More and more women in Herat are plucking up the courage to ask for a divorce – like their sisters in Iran
A mother and her daughter are waiting outside the family court to hand in their request for a divorce. “My husband married off our daughter ten years ago, when she was just 14”, says the woman. “We were living in Iran then and the husband went back to Afghanistan a year later. Since then, we haven’t heard anything from him. Not even by telephone.” She now wants to free her daughter from this pointless marriage.
More and more women in Herat are doing the same. In just the first quarter of last year, the provincial office of the Human Rights Commission received 123 divorce requests. Just about half came from women. That is unusual, because many women have until now shied away from taking this step, because of social taboos, financial dependency or ignorance of the law.
“Thanks to the media and the work of women’s organisations, women are now much more aware of their rights”, says Thuria Daqiqi, the head of the women’s section of the Human Rights Commission in Herat. But, she says, this development has not only been positive. Many lawyers are quick to begin divorce proceedings, without explaining the consequences to their clients, or checking whether family problems could be resolved differently. “Many women are left homeless after their divorce and without financial support”, warns the activist. She reproaches the lawyers for wanting a quick result, in order to show off their success to their employers.
But, according to the lawyer, Turpakai Akbari, “the courts listen to women much more than before and take their complaints seriously. That’s why the number of divorces has risen dramatically.” She has noticed that many of the women, who want to end their marriages, have spent several years in exile in Iran. There, in the larger cities, they got to know a modern way-of-life and are often unwilling to re-adapt to the more traditional social structures in Afghanistan, says Akbari. In Iran, divorce has become commonplace. In the last ten years, the number of official divorces has tripled. For every seven marriages, there is one divorce. Probably because of Herat’s proximity to Iran and women’s relatively high level of education, the divorce rate in the west Afghan province is much higher than in other parts of the country.
Domestic violence, forced marriage, drug addiction and an absent husband are the most common reasons for women requesting a divorce. One of Akbari’s clients, for example, married a man, who had gone to Iran as an illegal migrant worker. He wanted to earn the money to pay for his dowry. But because he found the working and living conditions so difficult, he started taking drugs. Now the father of the bride wants the marriage to be annulled.
Many men say they divorce their wives because of “their inability to adapt”. “That is a popular excuse given by men, who are drug addicts or who can’t feed their families”, says the women’s activist, Daqiqi. Afghan family law allows women to divorce their husbands in the following instances: if he causes her suffering, if he is absent for a long time, if he cannot or will not pay for her living costs, if he cannot bear children, or if he has a mental illness. Divorces can be granted by the family court or the Human Rights Commission, with the support of family elders.
The process does not always go fast or smoothly. 25-year old teacher, Nahid, has spent the last five years trying to get a divorce. “I was 11 when my father married me to my uncle”, says the women in the building of the family court. He was a drugs smuggler in the border town of Islam Qala. He hit her, prevented her from working and married a second woman. Despairing at the slow progress, Nahid has just changed her lawyer. She says: “The more complicated our society becomes, the higher the costs of the divorce.”