“Please help us.”
Those were the first words that my client, Gulnaz, said when I met her inside the Kabul prison that was home to hundreds of women, many of whom, like her, were locked away for so-called moral crimes — adultery or running away from home. The frail 20-year-old clung to her baby, who was conceived through rape and born on the prison floor, where mother and child had lived for nearly two years.
Tearfully, Gulnaz recounted the story of the assault that took place in 2009. The attacker, nearly twice her age, pinned her down, tied her up and then savagely raped her. She described going to the police with her disabled, widowed mother to report the rape. There she was instantly imprisoned for reporting the crime. With no male head of household present, the two women were not taken seriously.
After years of advocacy by human rights groups and other activists, and a decade of war by the United States and its allies — a war in which the need to uphold the rights of women has often been invoked — Afghan women remain trapped in a legal system that often punishes them for being the victims of brutal crimes.
My illiterate client told me of her experience going to court with her illegitimate daughter and not understanding the legal process. She was forced to represent herself after her Afghan lawyer failed to show up, yet the judges who presided over the case refused to allow her to speak. Instead, they berated Gulnaz for lying, insisting that women cannot get pregnant by having sex just once. This assertion was the basis for the 12-year sentence that was imposed, with a wrenching caveat: Marrying her attacker would allow her to be “free.”
Unfortunately, Gulnaz’s case is not an anomaly but represents the situation that more than half of the imprisoned women in Afghanistan find themselves in — locked up for moral crimes, according to a recent studyby the United Nations.