Accessibility links

Breaking News

Trailblazing Afghan Female MP Forced To Take Shelter

Noorzia Atmar, a former rights campaigner and lawmaker in the national parliament, has gone into hiding since she was stabbed and threatened by her former husband.
Noorzia Atmar is the human face of women's rights in Afghanistan, her unbridled and open enthusiasm now bruised and sheltered from the public eye.

As one of the country's first female lawmakers, she was a vocal and active force in carving out a bigger role for women in a society that had suffered for years under the hard-line rule of the Taliban.

Today her voice has been muted, and her existence in a home for battered women epitomizes the rapid unraveling of what advancements had been made.

Shortly after losing her place in the national parliament, Atmar ran into trouble at home. After divorcing her abusive husband, she was spurned by her own family and forced to seek refuge in a discreetly located shelter in Kabul for abused women and girls.

The 40-year-old's plight has cast a spotlight on the erosion of women's rights that has sped up just as international troops prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014. As international scrutiny has waned, powerful religious and conservative circles have taken steps to undermine women's rights.

In the past decade, women have made significant inroads in Afghan society, with millions of girls attending school and women entering the workforce, including in the country's political realm. Yet despite the progress, domestic abuse is routine, forced marriages are the norm, and female suicide rates in Afghanistan remain among the highest in the world.

Shame And Duty

Atmar says her husband, Toryalai Malakzai, initially seemed open-minded about her political ambitions. The couple married in 2010, while Atmar was vying for reelection as a member of parliament from the eastern province of Nangarhar. But soon after she failed to win reelection she was confined to her home, and on the rare occasions she was allowed to venture outside, her husband forced her to wear an all-covering burqa.

Atmar fled home after Malakzai stabbed her and threatened to kill her six months ago.

"I was the victim of abuse. I had a very bitter life while I was with that man," Atmar says. "He was getting drunk and hitting me every day. That was his routine. It reached the point where he threw a knife and other sharp objects at me. [That's why] I'm currently in a women's shelter."

Atmar, who has lived in the shelter for several months, says that after fleeing from her husband she turned to her family for help. But she says her parents ordered her to return to her husband. She returned, but not for long. Atmar soon filed for divorce and left for the women’s shelter.

It was then, Atmar says, that her family disowned her.

"My family had one disagreement with me. They said divorce was a shameful thing and I shouldn't do it," Atmar says. "I have the feeling that my own family hated me. When my name is mentioned at social gatherings, my family curses me. This has been particularly hurtful."

Shelters Under Siege

Atmar now commutes between the shelter and her job in a vehicle provided by the government, for which she works as an adviser. She says she fears becoming the victim of a so-called honor killing carried out by her husband or her own family.

She does not know how long she will stay at the shelter, whose existence has been the source of controversy in Afghanistan. The country's independently run and funded women's shelters, once a symbol of women's progress, have been described by conservative lawmakers as "brothels."

In 2011, Afghan President Hamid Karzai attempted to bring the shelters under government control. A draft law that was abandoned following a flurry of Western media attention would have required women to obtain government approval and even virginity tests before they would be granted access to shelters.

Atmar, a former journalist, says shelters for abused women must remain open for women who would otherwise be forced to fend for themselves on the streets.

"I'm worried that if these shelters close, my sisters [Afghan women] and I who have suffered from domestic violence won't have anywhere to go. This is our worry," Atmar says. "If a woman has had her arm or leg broken or has had her nose or ears cut off, should we throw them on the street? In the current situation in Afghanistan the shelters are the only places of refuge for women."

Official Rollback?

Atmar's own plight comes as a string of controversies threaten to undo progress on women's rights in the country.

Afghanistan's lower house of parliament has proposed revisions to the criminal code that would effectively reverse measures designed to protect women from domestic violence. Those proposed changes, to the criminal procedure code, would prohibit a criminal defendant's relatives from being questioned as witnesses for the prosecution. If the provision became law, it would effectively silence victims and their family members.

In addition, the upper house of parliament is currently debating a revised electoral law whose draft text omits passages -- enshrined at the urging of the international community -- that set aside 25 percent of the seats on provincial and district councils for women. That draft has already been passed by the lower house of parliament and, if enforced would essentially deprive women of posts in parliament and in government at the provincial and local levels, where conservative and male-dominated elements tend to prevail.

That came after lawmakers in May halted indefinitely a debate on legislation outlawing rape and forced marriages. Female lawmakers had wanted to cement the law -- passed by a presidential decree in 2009 -- through a parliamentary vote. But it received stiff opposition from conservatives, who have threatened to scrap it.

In what appears to be a response to recent developments, Western nations and aid organizations have moved to reaffirm their commitment to protecting women's rights in Afghanistan.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has launched a program with an aim to educate, train, and empower at least 75,000 women between the ages of 18 and 30. USAID says that the goal of the five-year program is to strengthen women's rights groups, increase female participation in the economy, and raise the number of women in decision-making positions in government.

The United States is providing nearly $200 million for the program, with another $200 million expected to come from international donors.
  • 16x9 Image

    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is acting editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.