Monday, January 9, 2012

Withdrawing from Afghanistan's Women

A 15-year-old Afghan girl was rescued last Wednesday with several fingernails removed and her left eye badly burned by an iron. The child bride was close to death, held captive for months and tortured by her in-laws after refusing to prostitute for them.

Though the country's legal age for marriage is 16, Sahar Gul was married to an Afghan soldier, dowry and all, at 14-years-old. Because they had paid for her, the in-laws reportedly felt they could use Gul however they pleased.

She was found with both her hands broken, hair ripped out and body heavily bruised.

Doctors say she is recovering, but traumatized. This weekend, finally well enough to give her first interview, Gul said she wants her assailants in jail.

Sources say she managed to escape once before and told neighbors to alert the authorities. When the police arrived, they were bribed to ignore the abuse and Gul was left in the custody of her captors.

During a December visit, an uncle found Gul in the basement, beaten and starved, and called the police. She was finally removed from the home last week, in critical condition, with multiple visible injuries.

While she recuperates in a Kabul hospital, the young girl's husband is on the run. Her mother-in-law and sister-in-law have been arrested and the Afghan government is promising to prosecute, claiming they were unaware of Gul's case until now.

Meanwhile, international troops are preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, leaving everyone wondering-- what will happen to the women?

Experts claim, despite this tragedy, women's rights are improving in Afghanistan.

By the numbers, violence against women is increasing. But these new statistics are a direct reflection of the progress being made. Women finally feel empowered to report these crimes because there is hope for justice.

Ten years ago, their efforts would have been futile. Under the Taliban, women weren't allowed to work or attend school. They weren't even allowed to leave their homes unaccompanied by a male family member.

With these harsh restrictions in place, women were often used to rationalize America's occupation of Afghanistan. The burqa became a symbol of why the country so desperately needed us, equality and democracy.

While women were never the real reason the United States ventured into Afghanistan-- or stayed so long-- it made the overly patriotic mission appear completely noble, but more importantly,completely necessary.

In reality, the ethnocentric notion of American troops teaching this revoltingly patriarchal society modern day feminism is laughable. But this is the image our media offered whenever civilians started to lose faith, reminding us what, or who, was supposedly at stake.

With Uncle Sam's "help," President Hamid Karzai was elected in 2004, supported by a bicameral National Assembly and a 9 judge Supreme Court. However, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan supports a legal system that mixes civil, customary and Islamic law. So even with democracy successfully in place, we hesitate.

What will become of the Sahar Guls when we're gone?

"Part of the problem is the ingrained attitudes of police and courts that cause them to turn a blind eye or even send women back to their abusers," said Latifa Sultani, coordinator for women's protection with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. 

Cooperating with the United Nations, this byproduct of the 2001 Bonn Agreement keeps a close eye on women and understands their horrifying reality.

For instance, fleeing marriage is considered a "moral crime" worthy of imprisonment. The UN estimates half of Afghanistan's female prison population is made up of women who attempted to leave their husbands.

But many never get the chance to leave. And while prison is terrible, the alternative can be much, much worse.

So what will the future hold for the daughters of Afghanistan? 

With the entire world watching, only time will tell.  

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