It’s Open Season on Women in Afghanistan

Published in Fem 2.0 July 26, 2012.

Najiba was recently executed by nine bullets for alleged adultery. The crowd of 150 men cheered on the shooter with cries of “God is great!”

Not far from the site of the shooting, 15-year old Tamana was beaten and killed for being a disobedient wife after her forced marriage to a cousin whose advances she had spurned. No one has been arrested for her death, but her presumed killer’s sister was given to Tamana’s brother as compensation for the crime, an Afghan practice known as “baad.”

A few weeks earlier, Western media carried the story of Lil Baba, an 18-year old girl who was kidnapped, raped, tortured and chained to a wall for five days by a gang of powerful Afghan police officers. She has demanded justice but if the men aren’t prosecuted, her mother insists Lil Baba must commit suicide, the culturally dictated response for a woman who has been dishonored.

A study by Thompson Reuters Foundation released in 2011 concluded that Afghanistan was the most dangerous place in the world for women. Sadly, conditions there appear to have deteriorated. The country’s independent human rights commission has recorded 52 murders of girls and women in the last four months, 42 of which were honor killings, contrasted with 20 murders for all of 2011.

Some attribute the increased violence to the détente reached earlier this year by President Hamid Karzai with the Taliban. While the Taliban are notorious for their severely restrictive and at times brutal treatment of women, violence against women in Afghanistan predates the Taliban’s rise to power.

Open Season

Christine Fair, assistant professor of South Asia studies at Georgetown University, has extensive experience in Afghanistan. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a Senior Fellow with the Counter Terrorism Center at West Point.  I spoke to her about honor killings and other violence against women in the country. She informed me that violence is widespread and by no means limited to Taliban perpetrators. The targets may be women, girls or boys.

It is not uncommon for Afghani warlords, military commanders and wealthy merchants to use attractive boys as catamites or sexual servants. Orphans may be taken from the street or poor boys purchased from their parents to fill this role which is described as ancient and increasing in Afghanistan.

Honor killings become somewhat less shocking against this background of indifference to human dignity. However, honor killings are especially horrific because multiple family members often act together to commit the murder and the victim is likely to be tortured.

Phyllis Chesler, Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at City University of New York, has studied worldwide honor killings extensively. Professor Chesler believes that they are prompted by “gender separatism, the devaluation of girls and women, normalized child abuse, including arranged child marriages of both boys and girls, sexual repression, misogyny (sometimes inspired by misogynist interpretations of the Qur’an), and the demands made by an increase in the violent ideology of jihad.”

Her explanation has been challenged by others such as Widney Brown, the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, who believes honor killing “goes across cultures and across religions.”

Regardless of underlying triggers, honor killing is a practice that the United States is unable to stop according to Professor Fair. Certainly the presence of our soldiers there has done little to deter it.

The most recent honor killings in Afghanistan occurred this past weekend when a father shot his two teenage daughters who had disappeared for four days with a NATO interpreter. He has been arrested for murder.

Progress, I suppose.

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