Beaten Afghan Brides

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

October 6, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan

I had an inspiration about where Osama bin Laden might be hiding. But when I visited the women's detention center in Kabul, there was no sign of him.

I did meet Ellaha, a bold 19-year-old prisoner who startled me by greeting me in English. (Like many Afghans, she uses only one name.) She had been attending college as a refugee in Iran when her family pulled her out, alarmed that education might corrupt a young lady's morals.

Her family returned to Afghanistan, and she found work in a U.S. construction company, where her bosses were so impressed that they began arranging a scholarship for her to go to Canada to study.

That horrified her family because the patriarchs had decided that she would marry her cousin. "I didn't agree to marry him," she told me through an interpreter, "because he is not educated and I don't like his job - he is a butcher. Plus, he's three years younger than me."

"When it was almost time for me to go to Canada, and I was asking about flights," she added, "they tied me up and locked me in a room. It was in my uncle's house. My father said, 'O.K., beat her.' I'd never been beaten like that in all my life. My uncle and cousins were all beating me. ... They broke my head, and I was bleeding."

Ms. Ellaha's younger sister, who had been pledged to another cousin, was facing the same treatment. After a week of being tied up, the two sisters agreed to marry their cousins.

"So we went home," Ms. Ellaha added, "and escaped."

The two sisters moved into a cheap guesthouse as they prepared to flee Afghanistan. But their family learned where they were hiding, and the police came to arrest them.

On what charge?

"It's because their lives were in danger," said Rana, the head of the detention center. Ms. Ellaha agrees that her family was pretty close to killing her. The sister is apparently back home, but I was not allowed to interview her.

The police subjected Ms. Ellaha to a mandatory virginity test. Fortunately, her hymen was intact, or she would have faced a prison sentence.

Now she worries that she will be released into her family's custody and then forced to marry her cousin. If that happens, she told me, "I will kill myself."

The entire jail is a kaleidoscope of woe. It's been two years since President Bush declared that in Afghanistan, "Today, women are free." But that's news to the inmates.

Nazilah, 17, had been married to an old man with tuberculosis who beat her - she was his second wife. She ran away and was picked up by the police. Now the authorities are figuring out whether they can return her to her husband's family without getting her killed.

Then there is Sohailla, 18, who says she was kidnapped for three days by the family of a young man who wanted to marry her (the police suspect that she went to his house voluntarily). The police subjected her to a virginity test; after she failed, she got a three-year sentence for fornication.

Inequality is so deeply embedded in this society that there are no easy solutions. In a new opinion poll in Afghanistan, 87 percent of those surveyed said women needed to ask their husbands' permission to vote. There was little difference in the answers of men and women.

The best route to change is new schools, new clinics and more economic opportunity - and those steps are just what the lack of security is blocking in much of southern Afghanistan, the most traditional part of the country. Mr. Bush urgently needs to bolster security in rural areas in the south, so reconstruction projects can go ahead there. The liberation of Afghanistan from the Taliban was crucial, but only a first step.

If this sounds like a gloomy assessment, it was reinforced when I located Ms. Ellaha's father, Said Jamil, a carpenter, and spoke to him on the street in his Kabul neighborhood. He told me that he was arranging for his daughter to be released to him - but he vowed that he would no longer allow her to "be so free."

He did promise me that he would not beat Ms. Ellaha or force her to marry her cousin. I asked him to show mercy toward his daughter, but I have a bad feeling about what lies ahead.

This is how "women are free" in Afghanistan.