Those who have remarried worry they could be considered adulterers under Taliban law
updated March 7, 2023 at 9:00 a.m. ET|published March 4, 2023 at 2:18 a.m. ET
Under the previous government, this woman from western Afghanistan could have obtained a divorce by testifying that her first husband was physically abusing her, even though he refused to appear before a judge. But her divorce and second marriage were not permitted under the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islamic law.
Thousands of Afghan women previously obtained divorces without their husbands present, according to a judge who said he personally granted thousands and two lawyers who participated in the divorce proceedings.
The Taliban did not mention anything about the situation of women who obtained a divorce “unilaterally” or who may have remarried after obtaining this divorce.
“One-sided” divorces under the previous government were largely granted to women trying to escape abusive or drug-addicted husbands, according to former judges and lawyers. Since the collapse of that government in 2021, power has shifted in favor of divorced spouses, especially those with ties to the Taliban.
Changes in the country’s marriage laws are another painful example of how the Taliban disenfranchise women. Taliban rule severely restricted their access to education and employment, forbidding them to go to public parks and requiring women to wear very conservative clothing.
“I was living a new life — I was happy. I thought I was safe from my (first) husband,” said the woman from western Afghanistan, who, like all the women interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her safety. I will hide again.”
The woman, originally from a rural area, had been living safely in an urban area for several years. But when the previous government was overthrown, the legal system and the security forces that had once protected it were gone overnight.
The woman, now 22, said she began receiving threatening calls from her ex-husband a few weeks after the Taliban seized power. He told her that he had told Taliban members in her village what she had done and that they were helping him find her and seek revenge.
Last year, her second husband abandoned her, fearing he would also be accused of adultery because their marriage was no longer considered valid. She left her with her two young daughters from her first marriage and she is four months pregnant with his child. “I never heard from him again,” she said.
Her neighbors began asking questions about her husband’s whereabouts, and Taliban security forces routinely conducted house-to-house searches. She added that she fled with her daughters to another area. Since then, she has moved four times and has not seen the rest of her family, fearing the visit might help her ex-husband track her down.
“When I am too afraid to leave the house, I send my daughters to the bakery to beg for stale bread so that we have something to eat,” she said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declined to answer questions about how the divorce law changed under the Taliban or the divorce status granted during the previous Afghan government.
But Mujahid said both parties must appear before a judge to seek a divorce under the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law.
The highly conservative Afghan society made it difficult for women to obtain a divorce even under the previous government. It is rare for women to live outside the traditional family unit, especially in rural areas.
Despite the social and family pressures, a 36-year-old woman recounted that her marriage was so abusive that she felt she had no choice but to file for divorce. “It was a shame for me to file for a divorce,” she said. “Both sides of my family were threatening to kill me if I did not return to my husband.”
After obtaining a divorce, she called her brothers to see if she could return to their family home. They refused to help. “They said the only option is to take rat poison and kill yourself,” she said.
The only family member she still has contact with is her sister, whose husband also beats her. She added, “She said to me: ‘I wish I was as smart as you and escaped before, but now (under the Taliban’s rule) this is impossible.”
Another woman, a mother of three, states that her first husband was a drug addict, who beat her and refused to provide her and her children with adequate food. After she ran away from him, she was arrested and imprisoned for about a year, she said, for running away from her home. Her husband’s family took her sons and daughter from her.
She said she was later transferred to a women’s shelter and kept in a windowless room for several more years. “I felt like I was in a second prison,” she said. She was only able to leave the orphanage after she obtained a divorce and remarried. She explained that there was no other way to support herself and her children.
She said her second husband was kind and provided her with a home and food. But after the Taliban took control, she started receiving threats from her ex-husband’s family.
Her new husband has disappeared. “At first he used to call me and send me money, but now months have passed and I haven’t heard back from him,” she said. She, like the other women interviewed for this article, said she went into hiding.
“All I wanted was to educate my children, but now I can’t even get them into school,” she said, fearing that if they learned of her past, she would be reported to the local authorities.
Under Taliban rule, local aid groups that provided shelter and counseling to women seeking to escape abusive relationships were closed. A psychiatrist said security forces shut her down after accusing her and her colleagues of organizing protests against Taliban rule.
Domestic violence is also becoming more difficult to prove. “Under the new law, women have to first go to the police station and present several witnesses to prove the assault or if their husbands are drug addicts,” she said. But in cases of spousal abuse, there are often no witnesses because the crime takes place behind closed doors.
The Taliban has also barred women from many jobs in the justice system — including positions as judges, a spokesperson confirmed to The Washington Post — a move that lawyers say will make it more difficult for women to seek legal aid.
One female lawyer said that women often ask her to handle their cases because they don’t feel comfortable discussing the private details of their marriage with a man. She has been practicing law for more than five years, dealing with criminal and family law cases before the Taliban seized power and prevented her from going to work. She said she feared that domestic violence would increase with the deterioration of the economic situation in Afghanistan.
“I think now that fewer women will come forward,” she said. “More will remain in poor conditions and more will die of domestic violence.”
This same lawyer has gone missing after receiving threatening phone calls from people she’d previously helped get criminal convictions.
“The Taliban have created the perfect situation for men who seek revenge,” she said. “The courts have lost their effectiveness, and instead we see on the news women flogging (publicly) for adultery.”
Haq Nawaz Khan contributed from Peshawar, Pakistan.
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