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Shukria has been sold into marriage twice and is struggling with insecurity and illiteracy -- she's one of the women from Kandahar interviewed for the Globe and Mail's six-part "Behind The Veil" series.
Shukria has been sold into marriage twice and is struggling with insecurity and illiteracy -- she's one of the women from Kandahar interviewed for the Globe and Mail's six-part "Behind The Veil" series.

The war on women

'The husband can abuse you as if you are his own being, like humans are God's beings' Add to ...

The coppery taste of blood leaking from a cheek that has just been slammed into the lower shelf of teeth. The sensation of scalp suctioning to your skull as you are dragged through the house by a fistful of dark hair. The suffocating seconds the lungs spend stunned after a deft punch in the stomach.

The regularities of domestic violence are familiar to many Afghans.

Nearly half the married women who sat for in-depth, on-camera interviews in Kandahar as part of The Globe and Mail's Behind the Veil project volunteered that they are victims of domestic beatings - an epidemic in Afghanistan, where 82 per cent of violence against women is committed by family members, according to the United Nations.

"The husband can abuse you, he can do anything as if you are his own being, like humans are God's beings," explained Shukria, a 32-year-old mother of six married to an Afghan National Police officer. "Among us, when they take the bride, there is a lot of cruelty on her," she said, adding that in-laws often view wives as their property, too, and treat them as such.

A small number of organizations have quietly set up shelters for abused women in other parts of the country, but the battered wives and daughters of Kandahar have never had anywhere to go. And they likely won't any time soon.

"If there is a shelter made … automatically the social perception will be that this will become a whorehouse," said prominent activist Rangina Hamidi, one of several women's rights advocates in Kandahar who have engaged in a long debate about whether an official safe house would make the women's situation better or drastically worse.

"Knowing that this might be attacked as a whorehouse, do we want to create such a space when we know that [women]generally are not going to be accepted? Or do you just continue living the way that you do, with no shelter?" she said. "Either way, it's hard to accept."

Ms. Hamidi, who was born in Afghanistan but raised in Pakistan and the United States, has sided against shelters, for fear that both clients - who risk causing shame to family members for their use of outside social services - and their supporters would become stigmatized, targets for incensed men and insurgents.

"Men's honour is carried by women. So any kind of a taint on women's honour - physical, or social or mental - is an attack on the whole family by extension, men by extension, tribe," Ms. Hamidi explained. "So one of the reasons why women are so closely stuck at home and not allowed to go out is to protect that. When you make a woman sit at home and don't allow her the opportunity to go out, there is no way for anybody to attack her honour."

To some of Kandahar's women, the situation seems fundamentally unfair.

"It shouldn't be this way; a woman is a human being, she has a body, she has feelings," said Shukria. "It would be great if this were abolished. It would be good for us poor and miserable women."

The problem is figuring out how. Inside Kandahar's homes, there is no one to stop the attacks.

"Violence is tolerated or condoned within the family and community, within traditional and religious leadership circles as well as the formal and informal justice systems," said a report written by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights earlier this year.

Sakina, an 18-year-old mother of two from the rural district west of Kandahar city, was forced into marriage five years ago. The high bride price that her in-laws paid for her - more than $10,000 - seems to have given them licence to abuse her.

"My mother cries for me. My father doesn't care. If he cared, why would he have given me to them?"

Asked what her options are, Sakina answered, with malaise: "I haven't thought about what to do or what not to do."

Despite Ms. Hamidi's concerns, officials with the Department of Women's Affairs in Kandahar have been trying to forge progress on the shelter issue. Earlier this year, they approached Canadian aid workers in Kandahar for help with their plans, said Karen Christie, a senior development officer for the Canadian International Development Agency who recently ended a year-long posting in Kandahar.

"There is no question that there is a need," Ms. Christie said, adding that she struggled with her own concerns about the problem. If women flocked to a shelter, angry men thirsting for retribution would follow in their wake, she said.

"You have to protect them," she said, adding that the extra security needed could, in turn, invite an increased onslaught of angry men. She wonders if women could ever truly escape danger there.

"I would be anxious that the women there might still be at risk," she said. "How easy would it be to bribe the security guard into letting you avenge your honour?"

A safer option, she said, might be to whisk women in troubled situations off to Kabul. But first, she said, Afghans need to decide who will bear responsibility for funding and operating the place if aid groups deliver an initial start-up boost. And it's going to need a champion, although it won't be Ms. Hamidi.

"My fight is for millions of people. And I'm not willing to risk it for a handful," Ms. Hamidi reasoned. "I have to pick and choose my battles."

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