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Why the Taliban use rape to silence women?

Rape is the worst thing that can ever happen to a woman in Afghanistan. I know that because I am an Afghan woman who grew up in Kabul. There has always been an unwritten curfew for all women in Afghanistan: we were not supposed to be out after 6 p.m. I really didn’t question why but grew up accepting that being home by 6 p.m. was part of being a woman. 

One evening in 2016, I broke that curfew. After finishing work, I went to visit my former colleagues in Kart-e-Char in west Kabul. By the time I left my colleagues to go home, it was after 6 p.m. The journey required two rides – one from Kart-e-Char to Kot-e-Sangi and one from there to my home in Khoshal Khan. The first ride wasn’t difficult as there were still some women walking around and the sky was not too dark. By the time I arrived in Kot-e-Sangi, the women seemed to have vanished from the streets. I felt alone and scared. When I was walking to the station, several taxi drivers started offering me rides. “Hey beautiful, can I give you a ride,” one of them called from the window of his car. That was the usual way of harassing a solitary woman in Kabul.

My heart was beating fast. Throughout the years I lived in Kabul, I heard many stories about how women have vanished from the streets and later found raped and dead. I wasn’t scared of being killed, I was terrified of being raped. In the culture in which I grew up, there was nothing worse than a woman who is raped. It is not only her life but also those of her family and their reputation that were on the line. 

“What would I do if that happened to me?” That question came to my mind many times. “I would kill myself.” That was the only answer I had. In my mind, my life would be over if I became a victim of rape. 

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That late evening in Kabul, I was scanning my options to safely get home. I found a taxi with a female passenger who was travelling with a man. I sat in the back seat beside the woman. A few stops later, the couple reached their destination and got out of the car. I was left alone with the taxi driver. He turned his rear mirror so he could see me. To me, that was a sign that I needed to get out of the car before he said a thing. I asked him to pull over. By then, I was halfway home, but there was still a long distance to go. I stand at the corner of the street, looking for a car with a female passenger. After 15 minutes, I saw a van with a female passenger who had three children with her. Feeling a sense of relief, I held my hand up as a sign that I needed a ride. They stopped. The driver asked me to sit in the front seat. I obeyed. Just three stops later, the woman and her children got out of the vehicle. Again, I was alone, this time with two men, one of them the person in charge of collecting the fare. “Are you living nearby?” the driver asked. I nodded my head and said yes. “We can take you to your door if you give us your phone number.” My heart was beating fast and I immediately asked him to stop the car. He drove for a few metres and then I started shaking and screaming for him to stop. Finally, he stopped and I got out of the car, throwing my fare into the driver’s face. I was still one kilometre from home, but I decided to walk the remaining distance. During that lonely journey, several drivers stopped and invited me to ride with them. That night, I cried all the way home, hating my gender, my being a woman in Afghanistan. 

That was eight years ago, a time when the Taliban takeover seemed a distant impossibility. Now, women are even fearful of walking alone in the daylight. They are not allowed to get an education. They are not allowed to earn a living. They are literally under house arrest because they happened to be born female.

Rape is still the worst nightmare for many women in Afghanistan. But for some, that nightmare is realized in the worst way possible: inside Taliban’s prisons where no one could help them. Last week, we reported on how some young women who were arrested over the Taliban’s “bad hijab” rules were sexually abused and raped in their prisons. This week, Rukhshana Media and The Guardian reported that they’d seen video evidence of a female Afghan human rights activist being gang raped and tortured in a Taliban prison by armed men. The video had been sent to the woman, who has now fled Afghanistan and lives in exile. It was obviously an attempt by the Taliban to blackmail her into silence; the threat was clear – stay silent or the video is released. 

What kind of regime would produce evidence of their crime and send it to the victim? A regime that knows when the video is released of a woman being raped, it is the survivor who would be blamed and destroyed. I say this with the certainty of an Afghan woman who knows what rape signifies in our culture. It is not a naive choice by the Taliban to use rape as a weapon to silence women’s voices. The Taliban know very well what rape does to any woman who experiences it. They also know how Afghan culture treat survivors of rape. That is why creating such a video is a strategic move by the Taliban to silence critical voices. “What I experienced in the prison was horrible, but you know what is worse than that? It is that we can’t speak about our experiences,” is how one woman activist described her situation to me. 

In Afghanistan’s culture, there are things that we know but are not allowed to question or even ask their rationale. One is that a family’s honour depends on the purity of its women – our bodies are not our own and we are not allowed to make decisions about our bodies. We are the bearers of our family’s honour and if God forbid, a woman is raped, the honour of her family is destroyed. Often, our families are more worried about their honour than our well-being. 

When Zan Times journalists were reporting on the story of “Women accuse Taliban of sexual assault after arrest for ‘bad hijab,’” several women recounted being abused by their families after they were released from Taliban prison. “My parents blame me all the time, they say we told you not to go out. Now our reputation will be destroyed if our relatives find out that you were arrested by the Taliban,” a young woman told us. She told us that she was sexually abused by the Taliban, but she couldn’t reveal that to her family and that is why she tried to kill herself twice. Another woman refused to be interviewed, saying that her family would punish her if they knew she had spoken to journalists about her experience in Taliban prison. 

During our reporting, we also heard an allegation that a woman was killed by her father after she was released from the Taliban prison. Her family suspected that she was raped by the Taliban, a friend of the victim told us (we couldn’t speak with the family.) 

It is no lie that the number of “honour killings,” as they are called in Muslim countries, is high in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, in my country, survivors of rape are punished for being raped. They are blamed for allowing rape to happen. But such thinking is not exclusive to Afghanistan or other developing countries. Even in Western nations, female survivors of rape are often blamed for being raped. After all, Afghanistan is part of this planet and what happens here is not much different from elsewhere. 

The big difference for women in Afghanistan is that survivors of rape have nowhere to go. The Taliban have systematically dismantled all systems of support for rape survivors. So, they are left at the mercy of their families. Unfortunately, I say with both confidence and regret, we don’t have many families who would support survivors of rape. In our culture, rape is seen as a stain and the only way our society has learned to deal with it is to clean it away by wiping out the survivors from the face of the Earth. 

That sad truth is what I reported during my time as a journalist in Kabul and that is what I continue to cover. I want to say that it is hard to speak the truth, but I know that truth is rarely convenient. Writing this piece isn’t easy as it means I have to accept that our culture emboldens the Taliban and allows them to abuse women. It is to admit that, instead of focusing on the culprits and finding ways to make them accountable, many families are busy covering up why and how their women were arrested and imprisoned by the Taliban. So far, the only winner is the Taliban and the only losers are women who desire a life in freedom and dignity. 

Often I cry and am rendered speechless when a woman tells me about her experience of being raped by the Taliban. I have no words to comfort them and no way to make their pain visible. I am still that woman who is scared of being raped though I grew to learn that we can change the way we look at life and the way we interpret things. Instead of thinking that rape is the end of life, we can learn to see survivors of rape as human beings whose humanity has been brutally violated. No victim ever desires to be a victim. They become so under circumstances that are not their own choosing. 

I believe that if humanity means anything it should mean supporting and caring for those who have been hurt and violated in the worst possible way. It should mean empowering them to get justice and hold to account those who are responsible. Changing the way we look at things requires us to question the status quo, those beliefs that we once accepted as normal. Nothing can be normal about a culture that blames the victim for being violated.   

Zahra Nader is the editor-in-chief of Zan Times. 

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