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Shelter from the ravages of men

Her father is dead and her brother is just a boy. For Shabana, a radiant young woman of 17 with dark eyes and flowing hair, the absence of a strong male protector has cost her dearly.

One day last fall as she was walking home from school, Shabana was kidnapped by a young man from her neighborhood. He forced her into marriage, then beat and imprisoned her in his home over the next seven months. Her mother did not intervene.

“He knew I had no one to protect me, and he took advantage,” Shabana said of her kidnapper.

But in late May, Shabana managed to escape to a women’s shelter on a quiet side street in another part of Kabul, the Afghan capital. And into her life came Esther Hyneman, 70, an American who speaks virtually no Dari but has brought a New Yorker’s sharp tongue and aggressive attitude to the cause of Afghan women’s rights.

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One day in June, Hyneman hugged Shabana and caressed her hair as the young woman struggled to describe what had befallen her. They sat in an office at Women for Afghan Women, a private agency that assists abused women in a country where they are commonly treated as chattel.

Shabana said her head still aches from the beatings, and she clutched her throat to demonstrate how her kidnapper had choked her the night before she fled to a police station, which referred her to the shelter. Twenty-six days had passed since her escape, enough time for outrage to overcome the pain and shame.

“I am not a toy. I am human,” she said in a clear, strong voice. “I should not be treated like an animal.”

The agency, which has three Afghan lawyers, has gone to court to seek a divorce for Shabana. On this day, she had just returned from the courtroom, where her erstwhile husband vowed to get her back, and where her mother and uncle urged her to remove the stain on her family’s honor and return to him.

“I would rather die than go back,” Shabana said, a hard edge creeping into her voice. “If I go back, he will kill me. I am sure of that.”

If forced to return, she said, she will commit suicide, “and my blood will be on their hands.”

The shelter, part of the Family Guidance Center in Kabul, is funded by private donors in the United States, European governments and nongovernmental organizations. The center and its nearby shelter opened in March 2007, followed by centers in two other Afghan cities; they have given refuge and legal help to 750 women.

Many ran from forced or arranged marriages. Some had been sold into bondage or raped before fleeing. Several were young girls sold by their fathers as future marriage partners or household slaves.

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The Kabul shelter now houses 46 women and 11 girls; the youngest is 7. The youngest girl ever housed in the shelter was a 5-year-old rape victim.

Women have virtually no options in Afghan tribal culture. It would be scandalous for a woman to live alone or pursue a job on her own. They are dependent on men for food, clothing, shelter and status -- and often must give up their children when seeking divorce. Girls have to be at least 16 to get married, but the law is widely ignored. Most women who reach the shelter are, like Shabana, old enough and bold enough to dare to escape; often they flee to police stations or a local human rights group.

Traditionally, police returned abused women to their husbands. But since “family response units” staffed by female officers were established in some police stations in 2006, police in Kabul have been more willing to steer women to shelters. Still, police in rural areas routinely return abused women to their husbands, rights groups say.

Women at Shabana’s shelter live in a group setting, protected by armed guards and a security wall, while the agency tries to help them obtain divorces or find lodging with sympathetic relatives. In a few cases, it has found and vetted husbands for young women who have obtained divorces or annulments.

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Many women stay at the shelter for months while their cases are resolved, often through mediation directed by the agency’s five counselors. The agency attempts to contact husbands and other family members of abused women to persuade them to undergo mediation and counseling.

Nafisa, 14, a petite girl with downcast eyes, told of fleeing her father’s home after hearing him say he intended to sell her to an elderly man. Her father had beaten her, refused to enroll her in school and forced her to work in his brick-making shop.

“I pray that this [shelter] doesn’t send me back to my father because he will beat me much, much worse,” Nafisa said.

Most abused Afghan women never reach shelters. Some commit suicide, occasionally by self-immolation. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has documented six such cases a month this year, a fraction of the total in a country where such tragedies are rarely reported, especially in rural areas.

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Even though many women still suffer, there has been some progress. Since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban’s Islamic fundamentalist regime, women have taken on roles in government. Schools for girls have opened. But millions still live in abject subjugation to men.

“I’m afraid we’re going backward a bit right now,” said Soraya Sobrang, head of women’s issues for the human rights commission. Deteriorating security is a prime reason, said Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women.

The commission documented 42 cases of forced marriage during the first quarter of this year, an increase from the same period in 2008, Sobrang said.

“So many cases don’t ever get reported,” she said. “Most women are still afraid to speak out because they could get beaten even worse, or even killed.”

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Shelters for women risk attack by Islamic militants. In a tribal, patriarchal society governed by conservative Islamic values, where men dominate and women are required to be subservient, the shelters are resented by many Afghans as foreign interference in private affairs.

The shelter where Shabana stays has been threatened by several enraged husbands, and an agency counselor and driver were roughed up last month by one man’s angry relatives.

The country’s first shelter opened in late 2002 in Kabul. There are now six, three of which are run by Women for Afghan Women.

A professor of literature and women’s studies at Long Island University for 37 years, Hyneman first came to Afghanistan in 2003 for a women’s conference. She is now an unpaid board member of the agency.

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“Teaching is a great profession, but this work is just so much more fulfilling,” she said.

It is also emotionally draining. The cases often bear an almost medieval cruelty; the victims arrive in pain and tears, pouring out tales of heartbreaking degradation and abuse.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m on pain overload,” Hyneman said.

Outside her office recently, little girls in school uniforms rushed to hug her. Hyneman kissed their cheeks, greeting them like a beloved grandmother, hoping they remember little of what brought them there.

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Obeida, 10, was sold into marriage by her father. She came to the agency after her sister, Maryam, 19, already at the shelter, told the agency about her; Maryam was sold at age 10 to a blind cleric and escaped when she was 14. An agency lawyer and police officers rescued Obeida from a house in Kabul in February.

For all the sad stories, Hyneman remains hopeful for societal change.

“We’re making progress every day,” she said. “You can’t change hundreds of years of cultural tradition overnight.”

In cases the agency resolved through mediation, men must abide by signed agreements protecting women who return to them. The agency follows the women for a year after they leave the shelter in an effort to ensure their safety.

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For Shabana, there is no chance of reconciliation with her kidnapper. She spoke firmly, almost spitting out the words as she expressed her contempt for him and his family.

But Shabana also said she fears retaliation. She was shaken by the confrontation with him in court, and by the passivity of her mother and uncle.

Her mother has visited her twice at the shelter to urge her to return to the man, she said. Her uncle told her that her kidnapping was permissible because it settled an enduring family dispute: Shabana’s sister-in-law escaped 20 years ago from an arranged marriage to her kidnapper’s cousin. “This was their just revenge,” Shabana’s uncle told her.

Certain that no one would help her, “I knew it was up to me, and I decided I had to escape,” she said. The night before she fled, she said, her husband threatened to kill her if she tried to leave him.

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“He said he could do whatever he wanted to me and no one would care,” Shabana said.

For now, her life is in limbo. She has nowhere to go, no job prospects, no family support. She wants to return to high school, where she was taking final exams the day she was kidnapped.

And she wants to marry someday -- on her own terms.

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david.zucchino@latimes.com


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