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.