‘…………..Women’s shelters are one of the most provocative legacies of the Western presence in Afghanistan.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Faheema stood trembling in the courtyard of the large house, steeling herself for the meeting with her family.
She took a deep breath and ran inside, her black abaya swirling around her, and fell to the floor at her uncle’s feet, hugging his knees, her face pressed against him, her shoulders heaving.
The reproaches came immediately. “How could you do this?” her uncle said. “You were always so sweet to everyone. How could you have done this?”
What Faheema, 21, had done was to run away from her home in easternAfghanistan with the man she loved. She left behind her large family and the man that her family had promised her to. Although her uncle’s words at first seemed kind, his tone had a dangerous edge: Faheema had to come home.
For a young woman from an Afghan village to go home after running away with a man is tantamount to crossing a busy street blindfolded: There is a strong likelihood that she will be killed for bringing shame on her family.
Faheema, who like many Afghans uses a single name, was one of the lucky ones: She had made it to an emergency women’s shelter, one of about 20 that over the last 10 years have protected several thousand women across Afghanistan from abuse or death at the hands of their relatives.
These shelters, almost entirely funded by Western donors, are one of the most successful — and provocative — legacies of the Western presence in Afghanistan, demonstrating that women need protection from their families and can make their own choices. And allowing women to decide for themselves raises the prospect that men might not control the order of things, as they have for centuries. This is a revolutionary idea in Afghanistan — every bit as alien as Western democracy and far more transgressive.
As the shelters have grown, so has the opposition of powerful conservative men who see them as Western assaults on Afghan culture. “Here, if someone tries to leave the family, she is breaking the order of the family and it’s against the Islamic laws and it’s considered a disgrace,” said Habibullah Hasham, the imam of the Nabi mosque in western Kabul and a member of a group of influential senior clerics. “What she has done is rebelling.”
The opposition comes not only from conservative imams, but also from within the Afghan government itself. Lawmakers came very close in 2011 to barring the shelters altogether and in 2013 nearly gutted a law barring violence against women. They yielded only after last-minute pressure from the European Union and the United States.
Now, as the Western presence in Afghanistan dwindles, this clash between Western and Afghan ideas of the place of women means many of the gains women made after the 2001 invasion are at risk.
Although the Taliban’s harsh restrictions on women alienated many Afghans and helped rally foreign support for the war, the idea that women must submit to men remains widely held.
“A lot has changed since 2001, but most people still have conservative, traditional views of women,” said Manizha Naderi, who runs Women for Afghan Women, which operates shelters or other programs in 13 provinces.
That makes the fragile network of safe houses and the women who staff them even more vulnerable to restrictive legislation and attacks by local strongmen. The shelters, like so much of the Western project to coax change in Afghanistan, are emblems of a society in transition.
While the shelters have brought freedom to many women, others are stranded, safe for a time from their families but unable to leave because neither their families nor society accepts them.
Ms. Naderi estimates that about 15 percent of the women in her shelters cannot leave — ever. For these abused women, the longer they live suspended between two worlds, the less the shelter comes to feel like a haven and the more like a jail.
A Frightening Example
Above all, Faheema wanted to avoid the fate of Amina, an 18-year-old who ran away from her family in rural Baghlan Province in the summer of 2013 and whose case became widely known. She fled when her family told her she would be marrying an older man.
Amina made it to the provincial capital and was picked up by the Afghan Intelligence Service. Unlike many runaways, who are seen as fallen women and are prey to being molested by the police, she was not abused. Instead, she was brought to the women’s ministry office, which exists in every provincial capital in Afghanistan.
The women’s ministry sent her to the only shelter in the province. But after one or two nights, her family arrived. They promised not to harm Amina if she returned home with them, repeating that pledge on a videotape after meeting with the head of the provincial women’s ministry office, Khadija Yaqeen. The girl then climbed into a taxi with her family. ………………’