I am from Afghanistan. I am now an undergraduate student on scholarship at an American college. I was on campus last Sunday when I read – and agonized over – an article on the front page of The New York Times about the attempted “honor killing” of an Afghan teenager.
This young woman was from the provinces and dared to run away with a man who was not her husband. Along with emphasizing the horror of all this, I want Americans to know that this is not merely a practice of the provinces of my country. Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, is in some ways a relatively sophisticated city. But this kind of wicked ignorance happens there too.
I also want Americans to know that some women manage to save their own lives. They hide and escape. A friend of mind from Kabul did just that. With a secret mobile phone she messaged her boyfriend from the bathroom of the family house where her father was keeping her a prisoner – and they plotted their escape.
That Sunday newspaper article told the story of Gul Meena, struck by an ax fifteen times because she “dishonored” her family.
My friend – before she ran away – was persecuted in the name of religion. But an honor killing can happen simply because a woman and a man fall in love without the permission of elders. That seems to have been the case with Gul Meena. It is said that Gul Meena broke fundamental moral codes. I say that she broke absurd patriarchal laws.
I will call the friend who came to mind on Sunday “Samana.” I will call the boy with whom she fell in love and with whom she ran away “Khalid.” It would be too dangerous for me to use their real names.
Samana was an engineering student at Kabul University. Khalid sent his family and elders to Samana’s father to ask for her hand. He rejected the offer and imprisoned Samana in the house. He did this, he said, because Khalid was from another Islamic sect – Sunni – and Samana’s family is Shia. The boy begged Samana’s father to reconsider. But the father clung to his religious and cultural beliefs – and also beat his daughter for daring to defy them.
Samana, imprisoned in her house, was ridiculed and tortured by her two brothers, father and mother. The younger of those brothers had once been protective – and her best companion. Now he told her, “I will kill the boy you fell in love with, if I see him around here.”
Samana’s mother had once been her best friend. Now she insulted her, cursed her and cried that she had brought shame to her family. “You are a dirty girl,” she told her daughter. “You fell in love with a dirty Sunni boy. I would kill you before I would let you marry him. I bet you are supporting him because he had sex with you at the university.”
Her aunts visited weekly and focused on insulting her mother. “Shame on this girl,” an aunt said. “She ruined our families. What would people say if they hear about her filthy love?”
At one point Samana’s cousin offered to marry her to save the family’s honor. He bargained for her as if she was a piece of cheap cloth. The family accepted but Samana, courageously, refused and somehow they did not press the issue. In the midst of this, Khalid offered to become a Shia; his love for Samana was more important to him than any religion. This, though, was rejected by Samana’s father who said “his roots are Sunni.”
One dark night, in keeping with the plans made by phone, Samana skipped out of bed, opened the yard door and sweating in fear, left her family’s house. Khalid was waiting for her outside with a car. In an attempt to circumvent Afghan law that could enable them to be punished for sex outside of marriage, Khalid arranged for a religious clergyman, a mullah, to marry them. Samana wore a traditional white veil and said yes to “Nikah,” which is a religious way of bonding two people. Then the couple left Kabul and moved to Mazar Sharif.
Samana’s father saw only blood when this happened. He said he would not rest until he killed his daughter and Khalid. He and his sons searched everywhere to find Samana but they could not find her. Now they were even more ashamed because their daughter had managed to escape. Samana’s father took out his anger on his wife and beat her for raising an immodest girl. Officially, he disowned his daughter.
I have asked myself if it would have been different in my friend’s family if Samana fell in love with a Shia boy? I do not think so. The traditional families think of love as a shame and crime. They want arranged marriages. In their opinion a girl who falls in love without family’s permission, religion aside, is filthy.
In Afghanistan, men call their women “Namous,” which means “honor.” The way they apply this word, however, is different from that meaning in English. “Namous” is a word that men use to control women and to justify violence. They also use another word, “Qeirat,” which means “zeal.” Afghan men say their “Qeirat” does not allow them to see their women with men these women select by themselves.