“I missed my father even though he raped me” The harsh reality of being a woman in Afghanistan

fatima-arifi2About the author: Fatima Arifi is a highly motivated Star alumna. She graduated from Kabul Medical University with a degree in public health and is a junior at the American University of Afghanistan majoring in political science. She is planning to apply for Fulbright and pursue her master’s degree in the field of epidemiology and biostatistics.

Violence against women plagues the nation of Afghanistan.  It is perpetuated physically, emotionally, and most often as a combination of both. Physically, violence in the form of torturing, beating, and even killing, is a common phenomenon. Emotional abuse is inflicted through verbal abuse, threats, rejection, and isolation and manifests itself in the form of depression and hopelessness. Then, there are egregious acts of both mental and physical violence through the act of rape. There are many components that contribute to causes of violence in Afghanistan, including social, cultural, and economic factors. A National Report on Domestic Abuse in Afghanistan stated that one in three girls were victims of sexual violence in Afghanistan (Global Right Report, 2008). In a series of interviews with women from shelters, I learned how their stories impacted me, and how, as a result, I became disaffected with life. In addition, I became more convinced that education will help us reduce the social, cultural, and economic factors that induce causes of  physical and emotional abuse.

In my recent research project, I conducted interviews with many women who were struggling from mental illness. I visited them in a variety of environments, including hospitals, homes, shelters and prison. When starting the interview, I first asked if they had suffered within the recent week. Most of them with tear-filled eyes were answering, “Life is all suffrage for us, we have never seen prosperity in life.” Prosperity for most women was marked by having children, a husband (especially a rich one), parents, good cooking skills to keep their husbands happy, and knowing some skills to earn money by themselves such as tailoring, knitting, or sewing. Most of them were suffering from the repercussions of war. They remained illiterate because male-dominated institutions prohibited them from going to schools. The saddest story I was told in the shelter was from an 18-year-old girl who was forced by her family to marry a rich, 70-year-old man. Two other girls, ages fifteen and sixteen-years-old, just burst into tears in front of me. I asked them why they were crying? They replied tearfully that they missed their family. So, I asked why they were living here. One replied, “My father raped me,” and the other followed with, “My brother raped me.”

I had to control myself in order to appear strong and calm them down. I held their hand, hugged them tightly, and tried my best to comfort them. I was constantly reassuring them, “I understand your feelings.” Though, I wasn’t exactly sure what to say or to do. The only thing I could do was to control my emotions and refrain from crying with them. Instead, I showed support by expressing my feelings of empathy and reassuring them that there is someone listening who  understands them.  In addition, it was most important for me to validate and legitimize their experiences by reassuring that they are not to blame for the atrocities committed against them despite it being so common in a male-dominated society. Women are always blamed even when they are the victims. In most of cases in Afghanistan, a young girl has to marry the person who has raped her. This is unimaginable! If there is a domestic abuse  case, the girl has no choice other than  to suffer in silence. Not only would it be extremely difficult for her to share the crimes committed against her with close family members and to relive the trauma, but she  would be the first to be blamed.

My heart was beating rapidly and it was hard for me to think clearly. The stories made it difficult to distinguish if all that was occurring was in real life or in the movies I have seen. The only question coming to my mind was, “What could I do for them?” By sharing their stories and bestowing their trust upon me, I felt valued. I am the one with whom they can share their untold stories. However, by crying I would have solved nothing. All I could do was  give the most genuine support I could by making heart-to-heart connections with these women. Although it meant that my research took longer than usual, I could not imagine setting time limits for the interviews. It was important for me to not interrupt the women and instead allow them to release their buried words and stories.

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The two young girls I have mentioned constantly told me that they missed their father and brother despite them committing the most terrible crimes against them. I had nothing to say, just remained speechless and just said, “Sorry, sorry, sorry.” These were but two among many other painful stories that lead me to realize how painful life is for women of this country, as well as how different it is to simply watch or read about stories of violence against women compared to actually hearing the stories from the survivors themselves. By being with these women and girls in person, I came to know their feelings and see their pain and suffering directly, both through their words and through their tear-filled, hopeless, and disappointed eyes.

The first day I got out of the shelter, I was left feeling terribly confused about what it was that I needed to do. What I had just heard were the real stories of real women’s lives. Upon walking out, paralyzed in deep thought, I suddenly fell down and broke my leg. I never imagined becoming so weak and incapable of adapting to the issues at hand in order to work for a solution. But everything is not always in our favor. It is commonly said that “health is wealth.” I am saying it goes beyond just wealth. If you have never struggled personally  with a disease, you would probably fail to understand the value of good health in our society. After three days, my right limbs began trembling. I had visited a doctor, but they were unable to help me. I began to appreciate all that was available to me and gained more insight into my privileges. I remained thankful that I could still speak. I could ask my mother and siblings for assistance with what I needed, or what I wanted to do.

The toughest part of my injury was a week later when the psychological impact of my experience caused me to lose my ability to speak. As a result of the trembling, I was unable to get my messages across by writing. Even then, all I wished for was the ability to say sorry and apologize for all my past mistakes that I had ever forgotten to apologize for at the time. I wished I could tell my loved ones how much I loved them. I was suffering with the overwhelming fear of potentially becoming speechless forever. How would I defend my research? It wouldn’t have been so bad if I had at least had a bachelor’s degree.

Having recovered now, I truly believe everything happens for a reason. I learned first-hand how illiteracy and financial dependency among women ultimately weakens them and potentially exacerbates the violence they experience. The only way for women to become financially independent is by becoming literate and learning their own vocational skills such as: tailoring, knitting, sewing and making beautiful handicrafts. They need to learn how they can start their own small businesses with these skills, instead of relying on selling their products for much lower prices in men’s shops. At least it could secure them from financial dependency. Learning basic business skills can lead these women on a path to become incredibly successful businesswomen in Afghanistan, and they would be more than capable of expanding their reach across the world. Where there is a will there is always a way.

As more women and men are educated, we will witness a reduction in the social, cultural, and economic factors that encourage violence. For example, women are always considered second class citizens in Afghanistan. They are obliged to serve the family, guests, and raise the children. They are tortured and abused for making any mistakes In addition, social hierarchies of Afghan society perpetuate, and are often the cause of violence. The village Arbab (leader) forces poor people to do what he wants. If women receive an education, they will become aware of their rights, defend themselves and will be more likely to avoid becoming dependent on a ‘superior.’ Educated women, and generally educated people, live better lives than illiterate people. At the very least, knowing how to read and write helps to get access to  doctors and medicine, to read and write letters, and to reduce their dependency on another person. When women are no longer dependent upon others, the violence will surely decrease. In these ways, education can help eliminate the cultural and social causes of violence. There is growing awareness amongst women on the issue of women’s rights. However these are human rights that do not solely extend to women. Men must also be well-informed on women’s rights and human rights.

Finally I am fully determined to work towards women’s rights and the betterment of women in Afghanistan. Starting with small steps, I will encourage my mother and neighbors to become independent by using their art and skills to earn money from their beautiful handicrafts. I suggest that everyone from young girls to men also begin with small steps such as these to help increase social awareness. Let us change the social construction of gender and status of women in this country. Let us behave as respectable human beings to everyone. I believe in the power and hard working of young generation of this country. I know you are the generation of hope and change. Let’s be the initiators of change.