I wrote this while sitting in my bedroom in Kabul, Afghanistan on 9 June 2005 (17 years ago). This post was written for all the women in Afghanistan then. While most of the world was busy getting on with their lives, I saw you and learned from you.
As I sat in front of my laptop in a room of about 18sqm, staring at the white door with assorted winter jackets and coats hanging on a row of metal hooks, nothing came to my mind. I sat there for a few minutes staring into what my brain perceived as an empty space, just wondering what the hell am I doing in this God forsaken place?
The image of a forlorn-looking man holding up a placard bearing the words “God has left this country” flashed before my eyes. I remember seeing this image before, in a movie I am sure.
The sense of altruism in my heart seems to vanish bit by bit. There is nowhere for me to go and nothing for me to do in this room of about 18sqm. Just the feeling of utter frustration seeping into my soul.
This is not what it’s supposed to be. I’m not supposed to be feeling this way.
This is the 17th month I have been in Afghanistan. It’s a country where nothing seems to appear normal, at least not the way we understand it. It’s a country where I can’t seem to accurately describe its 23 million inhabitants. It’s a country where you get in and the next thing you know, you want to get out as quickly as you can, but somewhere in between there is still something holding you back.
What is it? Is it the sense of obligation as a fellow human being? Or is it because we keep telling ourselves that we can do better?
Things just seem to be getting harder each day. I find myself confined within the space of a small room; either in my office or in my temporary accommodation. It is easier for one to engage in any kind of immoral acts within the confine of one’s private space than to go for an innocent stroll out in the open air.
What an irony, isn’t it? The fact that I could not walk to the nearest grocery store because I want to buy a carton of milk frustrates the hell out of me. Nevertheless, the situation where I’m forced to live life as if I am an inmate in a small cell provides me with ample of time to think.
The many untold stories that are revealed to me as a human rights officer sometimes come to haunt me, leaving me feeling devastated, hopeless and angry.
A young Afghan woman, was married to Tariq* for 8 years. Shortly after their marriage, Tariq left for Iran in search of a better life while leaving her behind with his family. Mean time, eight years have passed and the war against the Taliban is now a dark past. For many, it is a time to rejoice and the time to rebuild their country. It is time for God to finally come back. In conclusion, it is the start of many hopeful beginnings.
But not for Zuhal. Being caught by her father-in-law with her male neighbour in a room at night, she was sentenced to death by a local religious leader. The report I received indicates that she was not even alone with her neighbour while she was caught.
Instead of demanding for justice and begging for her life, her parents surrendered to their humiliation without protest. In order to redeem their loss of honour, the only thing left to do was to condone and support her condemnation. She was hung to death while her alleged “partner in crime” survived with 100 lashes of the durra.
I often asked myself while reading this case over and over again, “Who the hell is this man (village mullah) to have such power over one person’s life?”
Someone once told me, “You are nobody unless someone makes you somebody.”
So, my thought is that this man has gained such power simply because the people have given him that power to condemn someone to death. I thought only God has that kind of power.
Unless the Afghans start to wake up and think about the values of human beings, many people will rise up like this man and continue to wantonly assert their power over innocent people like Zuhal. I say she’s innocent because after all, isn't one of the principles of the rule of law the presumption of innocent until proven guilty?
In Zuhal’s case, she was never arrested and charged for a crime in an open court. She was simply judged guilty, even by her own family, who had allegedly carried her outside their house, placed her on a table, tied a noose around her neck and left her to die by hanging. Zuhal’s own mother confessed that she had killed her daughter out of shame and disgrace.
This VICE News reportage posted on YouTube on18 August, 2021 provides a good and quick summary of how the Taliban took over Afghanistan.
A 12 year-old girl and her alleged rapist were arrested recently and charged for the crime of adultery. The girl claimed that she was drugged and raped by the man. While in detention, her father persistently seeks for her release. The UN officer handling the case advised the prison authority not to release her for fear that she would be killed by her own family due to shame and dishonour, just like what happened to Zuhal.
Many women face similar fate because there are still Afghans who are pro-Taliban and hang on to harsh form of sharia punishments. On top of that, there are simply not enough qualified lawyers in Afghanistan to defend them.
At such a time, I feel completely hopeless and tormented over the fate of the women in Afghanistan. I don’t know what else to do for them.
I believe in the freedom of religion. Yes, I do. I believe that everyone has the right to practice his or her own religion. But what I truly abhor is how certain people use religion to exploit and subsequently cause the suffering of others. What I truly regret is how certain people seem to blindly believe something they perceive as the sacred teachings of a religion without searching for the truth.
In essence, I believe that all religion teaches the same values of justice, compassion and peace. I really do. But when 12 innocent civilians’ lives were taken away during a riot as a result of the people’s anger and retaliation towards the American’s alleged desecration of the Qur’an in Guantanamo Bay, I begin to question the purpose and even more the source of such outrage.
President Karzai upon finding out the looting and burning down of private and governmental properties, including a public library, condemned the act by stating that while these people were furious at the desecration of the Qur’an, two hundred more Qur’ans perished in the fire that same day.
What is the purpose of believing in a religion when human lives are not being valued, for isn’t the basis of all religion boils down to respecting each other’s lives and not desecrate what God has created?
Am I missing something here because I don’t seem to understand?
I used to work for the Presidential elections and hence still have a lot of concerns and passion for the electoral operation here. In the midst of all the preparation for the Parliamentary Election in September 2005, I was filled with a sense of fear. I chose not to renew my contract with the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), a body which is part the UN and part the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of Afghanistan, last year simply because of my intolerance towards the practices of nepotism and corruption within the electoral management in the region I was responsible for. Despite a long and carefully articulated letter to the headquarters backed with facts and cases, my effort to make a change in the system fell on deaf ears.
The only response I received was, “You write beautifully!” which of course was an insult to me.
By then, I realized that nothing I did would ever change the system particularly when those who were in the position to make decisions did not seem to care much about the integrity of the process. I guess when you can’t beat them; my own position is not to join them.
This year, things are different although not without fear. I am finally a human rights officer being assigned to the Political Rights Verification Campaign (PRVC), a joint United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission project. The project is aimed at verifying whether there is a conducive environment for a free and fair election in Afghanistan.
In a country where intimidations from local commanders, anti-governmental entities, pro-Taliban supporters and corrupted senior governmental officials are just part of an Afghan’s daily affairs, it is indeed a very difficult operation but no doubt a much needed one. From working for the election previously to assessing the credibility of the election, I was very excited.
It is my duty to collect information of those who violate the principles of non-intimidation, non-partiality and non-discrimination. Thankfully the people I am working with are true human rights defenders with great principles and true sense of integrity. So, my work is not really something I fear for.
My fear is this. Given the new electoral system and laws, each province is given a specific number of seats depending on the size of the population. According to the constitution and the electoral laws, women are required to fill at least 25% of the total seats, which of course is a huge step for a country like Afghanistan. I doubt that women actually fill up more than 10% of the parliamentary seats in all established democratic countries.
Due to the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) electoral system, only independent candidates are allowed to contest in the elections and not political parties. The candidates can belong to a specific political parties but he or she is not allowed to contest under the political party’s name. With the recent completion of the candidate nomination period, the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) has registered more than 6,000 candidates. There is yet a vetting process to be carried out in order to produce the final candidate roll.
The only criterion for a candidate to be deemed ineligible is if he or she has been or is convicted of a crime by a competent court. The culture of impunity is well known in Afghanistan due to the weakness of the rule of law institutions. There are still many provincial courts in the country, which are not functioning at all due to the lack of qualified judges and prosecutors. Most judges are trained in the Sharia Law and have no in-dept knowledge of civil and criminal laws or procedures. In addition to that, the judiciary system is reputable for being corrupted. Having said all this, it is not difficult to deduce that the vetting process for electoral candidates will not provide any impact and on the extreme, means nothing at all.
It has been more than a week since the end of the candidate nomination period and a few hundreds candidates have somehow gave up on the contest even before it has begun. There are only two explanations for this. Firstly, some of the candidates must have been intimidated or threatened by stronger candidates backed by dominant political parties. There have been many unverified reports of intimidation and self-censorship all over the regions and although the UN has no credible evidences to back these allegations up, nobody who has stayed in Afghanistan long enough will dispute them.
Secondly, due to the specific number of allocated seats, the exercise of “pre-selection” of candidates has taken place in many places. It is not difficult to assume that in certain regions or provinces, the political race will run along the line of ethnic groups. For instance, in order to have “favoured” candidates win the election by default, it is logical to intimidate other candidates into withdrawing their nominations.
So, these are my fear. Sometimes I feel that my effort and time are wasted here. Many times I fear for the Afghans who truly want to see their children grow up in a peaceful country without intimidation or discrimination. With the recent bombing and killings of innocent Afghans in a mosque in Kandahar, my fear becomes magnified. If the Afghans do not start to pick themselves up, I doubt anybody else could. Those who truly want to make a change are often being killed or terrorised.
How then, could things change? Am I deluded to believe that things will change for the better for these people?
Yes, these are the reasons why I have been asking myself what the hell am I doing here. And what makes me think twice to stay? As Andrew Beckett, a character played by Tom Hanks in Philadelphia said, “What I love most about the law? I love most about the law is because not often but very occasionally, you are a part of justice being done.”
So, what has kept me here despite being frustrated and disappointed, is that the little faith left in me says perhaps, just perhaps, I might be a part of justice being done in Afghanistan.
* The name has been changed to preserve the identity of the victim.
I finally left Afghanistan after living there for two years. The irony was, although I managed to survive the harsh winter, brutal living condition, rocket launches and a death threat, I eventually succumbed to eczema. I left without leaving much impact and this is proven when the Taliban recaptures the country after 20 years.
Today, the fate of more than 14 million Afghan women dangle precariously as they begin to face the reality of living invisible lives again - without identity, freedom and rights.