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Moral crimes

July 1, 2012

For many women in Afghanistan committing a 'moral crime' is often the last resort in the face of unlawful forced marriages and domestic violence. The result is that the victims become criminals.

An Afghan woman in veil waits for a bus at a bus stop in Kabul, Afghanistan
Image: AP

For a young woman whose husband had stabbed her in the neck with a screwdriver, the only choice was to run away.

She claimed he'd gotten angry and attacked her, and that she'd committed adultery as a justification. Jailed for that moral crime - grievous in Afghanistan - she then watched as he himself was arrested and released within an hour and a half.

Her injuries were so grievous, authorities said, that she was going to die anyway, so he didn't need to be in prison.

In Afghanistan, moral crimes remain one of the murkiest areas of the law.

The women's actions “aren't 'moral' crimes at all,” says Elsie DeLaere, an Afghanistan country specialist for Amnesty International. “It is an outrageous attempt by some members of the Afghan government, judiciary and police to silence the voices of abused women and to intimidate Afghan women from speaking out about the abuses against them.”

Three school girls at a press conference after an attempt to poison them.
Activists are working against the discrimination women face in AfghanistanImage: DW

More than 400 women, mostly teenage girls, remain in Kabul juvenile prisons on charges that usually involve running away from unlawful forced marriage and domestic violence.

Victim and criminal

Others have been accused of “zina,” sex outside of marriage after being raped or forced into prostitution.

Prosecutors often treat the fact that a man and woman acknowledge knowing each other as evidence of zina, and assume that running away is motivated by a desire to commit zina, as opposed to abuse in the home.

With moral crimes, crime victims become criminals.

“It's a re-victimization,” says Heather Barr, Human Rights Watch's Afghanistan researcher, who authored “I Had to Run Away,” a 120-page report on moral crimes in the country.

“What really concerns us is that it's hundreds of women involved, and it's almost always stories of women running from forced marriage or domestic violence. Every time a woman is arrested, it sends a message to the other women in her community that if you're being abused, you shouldn't look to the government for help because you're more likely to get punished again.”

Risks after leaving jail

One hundred percent of the girls in Kabul's juvenile detention centers are there for such crimes. The runaways rarely return home and escape sentencing. “Girls are almost always ever locked up for these cases,” Barr says, “and it's usually a situation where a teen girl has run away from home to avoid being married to someone against her will.”

Worse is the risk they face after leaving prison.

“A third of them seemed they were at risk of being murdered by their families after they were released from jail,” Barr says.

“I would talk to women in jail who already felt like they were dead.”

There have been small signs of progress.

In early April, the Afghan Attorney General sent a letter to prosecutors in all provinces saying that they should not prosecute girls and women who ran away if the reason for flight was simply that they did not want to marry.

The justification that judges and prosecutors have given for persecuting moral crimes is that the women are running away in order to free themselves to commit crimes - namely zina, which is illegal under Afghan law.

Uphill battle

“Moral crimes cases are often a story about how there's been progress, but there really hasn't,” Barr says. “Trying to improve women's rights in Afghanistan is a project that's just started.”

Women in the country face a newly uphill battle. Significant gains made since 2001 - namely higher levels of education and women in the workplace - now face increasing levels of domestic violence and President Hamid Karzai's recent declaration that “women are secondary.”

A fall report from Oxfam International said 87 percent of the country's women face physical, emotional or sexual abuse.

“A lot of incredibly brave Afghan rights activists have taken huge risks to push forward to claim their own rights,” Barr adds. “Schoolteachers and women who go to work are threatened. But women and girls have gone ahead and gone to school and taken jobs, joined the Parliament, learned to drive.”

Burqa clad women walk along a shopping street in front of a giant portrait of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul
Activists accuse President Karzai of appeasing fundamentalistsImage: AP

DeLaere says the accusation of zina turns the young female victim into a perpetrator, a dangerous move in a country with a painful, globally-documented history of misogyny.

Women's rights workers on the ground have long argued that President Karzai, despite signing legislation to eliminate violence and discrimination against women, has done next to nothing to implement it.

Fundamentalist pressures

Others in Kabul are concerned that the women are being sacrificed for political gain, as Karzai and his ministers seek to appease a resurgent Taliban. “I fear that this is yet one more attempt by the president to entice the Taliban into further negotiations to join the official Afghan government,” DeLaere says. “I am not alone to fear this. Women with much more at stake than me - the Afghan women - have profound worry that any progress made since 2001 will be lost.”

And despite that progress - namely higher levels of education - women like Niolfar M., featured in Barr's report, remain prisoners in juvenile centers across the capital.

A prosecutor claimed Nilofar had “confessed” to committing zina. After reviewing the file and finding no such confession, Barr asked the prosecutor to point it out.

He explained that Nilofar said she knew the man and had invited him to the house.

That, he said, was enough to be dubbed a confession.

Author: Karen Leigh, Kabul, Berlin
Editor: Gregg Benzow