Gulnaz, a demure and quiet Afghan woman, gained public attention in 2011. At 16-years-old, a male relative had raped and impregnated her. When she reported the incident, she was promptly arrested and jailed for 12 years for adultery since her attacker was married. When media interest in her case intensified, her sentence was reduced to 3 years.

International uproar ensued, and Gulnaz was eventually released after receiving a pardon by presidential decree. Yet, the harsh reality was that the young woman would trade one prison for another. The law deemed her as a free woman, but society would narrate something different since she had given birth to her rapist’s daughter

The ignominy of having a child out of wedlock in Afghanistan – irrespective of if the child was resultant of rape – provides only one resolution. Gulnaz married her attacker. By 2015, she was pregnant with his third child and living with him, his first wife, and all of their of children.

“If I hadn’t married her, according to our traditions, she couldn’t have lived back in society,” her husband, Asadullah, told CNN. “Her brothers didn’t want to accept her back. Now, she doesn’t have any of those problems.”

“Now she is beside me and knows that it was not as big as they had shown it,” he said.

Gulnaz, who remained expressionless and never made eye contact with her husband, mumbled:

“I didn’t want to ruin the life of my daughter or leave myself helpless so I agreed to marry him. We are traditional people. When we get a bad name, we prefer death to living with that name in society.”

Yet, Gulnaz’s story is far from extraordinary in a country where gender roles are governed by androcentric values. Fleeing violence or abuse, rape, and sex out of wedlock (zina) are just some of the things that are regarded as “moral crimes”.
Human Rights Watch estimated that “moral crimes” account for half of all women (non-juveniles) in Afghanistan’s prisons and virtually all teenage girls in its juvenile detention facilities.

The prisons are cramped and squalid; the women are exposed to a catalogue of sanitation and hygiene issues. Stories of the inmates being beaten by the staff are also not uncommon. Furthermore, the cells are overrun with toddlers who are either born in prison or taken there by their mothers following her arrest.

Those who have called for a change in this conservative and patriarchal society face a huge challenge in a country that was led by the Taliban just eighteen years ago. There have been numerous attacks and assassinations of outspoken female politicians and activists.

Women for Afghan Women (WAW) is an organisation that provides transitional houses for newly released women. After leaving prison, they are often forced to live on the streets or return to their homes where they may face abuse or even death for “shaming their families”. Over the years, WAW has assisted over 1,000 women and their children with homes, legal support, and the skills they need to reintegrate into society.

Citing Human Rights Watch and other reports, WAW affirms that many of the women that they serve in their Transitional Houses were charged and imprisoned for alleged “moral” crimes. Many have fled from rampant abuse including forced and/or underage marriage; domestic violence–including beatings, burnings, and stabbings; rape; forced prostitution; kidnapping; and/or the threat of being the victim of an alleged “honor” killing. Furthermore, once a woman has been charged with a “moral” crime, there is rarely an investigation into the abuse or prosecution of abusers.

“Although laws are in place and the status of women and the protection of their rights have greatly improved in Afghanistan, particularly since the fall of the Taliban, we still have much work to do to secure the sanctity of women’s rights and their protections under the law and under Islam,” said Najia Nasim, Executive Director of WAW.

“Crimes committed against Afghan women, including their incarceration for alleged “moral” crimes or their murder in alleged “honor” killings, are the result of an ingrained mind-set that still permeates even the official judicial system. WAW and the work of many others in the country are all part of the tireless efforts being made to ensure that there is long-term cultural change, so that this mind-set and these conditions will change for the better, for good.”