Shakila was only eight-years-old when she and her cousin were abducted from their home. One night, men armed with AK-47s barged into her house and dragged her out as recompense for dishonoring an influential man in the district.
You may wonder how a girl of such tender age could have dishonored a grown up? Well, she had nothing to do with the offense; the wealthy man’s wife, however, had eloped with Shakila’s uncle. And the wealthy man wanted compensation the traditional way.
The young girls were confined in a dark room for three months. After about six months, they were allowed to wash their clothes for the first time. For sustenance, they were provided bread and water every alternate day. And they were repeatedly beaten.
“They tortured us in a way that no human being would treat another,” Shakila said to the New York Times.
Shakila’s case is not a unique one when we talk of Afghanistan; young girls are given away to make up for the wrongdoings of others, including murder, adultery and anything that’s not condoned by society. This custom dates back to jahiliyyah (the age of ignorance).
“For the nomads, there were no police, there was no court of law, no judge to organise the affairs of humans, so they resorted to the only things they had, which were violence and killing,” said Nasrine Gross, a sociologist, to the New York Times.
“Then, when a problem doesn’t get resolved, you offer the only things you have: livestock is more precious than a girl because the livestock you can sell, so you give two rifles, one camel, five sheep and then the girls they can sell this way,” she added.
The prevailing norm in the pre-Islamic era was subsequently criminalised when Islamic laws were codified. And the reasoning for outlawing this barbaric method of attaining justice (so to speak) is obvious: a girl is not property that can be given away for slavery to settle the score for someone else’s misdeeds.
This cultural form of justice — in which a girl is traded to settle the dispute — is called “baad.” The practice was deemed illegal as per the Elimination of Violence against Women Act of 2009, but it continues to prevail in Afghanistan. The reason given for the practice is the corruption in the legal system, due to which people resort to “jirgas,” where the local elders decide about what needs to be done. And, yes, giving away women to settle the dispute is in the cards.
One can’t say how common it is for girls to be traded to nullify the wrongdoings of someone else in the family. Even if a girl is married to a member of the aggrieved family, it doesn’t mean that she won’t be maltreated. Taking a girl in marriage has the advantage of ensuring that the feud will not continue because, by hook or by crook, the two families become relatives.
Shakila’s cousin escaped. And the beatings intensified for Shakila. One day she managed to escape and reach her sister’s house. The family was unable to recognise the malnourished Shakila.
What’s most troubling is that the family is not against the practice — this should give you a sense of how deep-rooted this tradition is in Afghanistan (and of course Pakistan). What troubled them was the fact that at birth she was promised in marriage to her cousin in Pakistan, hence she was not their “property” to give away.
“We did not mind giving girls,” Gul Zareen told the New York Times. “But she was not mine to give.”
The ordeal didn’t end there for Shakila.
The wealthy man ordered his men to search for her. The terrified family left their home in Naray, leaving behind their meager worldly possessions, including a cow and two goats. They’ve now moved across Kunar province to the provincial capital of Asadabad.
Shakila’s father has no hope of returning home.
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