Lawyers risk dan­ger to help women

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Three years ago Mal­iha, 24, was sit­ting in a park in west­ern Afghanistan with the man she thought was the love of her life. The pair were plan­ning a fu­ture to­gether, but that fu­ture was cut short in a bru­tal in­stant. Sud­denly, po­lice of­fi­cers barged into the park in the city of Herat and ar­rested the cou­ple. Mal­iha was ac­cused of main­tain­ing an il­licit re­la­tion­ship, which in the eyes of Is­lamic law is a crim­i­nal act. At the po­lice sta­tion, her com­pan­ion called his fam­ily, bribed the po­lice and dis­as­so­ci­ated him­self from her.

“He de­serted me like he never knew me,” said Mal­iha said. “They in­formed my fam­ily about the in­ci­dent and my in­volve­ment with a man. My fa­ther dis­owned me im­me­di­ately and threat­ened to kill me if I ever ap­proached him.” Mal­iha was con­victed of be­ing a pros­ti­tute and spent more than three years in a women’s prison, shar­ing a cell with women con­victed on sim­i­lar charges. War­dens at the prison came to the cell and ha­rassed, beat and sex­u­ally as­saulted the women, she said.

“We were branded as cheap and filthy women. Some nights I heard girls shout­ing...the prison of­fi­cers were tak­ing them out and sex­u­ally abus­ing them,” she said. “I was so scared that I hardly ever bathed as it could at­tract at­ten­tion to­wards me.” Mal­iha her­self was abused one day when a man ar­rived claim­ing to be a lawyer. She was shown into a room with him where he tried to rape her. She was badly beaten when she re­sisted. Her suf­fer­ing con­tin­ued un­til a woman lawyer and women’s rights ac­tivist, Mahdis Doost, stepped into help her. Afghanistan is one of the most dan­ger­ous coun­tries to be a woman or girl in, and a short­age of fe­male po­lice of­fi­cers and lawyers means women rarely re­port abuse, rights groups say. Re­search in­di­cates that more than eight in 10 women in Afghanistan have been sex­u­ally, phys­i­cally or psy­cho­log­i­cally abused, but only a few thou­sand cases are re­ported each year.

If an un­mar­ried woman is caught alone with a man who is not her rel­a­tive, she can be ac­cused, like Mal­iha, of be­ing a pros­ti­tute. A man and woman in Herat prov­ince, ac­cused of be­ing in an il­licit re­la­tion­ship, were cap­tured by a mob and shot in an ex­tra-ju­di­cial killing, Herat’s po­lice spokesman said on Mon­day.

When women do re­port abuse or are ar­rested them­selves, they find them­selves at the mercy of Afghanistan’s pa­tri­ar­chal ju­di­cial sys­tem, shaped by sharia law, women’s rights cam­paign­ers say. “In many court meet­ings, I could easily de­fend my client but the judge didn’t let the pro­ceed­ings be com­pleted. The at­mos­phere was heav­ily an­tag­o­nis­tic and many times I was called a whore or abused - just be­cause of my choice of clients,” Doost, 26, told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion.

Afghanistan’s roughly 500 reg­is­tered women lawyers - mostly con­fined to the big cities of Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat, un­der­take some of the most dan­ger­ous jobs in Afghan so­ci­ety. They help women flee­ing do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and forced mar­riage. Di­vorce still re­mains taboo in Afghan so­ci­ety and if a woman wants to get a di­vorce law­fully, she has to nav­i­gate the male-dom­i­nated ju­di­cial sys­tem. There is a com­mon phrase in Afghanistan which says “a girl should come to her in-laws in a white dress and leave them in a white shroud,” said Fereshta Karimi, an­other women lawyer work­ing in Herat.

Among Afghanistan’s women lawyers, only a few ac­tu­ally dare to prac­tice in court. Doost, who rep­re­sented Mal­iha, is one of them. “When I took Mal­iha’s case, she had been held in prison for nearly three years with­out a sin­gle ap­pear­ance in court and no lawyer. I pro­vided ev­i­dence that she was ar­rested in a pub­lic place and the crime (sex with a man) didn’t hap­pen and there were no wit­nesses for that,” Doost said by phone. “She had al­ready spent more time than she should in prison for a crime she did not com­mit. The judge would not co­op­er­ate. That is why it took eight months for me to re­lease Mal­iha.”


Ab­dul Qadir Rahimi, head of the Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion of Afghanistan, told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion they were aware of abuse of women by the po­lice and ju­di­cial au­thor­i­ties. “No spe­cific re­port about rape or sex­ual ex­ploita­tion (of women in de­ten­tion) has sur­faced yet, but we can­not deny such in­ci­dents oc­cur as the sys­tem and po­lice are cor­rupt in this coun­try,” he said.

There are around 100 women lawyers in Herat work­ing un­der the Afghanistan In­de­pen­dent Bar As­so­ci­a­tion (AIBA), Aziz Rafi, the head of the AIBA told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion. But most of them are work­ing as ad­vi­sors and do not ap­pear in court be­cause of the dan­gers. Fereshta Karimi has worked on more than 30 women’s cases over the last six years. “As a mar­ried woman, ev­ery day I in­vite un­wanted dan­ger to my fam­ily with the na­ture of my job,” she said. “Some­times clients’ as­so­ciates come to my door to dis­cuss the in­tri­cacy of a case, which makes my fam­ily wor­ried and up­set. Many times my hus­band has tried to stop me from work­ing and I have to strug­gle ev­ery day to con­tinue my job as a lawyer.” she said.

For women like Mal­iha, re­jected by their own fam­i­lies, women lawyers have been their only hope. Mal­iha is now liv­ing se­cretly with her wid­owed aunt. Be­cause of her con­vic­tion, she can’t re­sume her stud­ies, get a job or move freely in so­ci­ety. Her male rel­a­tives have threat­ened to kill her. Doost has promised to send her to the cap­i­tal Kabul and find her a job there. “It may be a place where I can re­sume my life among un­known peo­ple,” Mal­iha said. “My aunt keeps say­ing me she can’t hide me for long and I am scared for my life if my brother finds me.” — Reuters

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