“Virginity is a natural stamp,” says Afghan Supreme Court member

IRIN recently published an Afghanistan article that has it all: women being treated as pieces of property (in this case, defective pieces of property), rampant ignorance of medical science, misogynist government officials and cultural practices that turn life into a miserable horror for people unlucky enough to run afoul of them.

It includes one of the worst stories I’ve heard in the past month –and that’s saying something.

Raela* was forcefully taken to a medical examiner on her wedding night after her husband accused her of losing her virginity and beat her. The examination showed she had lost her virginity long before the marriage and the 22-year-old was handed over to the judiciary for prosecution on charges of adultery.

Raela’s incarceration has devastated her family. They have to pay back almost US$10,000 to their former son-in-law, which was allegedly spent on the wedding ceremony.

“They have put their house up for sale and decided to leave this neighbourhood because they cannot live with the dishonour,” said one relative, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A weak, unprofessional justice sector and deeply ingrained prejudices against women are responsible for the nightmare Raela and other women face.

While virginity is not mentioned in the country’s penal system and other laws, say activists and lawyers, hundreds of women like Raela unfairly face serious formal and informal penalties for the alleged illicit loss of this cultural requirement.

Sexual intercourse outside marriage is a sin under Islamic jurisprudence and the Afghan laws largely derived from it.

“Virginity is a natural stamp,” said Mawlawi Mohammad Qasim, a member of the Supreme Court’s penal bureau. “When it is lost and the reason is proved to be illegitimate sexual relations it implies adultery, which should be punished,” he said adding that an unmarried person caught having sex outside marriage, male or female, could be sentenced to three to five years in prison while married adulterers received heavier penalties.

And Mawlawi Qasim’s beliefs aren’t out of sync with those of the society at large, nor, sadly, with the Afghan medical community.

Medical workers are often called in to prove a woman’s virginity – a requirement for women preparing for marriage.

“Virginity and adultery tests are part of our normal work,” said Del Aqa Mahboobi, a medical expert in Kabul. But there are few facilities and a shortage of female experts to undertake very intimate tests.

The tests involve an examination of the vagina to see whether a girl’s or woman’s hymen is intact, but experts say it can be torn by factors other than intercourse. When forced or coerced, according to Amnesty International, virginity tests degrade women and are a form of torture.

In what seems to be the lone ray of light in an otherwise very, very grim situation, a handful of activists are speaking out against these practices and the attitudes that perpetuate them.

Demanding that men too face the law, Sheela Samimi, an advocacy officer with the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), said: “Can a girl ask [medical experts] to test whether her would-be husband had sex before marriage and when proved wrong would officials prosecute the man as they do a woman?”

With every female victim of adultery, she added, there was a man or men who rarely faced justice.

Four walks at night

Walk 1.

May 1, 2010. Yakawlang district, Bamiyan province. Excerpt from a never-finished travel series.

The minibus stops in front of a river. A low yellow moon hangs above. I can just make out buildings. A young man who introduces himself as Salim, another AHRDO theater trainer, helps me carry my bags. I follow Bisharat, Salim and several others over a footbridge and through woods. We reach a dirt trail leading up a mountain. Bisharat points to lights high above. “That’s the Yakawlang Shohada  guesthouse, let’s go,” he says.  We hike up a mountain in the moonlight. The air is so clear it stings my lungs, which have for months been choked by dust and diesel from the streets of Kabul.

In the guesthouse, I find several men sitting on the floor of a livingroom dimly lit by a single fluorescent lightbulb. Yakawlang has a few hours of weak electricity at night thanks to a small hyrdo power station the valley residents built when they realized no one was coming to help them.

I sit down and Salim pours me some tea.

Walk 2.

September 14, 2010, four days before Election Day, from a journal entry titled “The fear.”

It is after midnight and I am sitting alone in a bright hotel conference room, typing a report that speaks to the corrosive effects of leaving killers in power for reasons of political expediency.

My phone rings. I pick it up. The question of who could be calling so late briefly flickers across my consciousness. Garbled Dari mixed with English. I can’t understand the words, but I understand the tone. I hang up.

Ringing again. Same number. Finally it disconnects. I turn back to the screen, to deleting the last two letters in a name that, when Googled, returns accounts of captives being crushed beneath tank treads. I replace the name with my favorite Afghanistan euphemism: “local powerbroker.”

Ring. Ring. Ring. The same number again, ending in 28.

I leave the phone. There’s no connection between the calls and what I’m writing. To think otherwise would be silly.

Josh walks into the room. I tell him I’m getting harassing phone calls again. He arches his eyebrows and asks, “Again?“

Checking my email inbox, I tell him about the calls, and about the time I received a text message from someone threatening to kill me by knocking out all my teeth and letting me bleed to death.

Josh tells me we will take taxis to work while he is in Kabul. The office carpool is fine, I say. He asks me how I can trust the drivers.

For a moment I puzzle over the question.

I just do, I tell him, shrugging. I have trusted them for months. Josh tells me that’s a poor justification for trust and the conversation ends.

It is nearly 2 am when I walk the 1/4 block home, alone. The street is dark when I leave the hotel. The faint light of a guard hut illuminates a soldier’s shape.

The soldier begins walking in my direction. No one else is around. My heart pounds. I reach for the comforting handle of my knife, and then remember that I gave it to my housemate.

The soldier picks up his pace. I freeze in the alley that runs alongside my compound. From probably 60 feet away, the soldier calls out, “No danger! No danger!”

My key tuns in the lock and the heavy gate opens. Hands shaking, I throw the deadbolt and run to my front door.

Walk 3.

October 2, 2010, from a journal entry titled “24 years; blood and vodka.”

My red scarf clings tightly to my face, showing only my eyes and the tips of my bangs, as I hurry through the nighttime streets. Passing cars honk, and guards call to me in singsong voices and then laugh heartily amongst their compatriots.

The dark hours belong to men in this country. A woman’s presence on the streets after sunset is treated as both an infraction and an open invitation.

I try to ignore the leering and whispers. Then a van swerves and slows next to me. Young men open the door and call to me. I leap clumsily across the open sewer and slide into a pile of rubble. The van drives on.

Waiting outside the gate of the UN guesthouse, I feel tacky wetness under the toes on my left foot. I look down and see my shoe covered in dark blood.

Walk 4.

January 4, 2011, Adams Morgan, Washington, DC.

A and I linger in the diner after Solmaz leaves. We finish the last of the cider and get the check. The air outside is full of cold and electricity. We decide to stay out a while longer. The apartment I’m subletting is at least a mile away, but I don’t mind walking, and neither does A. I see it as such a luxury now, I tell him. He gets that.

We leave the bright lights behind and hope we’re headed in the right direction. I have the urge to skip along the sidewalk like I did as a child. I want to twirl in the crosswalk. I love these benevolent streets. My luck at being able to call them my own is incalculable.

TWOF

Todd Huffman and Brian Conley have no time to deal with this TWOF. August 2010.

My comrade-in-arms Naheed Mustafa once used the phrase “a tidal wave of fuckery” to describe the immature, pervy and unnecessarily vicious social drama that washes over everything and everyone in Kabul.

It stuck with me because it’s a great expression, and one that deserves its own acronym for the internets. Hence, I give you TWOF.

Use it wisely, kids.

Here’s a good context:

Last night, I tried to visit a friend at the Park Palace, a well-known Kabul hotel that has recently come under new  and decidedly sketchy management. The teenage receptionist prevented me from visiting my friend’s room, implied I was a hooker (“You want to do something illegal in Afghanistan” and “You are a bad woman”), and threatened to have the guards remove me from the premises. TWOF!

Sexism at home, sexism abroad

If she goes this ballistic over sexual harassment in the U.S., she certainly won’t be able to deal in [insert country where women are treated worse]!, you are probably saying to yourself.

Actually, no.

I will put up with all kinds of things abroad –and have– that I won’t tolerate for an instant at home. If someone offered me a job in Afghanistan, where I have wanted to work for a very long time, I would be fine with the dress code, because I know that women’s freedom to dress as they please is not on the radar of even most liberal Afghans. In a place like Afghanistan, there are far more immediate will-I-see-tomorrow? matters to contend with, especially for women. Most Afghan women, including activists and aid workers, find the Western obsession with their clothing counterproductive and self-serving when issues like widow  poverty and the shortage of women’s shelters don’t get nearly as much media play as the burqa does.

Abiding by rules I disagree with regarding women’s clothing is a concession I’d make without hesitation if it meant I could work on the Big Things. I’d even grit my teeth and endure the inappropriate touching Afghan and expat women experience (though less expat women now, from what I’ve heard, because fewer expats brave the streets these days).

What I won’t do is change my behaviour or dress (again) in my own country, or swallow my pride and passively put up with the rude remarks, hungry stares, and grabby hands of bored misogynists loitering on the streets of my city.  They are the ones who need to change, not me.

Learn this, and learn it well

An idealistic young man is promising, principled and future-minded.

An idealistic young woman is naive, stereotypical, and a liability.

An outspoken young man is ambitious, intelligent, and possessing of wonderful entrepreneurial spirit. He should be promoted.

An outspoken young woman is a bossy bitch who doesn’t know her place in the hierarchy. She should be put in her place.

Odds and ends

The Afghan parliament is revising the country’s marriage law, and not in woman-friendly ways, according to AlterNet:

The Afghan parliament is expected to soon approve revisions to its marriage law that will do very little in the way of improving women’s rights. Despite recent demands that the country radically rework its policies on issues such as polygamy and a woman’s right to work, Afghanistan’s government is signaling a continued adherence to regressive traditions.

In a recent letter to Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, activists said, “slight changes in the wordings of the law, rather than changes in content,” have rendered the revisions ineffectual.

Additionally, Shinkai Kharokhel, a lawmaker involved in the legislation, told the Associated Press on July 14 that the law’s revisions do little more than uphold structural inequalities in the country. She said many Afghan women “are illiterate, and they don’t have financial security and no one will give her money … shelter, medical, food, all these expenses belong to the man, and he can hold that back.”

What is perhaps most unfortunate among the “revisions” is the Afghan government’s failure to erase a law that calls on women to engage in sex with their husbands at least every four days. Although the proposed revisions do eliminate a time frame for sexual requirements, they still allow a man to withhold financial support for his wife if she refuses to “submit to her husband’s reasonable sexual enjoyment,” Human Rights Watch has reported.

“[...] submit to her husband’s reasonable sexual enjoyment”?

That’s grim stuff. Here’s hoping MP Kharokhel and other progressive MPs make more of a dent in this law.

***

While we’re on the topic of misogyny and sexism, my landlord busted out the following gem two nights ago when I complained about sexual harassment of women on the streets of my city.

“You know the Bloodhound Gang song ‘Street Legal Whore’? Well, that describes most women your age. Take it [the harassment] as a compliment. Pretty soon you’ll be too old for it.”

Needless to say, I’m moving out at the end of the summer. I’d move out sooner, but can’t afford to.

(Oh, and that foul Bloodhound Gang song is actually titled “I’m the Least You Could Do.”)

***

I have nothing but contempt for Jeff Sessions.

Via Human Rights Now:

Yesterday the Senate passed four amendments to the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, including a provision that would allow the death penalty to apply to hate crimes.  This amendment, added by Senator Jeff Sessions, R, AL (a vocal opponent of the Act itself), adds nothing to the justice the bill seeks for victims of gender and sexuality-based hate crimes.

The point Sessions was trying to convey is something like “If you’re going to pass legislation that discourages people from committing crimes against members of groups I resent the very existence of, I’m going to bundle that legislation with a big, fat human rights violation! How’d ya like that?”

My mind, it boggles.

***

It's almost time for the Sarajevo Film Festival (pictured: posters from the 2007 SFF)

It's almost time for the Sarajevo Film Festival (pictured: posters from the 2007 SFF)

***

afghanstarMy ex-boyfriend and I are going to see Afghan Star this weekend. I’m excited. Here’s the trailer.

Sir, in Sarajevo, you’d be decked by passersby for that

Today, as has happened far too many times since I moved to this city, I was harassed at my bus stop. This time, a guy in a Ghostbusters t-shirt reached his fleshy paw of a hand out, stupid grin on his face, and grabbed for my chest.

(Hey, asshole!  I don’t exist for your personal amusement, and just because I have tattoos does not mean I am a display item, or ok with random strangers putting their hands on my body.)

Where do I enlist?

Where do I enlist?

Shit like that makes me really miss Sarajevo, where Ghostbusters dude would have been decked by the nearest male passerby for doing something so incredibly inappropriate and socially unacceptable, and probably pummeled and/or kicked with spiky heels by a passing group of women as well.

One of my male Bosnian friends once put it to me this way, “If a guy did something rude to a girl, whether she was foreign or local, he’d be taken outside and beaten a bit by his friends –for his own good.”

One of the many great things about Sarajevo, in sharp contrast to my current city in Rust Belt U.S.A., was that,  as a woman, I could wear whatever I wanted without having to worry about being grabbed, called offensive names or followed by strange men on the street. In Sarajevo, even the leering was kept to a minimum.

This was one of the primary reasons I started clubbing so much during my time in Bosnia. I felt safe, and in control of my personal space. My experiences with clubs prior to working in Bosnia were uniformly bad.

In the United States, I found guys at clubs –the few times I went clubbing in the U.S.– to be disrespectful, vulgar, and so horny they really shouldn’t have been in public.

Australia and Western Europe were no better. When I pulled away from a guy who grabbed me from behind at a nightclub in Brussels, the repugnant shit-for-brains scratched me so hard on my right hip that he drew blood. That same night, one of my friends was kicked in the back by a drunk dude outside the club.

Never once did anything remotely similar happen to me or any of my female friends in Bosnia. Sarajevo guys are the most respectful I’ve met anywhere in the world thus far. Nowhere else have I been to clubs where guys actually talk to you, try to learn your name, find out where you’re from and what you’re doing in town, before they so much as try to shake your hand, nevermind pull you onto the dance floor.

In fact, none of the lecherous people I knew in Bosnia were from Bosnia. They were all expats.

Every time I think twice about wearing my favourite little black sundress in public, I chuckle bitterly. I bought that dress on Ferhadija two summers ago.

“You destroy that which you believe in”

Natalia Antonova stopped me with that line.

Here’s the context:

What I keep coming back to, however, isn’t the mystery of Estemirova’s death, but that which is most obvious about it. You destroy that which you believe in. And Estemirova’s killers must have believed in Estemirova – believed in her power, believed in the danger she presented to them and their methods – especially when you consider the fact that she was kidnapped in plain sight, a gesture as terrifying as it is symbolic.

Both outsiders and many Russians themselves have a mythologizing approach toward Russian and, in general, Slavic femininity. A “real” Russian woman is beautiful, of course, and, what’s more important, she does not “threaten” a man’s view of himself as fundamentally better. This is a fantasy that is belied by the existence of women like Natalia Estemirova, the ones who, like their male counterparts, can only be subdued with a gun.

You can send a message of condolence and solidarity to Estemirova’s family here, through Amnesty UK.  If I was Estemirova’s sister or daughter, I would be comforted by reminders that my loved one’s work was meaningful and important –important enough to end violently– and that her death did not pass unnoticed outside Russia.