There was a horrific and terribly moving story on BBC Radio 4 this morning about a young Afghan girl who was given away by her family to atone for a wrong. As she was their property she was theirs to do with as they wished and became the property of the new family.
Said her new ‘family’: “It’s ok if she dies, she’s been given to us”
She was 6 years old. At 12 years old she was married to a 40 year old man who already had a wife. He treated the women in his life with great cruelty and eventually at 16 the young girl ran away. She now lives in a safe house, in fear of her life.
It reminded me very powerfully of an incident from my childhood which contributed to my subsequent feminism and strong views on gender equality.
I grew up in a neighbourhood with a high immigrant population and one of my friends was an Asian girl. Her mother was English and had married a Indian Muslim. Carol, my friend was a year older than me. I was 12, the same age that Shabana was married to the 40 year old. I loved going into Carol’s house as it was so very different and full of all sorts of comings and goings as hospitality was regularly extended to the many relatives and friends arriving from India. It was full of pungent aromas, ‘strange’ cooking, exotic language, and amazing clothes; I spent hours trying on Carol’s beautiful saris. But most of the time she wore western clothes; saris were for special occasions.
And then it all changed. Carol’s father decreed she must marry and a groom was found. She and I hid behind the curtain to try and catch a glimpse of the various suitors (she was not involved in the process and not allowed to see him until the day of the wedding.) To my 12 year old self it was fun and exciting. At least at first. Carol too found it all a bit of a laugh; neither of us really understood what was happening.
A Wedding is Arranged
A suitable husband was chosen by the men of the family (her mother was not involved), and the wedding was arranged. Carol had to change her name and became (I think) Coltan or Koltan. I am not sure because she was forbidden to see me. She was forbidden contact with all her friends as they were now chosen by her for her new husband as were her traditional clothes.
And I never saw her again.
Occasionally her Mum would give me updates on how she was, always reassuring me she was happy, but I found it hard to believe. I hope she was. I hope she had a good man and made a good marriage. But she had no choice, she was given away too, in Kent, in the 1970s. And it still happens in this country, not just in Afghanistan.
And that’s one of the reasons I am an ardent supporter of WomanKind and if the BBC story has touched you, I urge you to support them too. Here’s a quote from their web site:
Why we must act now
“Womankind has been working with women’s organizations in Afghanistan for seven years, and we’ve seen the damage that has been done to women’s rights, but also the positive changes in ordinary women’s lives won by our partners and by brave individuals like Nargis.
Today 2.5 million Afghan girls are reported to be enrolled in school and 25% of women are working. Women are claiming their rights and beginning to demand an end to violence and harmful traditions.
On 5 December 2011, representatives from 90 countries are meeting in Bonn, Germany for a conference that will shape Afghanistan’s future. In 2010 important conferences were held in London and Kabul, and at each just one woman was invited to speak.
We are campaigning with others to ensure that women are active partners in the discussion at Bonn. If Afghan women are not at the negotiating table with a strong voice and international support, their hard-won rights are at stake.”
Photo Credit: Ruth Livingstone
Posted on November 15th, 2011 by Jane