"Honour Killings" Rising in Afghan West

Abdul Ahmad regrets the day he agreed to marry his daughter Zaytun off without asking her opinion. She ended up being murdered by her would-be husband after she broke off the engagement.

The man, Hesamuddin, has been tried and sentenced to 20 years in jail for stabbing Zaytun to death.

“I engaged my daughter to him without consulting her,” Abdul Ahmad recalled. “My daughter was engaged to Hesamuddin for two years, during which time he beat and mistreated her.”

Then aged 20, Zaytun was still at school, but Hesamuddin stopped her attending.

When Zaytun asked for the engagement to end, her father agreed and got a court in Injil district to order an annulment.

Mawlawi Khangol, a Herat lawyer who was part of a team sent to assess Zaytun’s circumstances before the court would agree to the annulment, said Hesamuddin’s family tried to abduct her by force from her father’s home.

Khangol said Hesamuddin’s relatives would have regarded the annulment as a stain on their honour.

Zaytun, who had gone back to secondary education at the age of 22 now that she was free to do so, was murdered on her way home from school.

The Herat branch of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, AIHRC, recorded 14 “honour killings” – murders of women and girls committed by family members – in the 12 months ending this March, a substantial increase on the four known cases the previous year.

However, most agree that the real figure is likely to be much higher, because of the culture of shame surrounding such cases.

“Families conceal such cases for reasons of honour and prestige,” Suraya Daqiqi, head of the AIHRC’s women’s affairs section in Herat, said. “We obtained these figures through security agencies, the Herat provincial hospital and the media.”

Karima Husseini, head of publications at the women’s affairs department for Herat province, said the numbers were going up, although her office only became aware of cases when they happened in urban areas rather than in the countryside.

In another recent case, Zahra, a young woman preparing to sit her university exam was shot dead by her father in a suburb of Herat. The facts of the case have not been established, but some reports suggest the man suspected his daughter of having an illicit relationship.

Daqiqi said murders of this kind were often the result of men resorting to murder on the merest suspicions about female relatives, without even trying to establish whether their fears had any basis.

Abdul Wajed Frotan, a religious scholar in Herat, said Islamic law in no way sanctioned arbitrary killings. It was considered especially sinful to commit such an act on the basis of doubt or suspicion, he added.

Yet while Afghans may condemn the killings, many men are nervous about social changes that have allowed women more freedoms. Some analysts believe “honour killings” have increased because general social attitudes have not caught up with these freedoms.

Frotan, the cleric, argued that if women wore Islamic dress and maintained a proper distance from men in the workplace and in public, there would be fewer grounds for suspicion.

Sayid Moyidulhaq Mowahidi, an expert on social affairs, said, “Afghans are very serious about honour and family issues, while women have suddenly acquired freedoms that did not exist previously, changing their behaviour in some instances…. This causes men to doubt them; they see such things as a shaming them, as showing that they are somehow less than pious. The result for women is suffering, torture and murder.”

Daqiqi said a particular source of this kind of “shame” was that women were increasingly prepared to seek legal redress in the courts.

“In the past, it was rare for women to go to court to defend their rights, but now that they understand their rights, they go to court more often,” she said. “This is something new for men, and they don’t like it at all.”

Mowahidi said the culture of impunity surrounding those who committed “honour crimes” meant there was no deterrent to stop others following their example.

“If the perpetrators of such murders were really punished, such crimes would undoubtedly be prevented, but since the criminal or murderer walks free afterwards, others are encouraged to commit crimes” he said.

Abdul Razaq Moheq is an IWPR-trained reporter in Herat.