Asylum Abroad is Afghan Rape Survivor’s Only Hope

What does the future hold for Gulnaz, the young Afghan rape survivor who was imprisoned for two years for being raped and finally, after an Afghan-led international campaign to free her, pardoned on Tuesday by president Karzai?

Gulnaz, tragically, has agreed to marry the man who raped and impregnated her.

Her decision was anything but un-coerced. Throughout Gulnaz’s case, the judges she went before pressured her to marry her rapist. They told her it was the only way to restore her family’s honor and a condition of releasing her and her infant daughter from the Kabul prison where they had spent two years behind bars.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Gulnaz’s American lawyer Kimberly Motley refuted earlier reports that the president had also pressured Gulnaz to marry her rapist. But the fact remains that Gulnaz has agreed to marry her rapist.  That decision casts a dark shadow over her future and that of her daughter, who was born in prison, the product of Gulnaz’s rape.

In Afghan society, a woman in Gulnaz’s position is essentially enslaved in her new household. She is not treated as a wife, even a second or third wife. Instead, she is forced to do the most back-breaking chores, grudgingly given meager food and clothes, and subjected to incessant ridicule and physical and sexual abuse. She becomes a literal punching bag for multiple generations of men and women from her husband’s bloodline. Often, after a few years of torture and confinement, she is quietly murdered by her new “family.” Rural Afghanistan abounds with such horrific stories.

These crimes become the stuff of gossip whispered between neighbors meeting on narrow lanes and drawing water at communal wells, but almost never result in police investigations. They are deemed “family affairs” in a country that privileges the privacy of its men over the fundamental rights of its women.

All over Afghanistan, women like Gulnaz lie in unmarked, hastily-dug graves. Some are murder victims; others grasped for the only relief available to them –suicide by poisoning, self-immolation or hanging. Marked for life by their mothers’ “shame” the victims’ surviving children replace their mothers as domestic slaves and human shock-absorbers.

Does this gruesome fate await Gulnaz and her daughter? There’s always a chance that they will become a rare exception, but, as Afghan feminist Noorjahan Akbar pointed out on Channel 16, there were better options for Gulnaz and her daughter, and there may yet still be alternatives to a life of servitude to the rapist and his kin.

There are alternatives to this injustice, alternatives that the President and the Minister of Justice apparently doesn’t see. There are several shelters in Kabul, which contradictory to the lies and rumors spread about them, provide safety to women like Gulnaz. For example, Sabera, 18, is now living in a shelter in Kabul after she fled a forced marriage to a 52-year-old abusive man. There are hundreds of women like Sabera who are learning to read and write and make crafts in a hidden shelter somewhere in Afghanistan. They are being re-integrated into the society slowly and given means of economic stability. Gulnaz could have been given this alternative, rather than the choices of remaining in prison or marrying the man who raped her. If for some reason none of the shelters, were deemed as safe as her rapist’s house for Gulnaz by the President, he could easily arrange for her to seek asylum out of the country.

Or any member state of the European Union, which funded and then cancelled the release of a documentary featuring Gulnaz, could offer her and her family asylum.  Given that one of the EU’s stated reasons for cancelling the release of the film featuring Gulnaz and other women imprisoned for so-called moral crimes was concern for the subjects’ safety, why didn’t the EU offer Gulnaz and the others asylum following their release from prison?

After all, the EU ambassador to Kabul told CNN, “What I am concerned about is the situation of the women, about their security and well-being. That is of paramount importance. That’s the key criteria that I, as a representative of the European Union, will judge [in blocking the release of the documentary.]”

Gulnaz’s rapist told CNN that Gulnaz would certainly be killed by her own relatives upon her release from prison. In the most perverse turn yet in the story, Gulnaz recently suggested to the New York Times that her life might be preserved if one of her rapist’s sisters is given to one of her brothers in an exchange marriage, a widely-practiced Afghan tradition notorious for facilitating the enslavement — yes, it is a form of slavery– and sexual abuse of women.

On Twitter, Human Rights Watch’s Afghanistan researcher Heather Barr wrote that she “hadn’t heard a whisper” about an asylum offer for Gulnaz from the EU, adding that “the EU representative should make it his personal mission.”

And what about the United States? In a Novemeber 22 press release, the State Department stated:

The Law for the Elimination of Violence Against Women was a major advancement for the rights of women in Afghanistan; but without full training and implementation, situations such as this one will continue to occur. We expect Afghan prosecutors to properly apply the law while also upholding Gulnaz’s rights.

That’s wishful thinking in Afghanistan, as the events of the past two weeks have again proved. The president’s pardon allowed Gulnaz to be released from prison but did not overturn her conviction for adultery.

“The appropriate response to a wrongful conviction is exoneration, not a pardon,” tweeted Barr.

Given how unlikely it is that Gulnaz will be protected by the Afghan authorities in future, why isn’t the United States offering to resettle Gulnaz and her child? In this case, two lives –more, if Gulnaz’s threatened parents and siblings were included —could be easily saved with a little political will and paperwork.

By jailing Gulnaz in the first place and then subjecting her to a humiliating series of trials and appeals, the Afghan government actively participated in victimizing her. It cannot be entrusted with keeping her alive now that she has been released from prison. Other countries must now step up to offer Gulnaz and her child a future far away from their repressive homeland, before another act of vicious cruelty or desperation removes that possibility forever.