One of Afghanistan’s first female members of parliament — once a symbol of hope for women in the wore-torn country — is now living in a battered women’s shelter, seeking to flee the country.
Formerly living in exile in Pakistan, Noor Zia Atmar joined the Afghan parliament in 2005 after the first election in which women were constitutionally mandated to hold a quarter of the seats. While serving her five-year term, Atmar joined with other female lawmakers to help draft a series of reforms to protect women from violence and rape. She traveled the world, speaking out in favor of the progress that women had seen since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001.
Atmar’s situation worsened after she lost her re-election bid, as she was unable to match the campaign funds that her opponents were able to raise, facing a struggle that her new husband was unwilling to support her in. Originally convinced that he supported her thinking on women’s rights, she soon found out just how wrong she was:
He refused to let her leave the house and at one point banned her from using the phone. “He would get drunk and demand I remove his shoes. Then he would shout at me to put them back on, over and over. If I refused he would beat me. It was torture,” she said.
“He would come to me the next day and apologise but then at night he would do it again. Finally I asked for a divorce.”
Divorce is still taboo in Afghan society, leading to her family disowning her for her decision. Atmar was forced to flee to a shelter for domestically-abused women after her husband attacked her with a kitchen knife. It’s uncertain how long she can remain there, or indeed how long the shelters will be allowed to stay open. “What kind of woman escapes her husband’s home and goes to a shelter?” Mawlavi Abdul Rahman Rahmani, a mullah who sits in the lower house of Parliament, told the Wall Street Journal last month, alleging that the shelters are inherently the same as brothels. “It is against the rules of Islam.”
The situation is severe enough that she’s now seeking to leave the country once again. Unfortunately, her approaches to the British embassy — thus far informal — have resulted in her being told that asylum is not available to victims of domestic abuse. The State Department has so far not responded to inquires from ThinkProgress about whether Atmar has reached out for possible asylum in the United States.
Rolling back rights for women is sadly becoming something of a trend in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch in July warned that a revision to the law currently under debate would “effectively deny women legal protection from domestic violence,” barring defendant’s relatives from serving as witnesses against the accused.
Likewise an attempt to weaken the very laws that Atmar helped put into place has been playing out in the lower house of the Parliament. Due to the fact that the Parliament never ratified the provisions — instead relying on President Hamid Karzai to enact them through a presidential decree — the debate to fully enshrine protections against rape, child marriage, and forced marraige into law have been rancorous at best. Karzai himself has proven himself a less than stellar ally in past months, having endorsed an influential group of cleric’s “code of conduct” for women, possibly to aid the process of negotiating a peace settlement with the Taliban.