July 4, 2017
Three years ago Maliha, 24, was sitting in a park in western Afghanistan with the man she thought was the love of her life.
The pair were planning a future together, but that future was cut short in a brutal instant.
Suddenly, police officers barged into the park in the city of Herat and arrested the couple.
Maliha was accused of maintaining an illicit relationship, which in the eyes of Islamic law is a criminal act. At the police station, her companion called his family, bribed the police and disassociated himself from her.
“He deserted me like he never knew me,” said Maliha said. “They informed my family about the incident and my involvement with a man. My father disowned me immediately and threatened to kill me if I ever approached him.”
Maliha was convicted of being a prostitute and spent more than three years in a women’s prison, sharing a cell with women convicted on similar charges.
Wardens at the prison came to the cell and harassed, beat and sexually assaulted the women, she said.
“We were branded as cheap and filthy women. Some nights I heard girls shouting…the prison officers were taking them out and sexually abusing them,” she said. “I was so scared that I hardly ever bathed as it could attract attention towards me.”
Maliha herself was abused one day when a man arrived claiming to be a lawyer. She was shown into a room with him where he tried to rape her. She was badly beaten when she resisted.
Her suffering continued until a woman lawyer and women’s rights activist, Mahdis Doost, stepped into help her.
Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous countries to be a woman or girl in, and a shortage of female police officers and lawyers means women rarely report abuse, rights groups say.
Afghanistan’s roughly 500 registered women lawyers – mostly confined to the big cities of Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat, undertake some of the most dangerous jobs in Afghan society.
They help women fleeing domestic violence and forced marriage. Divorce still remains taboo in Afghan society and if a woman wants to get a divorce lawfully, she has to navigate the male-dominated judicial system.
There is a common phrase in Afghanistan which says “a girl should come to her in-laws in a white dress and leave them in a white shroud,” said Fereshta Karimi, another women lawyer working in Herat.
Among Afghanistan’s women lawyers, only a few actually dare to practice in court. Doost, who represented Maliha, is one of them.