In Afghanistan, was told an ancient legend about how God created the country: “When Allah had done the rest of the world, he saw that there was a lot of waste material that did not fit anywhere. So He got all these pieces and He threw them on the Earth, that was the Afghanistan”.
I had the honour to be posted in Afghanistan twice, in 2010 and 2013 and it was a wonderful experience. Afghanistan is one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman, so, since the first time I was so interested how women could be affected by ancient tribal codes. Despite I read lot of academic books on the issue, living such experience on the field was incomparable.
Child Brides of Herat
To understand what are the main difficulties for Afghan women, we should start from the role of the woman in Pasthunwali. In the legal history of Afghanistan there are tribal and customary codes of the Pashtun also known as the Pasthunwali, a code practiced especially in the rural Pashtun areas.
The Pasthunwali has his legitimacy under the tribal genealogical heritage, it is related to ancestral codes which came together under Ahmed Shah Durrani in 1747 when was shaped the modern state of Afghanistan.Pasthunwali has so much influence in the Pashtun areas that is considered a driving force more than the Islamic law.
Pasthunwali, “the way of Pashuns” is founded on:
1. honor (izzat, concepts of chivalry like bravery and courage);
2. hospitality (melmastia);
3. gender boundaries (purdah or namus);
4. elders’ council (jirga).
The term of Namus constitutes the institution necessary to maintain the afghan society divided in a gender segregated order. Namus or Purdah is essentially a veil or a curtain used to stabilize the boundary between men and women’s space, it is also intended as a sign of dignity for both men and women. These boundaries differ among the Pasthun villages in relation of nang (pastoral and nomadic Pasthuns) or qalang (urban and large landowning Pasthuns) groups. On one end there are nomadic groups, where women normally do not veil in public and are left to care alone for the household, in the middle there are semi nomadic groups in wich women partially cover their faces when they leave the house, and on the extreme opposite are the qalang groups, where women are not allowed to leave the household without being completely covered.
Extreme Purdah could lead to many restrictions for women, in fact Taliban exacerbated the Pashunwali till an extreme point that women were banned from education and healthcare.
The boghra is the cloth used by women to cover completely themselves. It is commonly believed that the boghra came from India but it is a product of several cultures that surrounded and conquered Afghanistan (Byzantine, Greek and Persian).
Both men and women respect the code of Pasthunwali because gender boundaries are necessary to maintain the order in the society and respect the Pasthun ideals. Men and women in the Pashtun society live separate worlds and, although there are common areas that require consultation, the Pashun society could be defined one of homo – social order where men and women socialize almost exclusively with the same gender. They have their own spheres of jurisdiction, despite the fact that men have more control over resources and power. In a society defined as homo–socially ordered, women could achieve authority if they prove, like men, that they are honorable, the first pillar of Pasthunwali.
There are three level of women’s leadership and legislative authority: the national level, the village level and the family level. At the national level Zarghona Anaa, the mother of Ahmed Shah Durrani was a strong and loyal nationalist that encouraged the use of Pasthunwali, in some circumstances while her son Ahmed Shah was away, she arbitrated conflicts and governed all the Pasthun tribes united under one flag. At the village level, the qaryadar (female village leader) has a great authority in arranging marriages for her own family and settling arguments and conflicts between men and women. She also has the authority to mobilize women to practice religious cerimonies. At the family level women create a social networks of hierarchy with a leader who exert her power to figure all conflicts out in the household. She could be defined as a very matriarch.
The Pasthunwali is a code that really gives an order to the afghan society and despite it creates gender boundaries that result in different social space between men and women, the segregation of genders doesn’t lead to in the total disempowerment of women. It needs to reinforce the positive aspect of this customary code to empower more and more afghan women in getting the right role they deserve in the society. During the last 30 years, instead to emphasize the positive aspect of this ancient code, were exacerbated the bad ones.
One of the worst harmful tradition that still persist in Afghanistan is the Practice of BAAD, called also Compensation. Women have to face these troubles in Afghanistan every day, they have fear to give birth a girl.
Baad, is the “giving away of a girl or woman in marriage as blood price to settle a conflict over murder or a perceived affront honour” committed by a male member of the family. This ancient practice is still prevalent in rural Afghanistan and it is not linked with the religion.
For example if a villager kills a member of a rival clan in a fight, the elders of the community forms a jirga, or council, to mediate the conflict and prevent further bloodshed.
The jirga typically chooses a young woman from the perpetrator’s family and orders her to marry a man from the victim’s clan. In theory, the resulting bond between the two families is meant to stop further turmoil. But in practice, it is the young woman who pays a heavy price.
The bride is often in her early teens or even younger, wedded to a 50- or 60-year-old man from the victim’s family.
Different studies conducted by different NGOs have shown that the Practice has decreased since 2001 but being a woman in Afghanistan is a not stopping challenge.
To help afghan women in facing daily risks as child marriages, forced marriages, Baad, violence at home, beaten at home, or simply women that escaped from home because they want to divorce but they are threatened by their husbands, have been built Shelter to protect them.
During my experience I had the privilege to interview Suraya Pakzad, founder and executive director of Voice of women organization, runs the Child Brides Shelter of Herat. Herat shelter is an open book of teenage stories too soon forced to become women first by families and then by husband-masters. Their stories move and make your skin crawl.