how some women are commodities in rural Afghanistan

I’m writing this post after reading the book “Dear Zari” by Zarghuna Kagar, which features a collection of stories of Afghan women about the struggles they went through in their home country. To read about forced marriages and domestic abuse that women face written from the perspective of a writer is one thing. To read about forced marriages and domestic abuse from the perspective of these women themselves is another. In the former, you read the facts and figures. In the latter, you enter the world and mind of the women themselves. It gives you insight not only to the realities of their circumstance, as though you were reading a hidden diary. In the former, you are detached from their world. In the latter, you are brought closer. 

In my previous post, I mentioned how some cases of child marriages can be seen as a form of human trafficking. I shall extend that post by writing about this one particular story I read.

There is a practice in some very rural and tribal Pashtun villages called baad, or badal, in which girls or women are used to settle disputes between two families. This can range from disputes over land and money and to more serious crimes such as murder. In the case of murder, the woman from the family of the perpetrator is given to the victim’s family as a form of compensation in order to avoid revenge killings. Girls and women have no say in this arrangement. They have no right to agree to disagree to this arrangement. Instead, their fates are decided by the men of the village councils, known as jirgas. This form of marriage is a conflict resolution, a revenge marriage if you would have to appease the family of the victim. As such, it is possible that women who enters such a marriage suffer domestic abuse and other forms of mistreatment.

In “Dear Zari”, Shereenjan was only 10 when father had accidentally killed a fellow villager over a money dispute and to avoid serious repercussions Shereenjan was offered to the other family as compensation. Shereenjan was badly mistreated. She was made to live in shed which she shared with animals and mercilessly starved. She wasn’t allowed to take proper showers nor given permission to visit her own family. She wasn’t given new clothes or jewelry to wear and instead wore the cast-offs from her mother-in-law that were simply too big for her. She was physical, verbally and mentally abused by her husband and his family, and made to perform many back-breaking household chores. To quote: “their aim had to always take revenge on me for the death of their son, and they were very good at it”. Without a doubt, this is how women in rural parts of Afghanistan are treated like commodities. They have no freedom and rights to determine their fate. They cannot demand a divorce nor complain about their circumstances as they risk being further abused or even killed.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve read a few number of books that talk about how women in countries such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan have been forced into marriages like this for the purpose of safety, financial security or to settle disputes: exchanged, passed around and being mistreated like a piece of meat. Their voices and their rights denied by tribal practices; in rural societies where culture takes precedence over basic law and reason. Its difficult to imagine being 10 years old and living all day in fear as to whether the day will come when your family decides to marry you off to a complete stranger. Its difficult to imagine how living under such treacherous societal conditions can seriously affect on one’s mental health. Its difficult to imagine how a child can have the strength survive through such tumultuous struggles all through her teenage and adult years and live to tell the tale.

Such situations really make me think that perhaps its time we start to look at the definition of human trafficking and expand our understanding of what can also be considered as a form of human trafficking. Think about it:

huamn trafficking

There are 3 elements in human trafficking: (1) the act – what is being done, (2) the means – how its being done, and (3) the purpose – why its being done.

Let’s look at badal and see how it fits into this structure.

The act: transferring, trading or exchanging women or girls from one family to another.

The means: abuse of power whereby the male heads of household or jirga are the ones who hold absolute power in deciding such an arrangement, while the women are denied any say and forced to enter such a marriage if the jirga deems it a suitable form of resolution

The purpose: appease the angered party to settle a dispute, and in the case of a revenge marriage, to appease the victim’s family where the women face forced labour, domestic violence, sexual exploitation and other forms of mistreatment such as starvation

The most publicized and well known types of human trafficking that most of us know include the likes of forced labour and sex trafficking or prostitution. Humans are transacted, they are denied basic rights such as proper living conditions and pay, and traffickers handle a great deal of money for them. In cases of such forced marriages, money may or may not be involved, but aren’t there human lives being exploited? Aren’t there women involved who are being tossed and pushed around like rag dolls and treated as a form of compensation instead of being treated as a human being with reason and emotion? Are they not beaten and starved to settle disputes or avenge murders? Aren’t these women’s worth calculated in terms of tangible things such as the number of acres of land or how much money was being lost in a gambling bet?

So really. Maybe we should start looking at such forced marriages as a form of human trafficking. When this happens, more awareness is raised about the plight of these women and maybe with combined efforts from human trafficking coalitions, more can be done to help these women trapped in slave-like conditions.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes after reading such cases, I feel irrepressibly and utterly exhausted. Its as though reading each story has drained the life out of me and I’ve no energy left for anything else. We live in a era of modernity yet I cannot comprehend why some tribal practices such as basal persist in some remote villages. Sometimes I feel like giving up. Raising awareness among the locals in villages like the ones Shereenjan lives is essential to helping end violence and mistreatment of women and also help increase their rights and freedom. But how on earth can advocacy efforts reach such remote parts of the country? How do we convince local villagers to outlaw tribal practices when culture, tradition and the preservation of honor are deemed more important? How much can we really help abused women, not just in Afghanistan, but in Middle East and in other parts of the world? Organizations save thousands of women from domestic abuse, but everyday, a thousand more women in other parts of the world beg for help, are beaten, are starved, and sexually abused, stoned to death and locked at home, especially in countries where women are seen as inferior to men; where men rule and hold power over females.

Think about it, what were you doing when you were 12 years old? Playing tag or worrying about the day your parents will tell you that they are marrying you off to a complete stranger? At 12, how much did we know? At 12, are girls emotionally and mentally capable of understanding what the institution of marriage means?

I highly doubt so.

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