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Afghanistan: 'Bad Marriages' Likely to Continue, Despite Violations Of Women's Rights

In Afghanistan, rights activists are expressing concern over the continuing practice of so-called bad marriages, an ancient Pashtun tradition. According to the tradition, when a man is killed or mutilated in a conflict with a rival tribe or family, the victor's relatives are obligated to pay a "blood price" -- and provide a bride to the victim's family. Such bad marriages are surprisingly common in Afghanistan, and are likely to stay that way: rights experts say the government and constitutional laws are powerless against Pashtun tribal customs.

Prague, 27 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Twenty-four-year-old Hamida lives in Kabul's Third Microrayon district with her husband and his family. Like most girls from Pashtun tribes, Hamida was forced into an arranged marriage. But unlike most, hers is a "bad marriage" -- a union meant as compensation for the male victim of a conflict between her family and that of her husband's:

"The [families] had a conflict over some land, and my brother killed one of them. Then a jirga [tribal assembly] was called and the jirga decided that my family should give me [to the victim's family] for a bad marriage," Hamida said.

Ancient Pashtun tradition dictates that when a man is killed or severely injured in a conflict between two families or tribes, the local jirga -- an assembly of tribal elders and influential residents -- steps in to resolve the dispute. The jirga often orders the assailant's family to pay a "blood price," by forcing a female relative to wed a member of the victim's family. Sometimes girls as young as a few months old are named as a family's blood price, and are married once they grow up.

"My new family does not allow me to go to school. I do housework all day. They do not allow me to visit my parents. The two families do not visit each other. The animosity still goes on."
Abdulwali Ahmadyar, an elderly member of a Pashtun tribe in central Wardak Province, explained the variations blood prices can take: "The price depends on the crime. If a man loses a hand, foot, or an ear during the fight, or if he is blinded, the other side would have to pay a penalty called 'chodar.' This means they have to give a baby girl as a bride. The victim's family will have to give one-fourth the regular dowry to the young bride's family. If a man was killed during the quarrel, then the killer's side will have to give an adult bride to the victim's family."

There are no statistics indicating how many Pashtun women in Afghanistan are now in bad marriages. But according to Shukriya Barekzai, the editor of an Afghan women's magazine and a member of the former Constitutional Review Commission, the number is significant.

Tribal member Abdulwali Ahmadyar defends the tradition as a "good solution to tribal conflicts, which puts an end to rivalries and animosity between families and tribes." But Hamida, the 24-year-old wife in a bad marriage, says her forced union has not brought peace to the two families. Instead, her in-laws see her simply as the sister of the man who murdered their son, and the enmity between the two families remains. "My life is awful now," she said. "In my parents' house, I used to go to school; I completed the 10th grade. My new family does not allow me to go to school. I do housework all day. They do not allow me to visit my parents. The two families do not visit each other. The animosity still goes on."

Pashtun tribal culture puts strict limits on women's behavior. For example, a widow who wishes to remarry may do so only if she chooses as her groom a brother or close relative of her late husband. While men are free to have more than one wife, divorce is regarded as deeply shameful and is almost nonexistent.

Shukriya Barekzai says Afghanistan's civil laws are unlikely to take the place of tribal laws anytime soon. Even in the case of murder, tribal crimes are usually resolved by the local jirga -- not by the police or other civilian authorities. Barekzai says it may take years to eliminate those tribal traditions that represent a clear violation of human rights. "In Afghan society, it is impossible to officially abolish the bad-marriage tradition, a tradition that violates women's rights," she said. "I hope in the distant future we will be able to eliminate the tradition from people's minds, using religion and official propaganda. But I have to say that in the near future, [abolishing the tradition] is just a dream."

The new Afghan government has said respect for women's rights is a key element of its platform, and that it will provide Afghan women with opportunities to work and study. The country's new constitution requires that at least two women from each province should serve in parliament, and also paves the way for a woman to eventually serve as one of the country's two vice presidents.

In reality, however, it seems as thought traditional Afghan society has a long way to go before men and women are treated as equal citizens.
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.