An Afghan rape victim and her two-year-old daughter have been finally freed after 6,000 signatures on a petition and help from a tenacious American lawyer and many activists. Her daughter, conceived as a result of the rape, has spent her entire innocent life in prison.
Their example is illustrative of the flaws in the Afghan justice system and in how rape victims are viewed by a society obsessed with morality, especially as it pertains to women.
Like Gulnaz, many other women hopelessly languish in Afghan jails for moral crimes – falling in love with a man, eloping, indecency, marrying the man of their choice and, in this case, being raped. Afghanistan not only polices morality but also legislates it, so their captivity is the result of a law enforcement and justice system that is flawed on several fundamental levels. The rudimentary court system churns decisions with little regard for proper due process. On top of that is the problem with implementation of decisions. And implementation, where it exists, is flawed and often throws women in deplorable jail conditions, where their basic rights are often ignored and they remain vulnerable to secondary abuse from authorities.
Gulnaz is not going to jail, but her freedom is restricted to only two other options: she can either spend the rest of her life as an outcast or marry the person who raped her. Sources say that Gulnaz has agreed to the second option, perhaps in part because she wants her daughter to have a father and, thereby, a slightly more acceptable social existence. But her new life is still going to be complicated because her future husband is serving a jail sentence for raping her. And owing to how Afghan family structures work in cases like these, she will certainly have difficulty dealing with in-laws in a joint family where multiple generations live together. The shame of having been raped will also be with Gulnaz for the rest of her life.
Afghans as a people treat morality extremely seriously, but the often unspoken codes apply with far graver consequences to women than men. A man may cheat, steal and kill and his family can still be accepted in society, but a woman’s crime can go beyond her individual self and bring shame upon the entire family.
Victims of rape and sexual assault are often not viewed as victims at all. What happened to Gulnaz is a clear example. After she was freed, rumors began to surface that she wasn’t really raped in the first place because she had an affair with the perpetrator. It is implied that she used rape as a pretext to hide the shame of her pregnancy out of wedlock. Among the many things that are flawed about this perspective is the view that an affair necessarily means that a woman wants to have sex, and that non-consensual sex between people having an “affair” is not rape.
To be sure, there are many Afghan families where women are valued and respected. It’s not always men’s fault alone when abuse occurs, because other women often spread allegations and participate in community enforcement of moral standards. Afghanistan is not alone in miserably failing to secure women’s rights, and secondary victimization of rape sufferers is not unique to Afghanistan. For example, the attitude that “she asked for it because she wore short skirts” is found even in the United States and elsewhere.
But what is unique to Afghanistan is the moral victimization of women to devastating effect and the system often serving to perpetuate women’s suffering. In this way, society makes it difficult for women who are raped, assaulted or harassed to gain acceptance, marry and turn over a new leaf.
Many good, morally upright women have had to leave their jobs and abandon dreams because they are often vilified by allegations of moral corruption or are harassed and sexually assaulted. Despite their tremendous courage, the system simply does not offer enough protections for Anita Hills to emerge and push for greater rights.
Gulnaz, however, has exhibited exemplary tenacity by knocking on all possible doors in her search for justice, despite discouragements and the unwanted publicity that it brought to her and her family.
But her past courage does not guarantee a good future. She and her daughter will face many difficulties as they attempt to rebuild their life.
Their start has already been shaky so far. As some have pointed out, Gulnaz has been “pardoned” by the president instead of what she truly deserves as a rape victim – exoneration, acceptance, help and justice.