Mariam was 11 in 2003 when her parents forced her to marry a blind 41-year-old cleric. The bride price of $1,200 helped Mariam’s father, a drug addict, pay off a debt.
Mariam was taken to live with her new husband and his mother-in-law, who, she says, treated her like a servant. They began to beat her when she failed to conceive a child. After two years of abuse, she fled and sought help at a police station in Kabul.
Until only a few years ago, the Afghan police would probably have rewarded Mariam for her courage by throwing her in jail — traditional mores forbid women to be alone on the street — or returning her to her husband.
Instead, the police delivered her to a plain, two-story building in a residential neighborhood: a women’s shelter, something that was unknown here before 2003.
Since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, a more egalitarian notion of women’s rights has begun to take hold, founded in the country’s new constitution and promoted by the newly created Ministry of Women’s Affairs and a small community of women’s advocates.
The problems they are confronting are deeply ingrained in a culture that has been mainly governed by tribal law. But they are changing the lives of young women like Mariam, now 17. Still wary of social stigma, she did not want her full name used.
“Simply put, this is a patriarchal society,” said Manizha Naderi, director of Women for Afghan Women, one of four organizations that run shelters in Afghanistan. “Women are the property of men. This is tradition.”
Women’s shelters have been criticized as a foreign intrusion in Afghan society, where familial and community problems have traditionally been resolved through the mediation of tribal leaders and councils. But women’s advocates insist that those outcomes almost always favor the men.
Forced marriages involving girls have been part of the social compacts between tribes and families for centuries, and they continue, though the legal marrying age is now 16 for women and 18 for men. Beating, torture and trafficking of women remain common and are broadly accepted, women’s advocates say.
Until the advent of the shelters, a woman in an abusive marriage usually had nowhere to turn. If she tried to seek refuge with her own family, her brothers or father might return her to her husband, to protect the family’s honor. Women who eloped might be cast out of the family altogether.
Many women resort to suicide, some by self-immolation, to escape their misery, according to Afghan and international human rights advocates.
“Our aim is not to put women in the shelter if it’s not necessary,” said Naderi, who was born in Afghanistan but grew up in New York City and graduated from Hunter College. “Only in cases where it’s dangerous for the women to go back home, that’s when we put them in the shelter.”
If mediation fails, Naderi said, her organization’s lawyers will pursue a divorce on behalf of their clients. Cases involving criminal allegations are referred to the attorney general’s office.