even tries to ask why they ran away. They might go to prison for months and years and since there is no law about those who run away from home in Afghanistan, the sentence fully depends on the judge's personal opinions. Although it is not the only unwritten and cruel law that harms women persistently, for most of these women, it does not matter how long they will stay in jail and they usually don't count the days until they leave the prison because there is no one waiting for them outside, in most cases. But in some cases their family might actually be waiting for them, only to restore the family's honor by taking their lives. As a result, they mostly prefer not to leave the prison after their time is served; if they get lucky, they move to a shelter in the city, but shelters do not exist in most cities of Afghanistan; if there is no shelter, they will stay in prison by their own will.
FS: What is the situation regarding women's education? Are there still attacks against girls going to school?
BM: Generally, education is still a hard path for everyone in Afghanistan: more than 50% of kids do not have access to education, which is about four million children, and this can be caused by many reasons: the government might have forgotten to build a school in their town, they might have no teachers or school supplies, and in most cases, terrorist groups target schools, in particular girls’ schools.
If a girl is lucky enough to have access to all the facilities, it does not mean that she is free to get an education. Afghanistan is a society where no one is happy : when men learn their newborn is a girl, women get beaten for not giving birth to a boy, and men are going to remarry if their previous marriage did not give them a son. It is accepted by the public that a girl becomes the man's property after the marriage, and often girls marry while they are still children ; so of course the family would prefer to invest in their sons who can carry their name rather than in a girl who is practically nameless.
FS: Can you tell us about " ba'ad" and tribal justice? Are women victims of tribal justice better off if they file complaints with state justice?
BM: Afghanistan is an extremely religious society. People with serious conditions like heart problems or high blood pressure are unwilling to see a doctor and instead, spend the same amount of money to see a mullah who prays for them. The tribal texture of society and the weakness of central government incite people to prefer trial courts which consist of a few mullahs and elderly people. Sentences by these courts are far more official, acceptable and applicable than by the state court. Since in these courts, the person's position and financial situation has a direct effect on the court’s judgment, expecting a fair trial is vain.
The sentences of these tribal courts are usually very different from those rendered by the official law. For instance, when a man gets killed, these courts order the murderer's family to give one or two of their girls to the victim's family so they marry men from the victim's close family, and it's called " Baad Dadan". These girls might be 7 or 8 years old and without exception, they face harassment and torture in their new home and in some cases death. They have no right to run away , because in that case, their families and themselves will face even more serious consequences. Aisha is one of those girls.(1)
According to Afghan civil law, dissolving an engagement is supposed to be quite easy: there is no need to make it official, and both sides just have to return the gifts they exchanged during the engagement. But the truth is that it is not easy at all. Although an engagement is merely a verbal agreement between both side's fathers and most of the time, the bride and the groom won't see each other until the wedding night, dissolving it will have serious consequences for both of them. In these cases, families will end up in tribal courts. I remember the case of a girl's family who broke her engagement to her yet-to-be official spouse, they had to leave the area and pay half of their belongings including their lands just to avoid violence.
Fortunately, there is no law that includes stoning or whipping for adultery in Afghanistan. But in recent years, we have witnessed dozens of stonings and whippings in public that happened at a mullahs' command. The government has never taken effective action to arrest the executioners, as it never did anything to stop those unjust sentences by the tribal courts ; and as usual, the victims are women and those who do not have connections with power circles and corrupt authorities. I believe the murder of Farkhunda (2) was the consequence of such an abuse of power and judgment as well.
According to the judgment of a mullah, some people started to torture a young girl for insulting the Quran, in broad daylight, in front of the police, and in the center of Afghanistan's capital. Nobody heard her, nobody asked if she was truly a criminal according to the country's law, and how they should treat her. It happened like it happens everyday in tribal courts. The police kicked out Farkhunda who took refuge at the police station, and they handed her over to the angry mob waiting outside to punish her as they pleased, and they watched her burn alive. Just like the government’s response has always been to unfair judgments of tribal justice: watching and doing nothing.
It's really hard to tell a woman which court she should trust in Afghanistan. For a woman, official courts have a very long and expensive procedure involving lots of harassment and assaults -- even from the judges -- and also the government has limited power to execute the official verdict. On the other hand, the tribal court's judges are usually inhuman, unfair and misogynistic, and bribing is very common in both courts. I just wish that no woman in Afghanistan would ever have to deal with any of these kinds of justice.
FS: You have written a book called "Qadhf" ( Slander) about your divorce and the accusations of adultery launched against you by your ex-husband. Can you tell us about your marriage and divorce ordeal and the problems encountered by Afghan women who want a divorce?
BM: My marriage was of my own choice. I married a person who was not strictly religious and was interested in art and literature. But after the marriage, he first asked me to give him my email's password and forbade me to participate in any social events, to socialize with other people except his own family and mine, and I could barely own books or the journals that I kept.
I was desperate, this face of him was quite different from the man I knew before our wedding, although he still kept the first face in public. He used to socialize, read poems and was prominent in 8th March events. He pretended to be a free and modern man in public, but he acted the way men are raised in Islamic culture: righteous, possessive with women and sexually insatiable. They can have dozens of women at the same time and it's not shameful at all, it's God's command.
My struggle to separate from him met the judge's strict answer: "Divorce is the man's right, you can't get it".
Although there are situations in which a woman can ask for divorce, like if the husband has a incurable disease, has been gone for more than three years or didn’t support her for a whole year, all these rules involve their own complicated conditions. For instance, if the husband has been gone for two years and eleven months but comes back and disappears again, the woman cannot ask for divorce. And proving his absence is another issue: the judges won't accept the woman's close family's testimony, so she has to find a stranger, like a neighbour, who would testify that her husband hasn't come home for three years. In the strict and unsafe texture of Afghanistan's society, finding a person who has the courage to help a woman and testify in court in her favor is very hard and rare.
If a husband is sentenced to prison for over a decade, his wife should wait for five years before she is allowed to file for divorce and after the divorce, kids aged over seven years old belong to the man. Even if the father doesn't accept custody, the children will be given to his relatives but not to the mother, under any circumstances. Most of the time, the judge will take the children and give them to the father without even considering their age, it's another one of these unwritten law that is implemented and the rationale behind it is that the mother cannot support her children, or the court pretends it is only helping her so she has a better chance to get married again.
I finally left him, after four year of forced marriage but the official sentence was that he got divorced from me. Then, I had to face his accusations of adultery, a very common way to isolate women in my society, an accusation that will even bring death threats to the accused women.
I needed to get identification for my children but that was something only a man could do. When I first started this court battle, it was not possible to get a DNA test for such matters in Afghanistan but my procedure changed that: this test was finally done and it was a first. Even after the positive result of the test, he kept refusing to give my kids an ID. He simply didn't want to, and since he had close friends in the government, it was enough to make him untouchable by any legal court’s decisions. That's the difference between an official court and a tribal court: tribal orders and mullah's commands come first.
I wrote down my experiences of fighting against an adultery accusation in a memoir in 2017 and published it. I struggled so much to write it, after all, I was raised in a very religious community and very religious communities think they are better than everybody else. I remained silent during my whole marriage, even my parents didn't know anything about my situation. I felt there was no way out. I couldn't get a divorce, I couldn't write, I couldn't contact the people I liked, and I remained silent because I had seen that women who complain are seen as bad and despised by society.
For the first time, I didn't censor myself in this book, and it felt really good. But people harassed my family repeatedly because they didn't like the content of the book, this hurt my heart deeply and I felt guilty sometimes about that, but it's a feeling I have to deal with. At the end of 2017, the #metoo campaign happened and when women started to speak out about their experiences of harassment, it was like someone had put a hand on my shoulder and told me I was not alone.
The coincidence of the publication of my book and the campaign made me really happy although the general reaction to the book was not good. It was like they had this perfect image of themselves in their mind and suddenly, they saw themselves in front of a mirror for the first time and they didn't like that. But I am optimistic because there were also those few who liked the book and talked about it, which takes a great courage in our very strict society.
I am not hoping that those who liked the book will be the majority soon. A few reconsidered their relationship with my ex-husband but the rest believed that the violation of his wife was a personal matter and none of their business. These belong probably to the majority of men who behave like my ex-husband every day--and participate in March 8th events as well.
Recently, a friend wrote me " he is not that bad... look! He is volunteering for a group which makes free books for children." And I told this friend that most of the men who were the targets of the #metoo campaign were also powerful, influential people in the world of cinema, arts and politics and some of them were involved in women's rights as well. What matters is that we shouldn't let men who hurt and harass women hide behind their pretty masks and we shouldn't let people forget about their deeds.
It is important that Afghan women talk about themselves and stop being ashamed for telling the truth. Unfortunately, shame and morality have a very complicated and sometimes foolish definition in our culture, a woman can get up to 10 years in prison for running away from her hellish home and a girl can be kept behind bars for years for loving a man and live in shame for the rest of her life.
In the meantime, a Talib terrorist will never go to jail for killing people and he will never be ashamed for that. Again, a woman has to be ashamed for giving birth to a girl, or if she is targeted by false accusations but no one feels shame for the death of a young girl whose body couldn't bear pregnancy or who has been given to total strangers according to the " Baad Dadan" tradition. In some parts of Afghanistan like Shinwari, women are being treated like merchandise and are ashamed of it but pedophilia is not shameful for men and possessing a young boy is something to be proud of, like owning a car or land.(3), (4).
Afghan women have always lived with a heavy weight on their shoulders called shame and I hope "Qadhf" can help us to lighten that weight.
FS: In your book, you also speak about sexual harassment encountered by Afghan women in the streets, at work, etc. can you tell us about it?
BM: Unfortunately, harassment is a daily routine for women in my country and the more they step outside of their closed circle, the worse harassment they experience: in streets, buses, taxis, shops, universities, courts, workplaces etc.
In 2011, Ms. Noorjahan Akbar organized a protest against verbal and physical street harassment for the first time in Afghanistan. I remember seeing lots of young girls among us who wore colorful and beautiful clothes and had make up on, and all the male bystanders and even the police pointed at them and said that it was the way these girls dressed that was the reason why men were tempted and harassed them.
That is society's opinion and it is based on religious beliefs: women are always tempting men and making them fall into deep traps of sins, much like Satan but a little lower. This excuse has always been a reason to increase the limitations and constraints on women, although I have to mention that even those who wear a burqa are not immune to harassment: it seems that, just by being female, you can provoke and excite the whole Afghan society. Even when a woman is raped, she is the one to blame for acting in a way that led a man to rape her. This is why some women who are rape victims get killed by their family instead of being supported by them.
It's actually very hard to understand why the religious faith of my Islamic countrymen's is so weak that it could totally vanish just by looking at a woman. And because men want to stay good Muslims, women have to cover themselves from tip to toe, stay at home and forget to socialize.
FS: You have created a group called "Free Women Writers", this group prints texts written by women about their rights and lives which are sold for pennies in the streets to counter religious misogynistic texts, printed in Pakistan and also sold for pennies. These texts by women are also posted on social networks. Can you tell us about the publications of this group?
BM: Our first experience was writing "The Daughters of Rabia". It was dealing with our experiences, writings and poems by women. It was published for free, and it became very popular in Afghanistan but publishing hard copies and sending them all over Afghanistan is very hard, expensive and dangerous. Free Women Writers solved that problem, now there is no budget needed for publishing and you can read these texts wherever you have access to the internet. This is all we can do now, it's like a get together group, only for us, women. Us women, have to stick together, that makes us stronger. Reading each other's experiences will reduce our fears and the shame we feel when we speak out about our own situation; it makes us feel closer together.
I remember when I was editing "Daughters of Rabia", I skipped some of the words that seemed provocative. It could even endanger the person who had the book, but on the website, we are no longer bound to these precautions ; of course these actions are just drops against an ocean of violence against women and all things that need to be changed.
Kabul's markets are full of books with a misogynistic and extremist content. For instance, there was a book published last year entitled: "Twelve Confounded Women", another entitled "Six Guilty Women". These books repeatedly mention that women have inferior intelligence and recommend to not listen to them and not consult with them. If women wear make up or go out without their husband’s permission, if they don't do whatever he asks and refuse to have sex whenever he wants, or start an argument, etc. they will face God's rage and their place is in hell.
The government does not actually check the content of the books but it will block their publication if someone complains about a particular book. The TV and radio programs have the same problem, they invite mullahs to speak and air TV programs about controlling women even more, and no one can complain because what these mullahs say is based on the Quran and hadiths, so challenging those words means challenging God's words and incurring his wrath. The only way we have to reduce this religious influence is by writing our own words. This is our way to keep fighting and we keep it going with hope.
Unlike what Cheryl Bernard says, Afghan women are not waiting for Americans to save them and our fight did not begin with their presence in our country; we have been fighting for decades , the only difference is the way we dress.
We kept fighting even when the Talibs took over the country and now, we are not hiding behind the American war machine either. We don't have bulletproof jackets and big walls to hide behind and a government who supports us all the time, like foreign soldiers. We've been lonely soldiers with no weapons and nowhere to hide for years and every step we took has been seen as a step in the battle against Allah. We have to fight for every tiny thing, from education to falling in love or listening to music, wearing a colorful scarf or even smile in the street.
Despite everything, we kept going with only our bare hands and no support from our families and we have been successful until this day. The proof is that today, 18 years after America came to fight the Talibs in Afghanistan, those terrorists are stronger than at anytime before, they have high tech weapons and have an official office in Qatar but we are also stronger than anytime before : in the last 18 years, the number of educated women has been increasing, as well as female musicians, singers, actresses, pilots, lawyers, ministers, managers etc.
We have the Zohra orchestra, an all female musicians group that includes girls from different backgrounds who fought their way to be where they are today. This is exactly what the Talibs are targeting: women have been their prime targets from the first but we kept going.
Is the American government striving and putting pressure on the Afghan government to defend democracy, women and human rights as much as it insists on building military bases in Afghanistan? They are the only ones who recognize Talibs officially and negotiate with them. We have remained committed to what we believe in and we kept on our way even when they cut our hands and noses. We hope that the US government will keep its promises and will not forget democracy and women's rights in their peace negotiations with the Talibs.
FS: I believe this group has also created a guide for victims of domestic violence called "You Are Not Alone"; according to research done by Global Rights, 80% of Afghan women have been victims of domestic violence or sexual violence mostly within their family. Can you tell us about this problem and the guide?
BM: I think, so far, I gave you a general picture of women's lives in my country. Those who don't have any choice, Baad Dadan, forced and underage marriages, not having the right to get out of the house without the husband's permission and very serious punishments for running away. Through the years of my battle in Afghan courts, I have never seen a woman filling a complaint for being the target of verbal abuse, being slapped in the face or having flesh wounds and bruises. I witnessed how a judge told a woman who was beaten repeatedly by her addict husband, that " men get angry after all, a good wife would just tolerates it, you don't have to run to the court and embarrass your husband for a few kicks! "
Violence towards women is ingrained so deeply in society that it is considered a right for men and it has of course religious causes. In the Quran, it is ordered explicitly to men that if a wife shows disobedience, she should be expelled from their bed and hit. " 34 Ayah, Nessa Surah"
Being a woman is unbelievably hard and trying to have equal rights with men is like slaves trying to have equal rights with their masters at the time of slavery.
The government does not have any plan nor politics to prevent this violence and doesn't even try to advertise against it in the media. I think that the the media can have lots of power in this matter; investing in children would also be effective as well because they are our only hope for the future. It would be a great change if children learned how to treat women in school, because they might not have good examples back home, and unfortunately, they are not immune to this violence themselves. Children are also deprived of their basic rights in Afghanistan, the country doesn't have laws punishing pedophiles till this day and thousands of children are being abused toward such horrific purposes. Sometimes I feel that living in Afghanistan is living in a closed circle of violence.