Lawyers in Afghanistan recently came to the conclusion that the best way to strike a plea bargain for a rape victim is to grant her the option to marry the man who raped her. This option, they assure, will reduce her criminal incarceration from 12 years to three years at the Badambagh Prison located outside of Kabul.
At the heart of the case is a 21-year-old woman simply known as Gulnaz who was raped by her cousin’s husband several years ago. Prosecutors don’t doubt that she was impregnated by the rapist. Indeed, her child lives in prison with her. But, concern was raised, and her case scrutinized because she failed to report the rape in a “timely” manner. She waited a few months, debating very serious but equally problematic options. The U.S. State Department has commented on the case, stating, “Gulnaz’s situation is one no woman should have to face. Our heartfelt condolences go out to Gulnaz and her young daughter.”
The problem is that the options for rape victims in Afghanistan are draconian and barbaric at best. For example, Gulnaz was sentenced to 12 years in jail after the rape. Her crime? Being a victim of rape is considered a crime of adultery. The options for rape victims are deeply constrained in Afghanistan. Had Gulnaz remained silent, she might have brought dishonor on her family for an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. That could have resulted in murder—an illegal, but nonetheless customary practice in dealing with women who “dishonor” their families. Indeed, women are stoned in Afghanistan. The other option might have been immolation—setting oneself on fire—which unfortunately is more prevalent than previously understood in Afghan society.
Last week, prosecutors proposed an alternative—marry the attacker—and that might result in a reduced sentence for Gulnaz. Rahmatullah Nazari, a spokesperson for the prosecutor, informed media that the criminal investigation concluded that no rape occurred, but that Gulnaz and the attacker both committed adultery. According to Nazari, “Gulnaz claims that she has been raped. But because she reported the crime four months later, we couldn’t find any evidence [of rape]. … She was convicted for not reporting a crime on time.”
As for evolving norms of justice in Afghanistan—they are difficult to detect. Gulnaz was sentenced to 12 years in prison—and her attacker to seven.
The State Department claims that “the Law for the Elimination of Violence Against Women was a major advancement for the rights of women in Afghanistan.” But, as they also note, “without full training and implementation, situations such as this one will continue to occur.” It may be politically expedient to pass laws such as the Elimination of Violence Against Women—and I support the expansion of the rule of law to achieve gender equality and equity, but when there is no enforcement and a cultural view that women’s legal and social status is that of chattel, any legislative enactments will be hollow. So, even though the State Department has asserted its expectation that “Afghan prosecutors …properly apply the law while also upholding Gulnaz’s rights,” that too rings hollow.
Sadly, what appear to be the “real” options for victims of rape in Afghanistan are the most barbaric tools of death and punishment.