By Nasim Fekrat (in Pennsylvania, U.S.)
We often hear of “honor killing” in the mass media, a practice that exists in some Muslim countries including Afghanistan. An honor killing is the murder of a family or clan member in which the perpetrators are motivated by a belief that the victim has brought dishonor upon the family, clan or community. A comparable, yet less widely publicized form of honour punishment, is gang rape. While honor gang rapes are usually carried out against women, an incident that took place two weeks in Northern Afghanistan involved the gang rape of two young men.
According to a local report, a dozen farmers and shepherds raped two young men as a punishment for engaging in sexual relations with two young women. The incident occured in the Dasht-e Laili (Laili desert) of Jawzjan province, an area famed for being the site of a Taliban massacre in the aftermath of September 11. Both young men are related to high-ranking government officials, one being the son of the provincial governor and the other the son of a police chief. Prior to the rape the two young men were disarmed and saw their belongings, including a few thousand US dollars, confiscated by the farmers and shepherds. The perpetrators of the rape explained that the punishment was meted out as an act of revenge for the sexual acts undertaken by the young men.
Afghanistan is a deeply traditional society, but the nature of those traditions differs by region. In the south, a region that is more conservative and insecure, women are not allowed to appear in public, making incidents of rape rare. By contrast, rape is more common in the north, where warlords and mujahideen commanders exert tremendous power and act with impunity. The stable security situation has meant that there are more women in public spaces. Rape in the north is most often committed by warlords and their relatives. Not only have government agencies and human rights organizations been unable to halt such practices, but they have turned a blind eye to them.
For example, in August 2008, The Independent reported that President Karzai pardoned three men who had been found guilty of gang raping a woman in the northern province of Samangan. When the local community saw the rapists back in their village, they lost hope for the Karzai government and pledged to take revenge on the perpetrators. Fearing retribution, the perpetrators fled the area.
The Afghan government has not been able to adequately protect the rights of women despite constitutional guarantees and the support and presence of foreign human rights organizations. The incidence of rape has grown significantly in recent years, particularly involving children under the age of 10. For example in 2008 in Jawzjan province, a local TV channel released a video interview of a woman who claimed that her 3-year old girl was raped by a man, a claim that provoked public outcry. The government has promised to aggressively enforce the law in such cases and prosecute offenders, but it has failed to do so.
Karzai’s decision to pardon the perpetrators of the 2008 gang rape may have spawned crimes such as this, where local villagers chose to take the law into their own hands. Many see the act as a response to perceived government corruption and incompetence. What is disturbing about the case is that the act has been praised by many members of the local community.