A wife's struggle for freedom in Afghanistan
Sunday, November 28, 2004
By Sudarsan Raghavan:Knight Ridder Newspapers
KABUL, Afghanistan — Dusk crosses into night, and still Pekay isn't free. After a long day walking from office to office, pleading with stubborn judges, her quest has failed: She's still married to her abusive husband.
  Once again, the memories resurface. Her father selling her in marriage to a man five times her age to pay the rent; the beatings and sodomy that followed. She was 9 years old.
  Her mind drifts toward suicide. She has tried twice — first with a knife, then with kerosene and a match.
  Pekay is 13 now, one of thousands of girls and women who are trapped in forced marriages, caught between the rural, tribal and Islamic customs that ruled the country for centuries and the promise of a new Afghanistan ruled by laws that apply equally to everyone.
Few go to court

  Domestic violence is widespread, but most cases never go to court. The laws are weak, and women stay silent out of fear or shame: Divorce disgraces the family and the tribe. Each year, scores of Afghan women escape bad marriages by setting themselves on fire or other forms of suicide.
  The Muslim fundamentalist Taliban regime collapsed three years ago. Hamid Karzai has won the country's first presidential elections. Women, who couldn't freely leave their houses in the old Afghanistan, voted in droves.
  Yet none of this momentous change has helped Pekay. Under Afghanistan's civil law, it's illegal for girls younger than 16 to marry. But the Supreme Court, led by conservative clerics and Islamic law, ruled that she can't get divorced, even from a violent child molester.
  Her last hope is that Fazal Hadi Shinwari, the ultra-conservative chief justice of the Supreme Court, will reverse the decision.
  "If he doesn't, I'll kill myself," said Pekay, who like many Afghans uses one name. "And I'll leave it up to God to punish the judges in the next world."
An arranged marriage

  Pekay is less than 5 feet tall and slight. Her nose is puffy and crooked from a thrashing. Her left cheekbone is higher than her right, as if a bone is out of place. Her lower lip is split.
  She was smaller when she met Malik Muhammad four years ago. At 48, he was old enough to be her grandfather. He offered to rent a room in his house to Pekay's family.
  Four months passed, and Muhammad never asked for the rent. Pekay's father, Muhammad Omar, was too poor to remind him. One day, Muhammad demanded the rent money: $80, a princely sum.
  When Omar asked if he could pay in installments, Muhammad said, "You must pay me now or give me your daughter," Omar recalled. Four days later, Muhammad started planning a wedding.
  "We had no choice," Omar said. "He was a Taliban intelligence agent. He was very powerful. He said if I didn't allow the marriage, he would take us to the Taliban central office and do the wedding there."
The wedding night

  On her wedding night, Pekay was confused. Why was the man she called "uncle" taking her to his bedroom? Why was her mother so sad?
  "I'll be back soon," she recalled telling her mother.
Smiling, she stepped in. Her new husband shut the door.
"I started to hear screams," recalled her mother, Qudbi. "I thought he was going to kill her."
  The next morning, Muhammad refused to let Qudbi see Pekay. He'd chained her hands and legs to his bed, Pekay said. Four days later, he evicted her parents.
  Pekay lived as a slave for the next 2-1/2 years. Muhammad locked her in a room, releasing her only to cook, clean and do the washing. He pounded her with sticks and rubber tubing.     When he stopped beating her, he started raping her.
  "I can't tell you what happened," Pekay said. "It's the type of thing that happens only with animals."
  Muhammad, now 52, denies he abused Pekay, but his next-door neighbor, Zalmay Quasimi, remembers her screams.
Asked whether he was concerned that he broke the law by marrying a child, he replied: "If a girl is under 16, her father has the authority to marry her off," Muhammad said. "Lots of Taliban were married to 7- or 8-year-old girls."
  At first, Pekay's parents were afraid to confront Muhammad, who, along with other Taliban rank-and-file types, was granted amnesty by Karzai's transitional government when the regime fell.
  They gained confidence from the changes that began taking place around them: Some women shed their burqas, the ghostly coverings the Taliban had ordered them to wear. Girls, banned by the Taliban from education, began attending schools. A new constitution was drafted that protected the rights of women.
  Fifteen months ago, Pekay's parents finally went to the police. Officers raided Muhammad's house and found Pekay and his first wife, Samar. Dried blood stained the floor and chains dangled from a bedpost, according to court documents. The police took Muhammad into custody.
  But Afghanistan's legal system, a mix of civil and sharia, Islamic law, still favors men. Once he proved that he was Samar's and Pekay's husband, Muhammad was released.  Samar was told to go with him. Because of her age, Pekay was returned to her parents pending a court decision.
  Pekay and her parents went to Kabul's family court to get a divorce. Muhammad, in court documents, called the allegations "a massive lie."
  But in front of two female judges, Pekay undressed and showed the marks around her waist from the chain that Muhammed used to bind her, said Manija, one of the judges, who also uses one name.
  The court, filled with progressive young judges, granted her a divorce. Pekay was ecstatic.
Higher authorities

  Her joy, and her freedom, soon evaporated.
  Muhammad appealed the decision. The appeals court ruled in his favor. The Supreme Court did the same.
  Pekay was ordered to return to her husband or go to jail.
Supreme Court justice Sayeed Omar Munib explained that sharia allows a father to marry off his daughter even if she's under 16. And Pekay hadn't met the standard of evidence — two witnesses who saw the abuse or a confession from her husband.
  The only way Pekay can divorce Muhammad, Munib said, is if her parents pay him off. They offered, Munib said, but Muhammad turned them down.
  "Her father married her, and she cannot now say I want to get a divorce," Munib said. "The only thing she can do now, if she wants, is separate their bed and sleep in another room. The past doesn't matter."
  When asked why he didn't rule according to Afghanistan's civil law, he replied: "In Islam and sharia, it's not like that.  Women are very smooth operators. If we let her get a divorce, then women will be encouraged to divorce their husbands if they see another man they like. We'll have a lot of divorces in our society."
  When asked if he believed that women and men have equal rights, as Afghanistan's constitution states, Munib replied: "It's impossible. We are Muslims, and God has given a place for men and a place for women. We can't change that. Women don't have the same brains like men. They are very forgetful. They can't make big decisions. You should ask your own Western doctors about this. It has been proven that women are not like men."
  Others read the Quran, Islam's holy book, differently. The prophet Muhammad says a man can't beat his wife, even with a flower, said Horia Mosadiq, a women's-rights activist.
  Shortly after Munib's decision, policemen came to collect Pekay from the home of an upper-class family where her parents lived in exchange for cleaning. Pekay and her mother ran to the kitchen, and Pekay grabbed a sharp knife and prepared to thrust it into her stomach. Her mother grabbed a can of kerosene.
  "Let me kill myself, and take my body to my husband's house!" Pekay screamed. "I don't want to go back alive to his house again."
  Their landlord's wife, Lailoma Haider, who'd run after them, intervened.
  "If you kill yourself, you will only make your husband happy," Haider recalled telling Pekay. "You must live in this world. Life is God's gift to you. I promise you that you will never go back to your husband."
  Haider told the policemen that Pekay wasn't there. They returned a month later. Pekay threatened to kill herself again. Haider talked her out of it again.
  Haider and a neighbor worked to get Pekay an appointment with Chief Justice Shinwari. They were educated women and now had a voice, if a faint one, in the new Afghanistan. It took them weeks, but they finally got a meeting for Pekay.
An unrepentant spouse

  Shinwari, also a cleric, dispensed justice according to strict sharia. But he looked at Pekay's face and body, and listened to Haider and her neighbor. Then he approved Pekay's divorce.
Muhammad, however, is determined to get Pekay back.
  "I'll die before divorcing her," he said. "I can't force her to come back to my house, but I can make sure she won't marry again. One day she'll come back. She has to."
For now, the child inside Pekay is resurfacing.
  "I wish the same success for all the women who have problems like mine to escape from their husbands," Pekay said with a wide smile. Then she turned solemn. "I hope Samar will escape from him someday," she said.
  A few days later, the green door to Muhammad's mud-walled house was slightly ajar. A thin woman was hunched inside, washing clothes. It was Samar.
  When a car pulled up, she peeked outside.
  Fear spread across her sad, wrinkled face, and she shut the door.

Scary reality
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