The Washington Post
March 5, 2023
Taliban law has voided thousands of divorces, experts say, and many remarried women are now considered adulterers
KABUL — After her stepfather sold her into marriage at the age of 13 to support his drug habit, the young Afghan woman fought for years to escape an abusive husband. She eventually fled his home, secured a divorce and remarried, she recalled.
Now, under Taliban rule, she’s suddenly on the run again, at risk of imprisonment for adultery.
Under the previous government, this woman from western Afghanistan could get a divorce by testifying that her first husband was physically abusive, even though he refused to appear before the judge. But under the Taliban’s draconian interpretation of Islamic law, her divorce is invalid and, as a result, so is her second marriage.
Former judges and lawyers estimate that thousands of Afghan women who earlier secured divorces without a husband’s consent are now in danger under Taliban rule, facing potential imprisonment and violent reprisals.
The “one-sided” divorces under the previous government were largely granted to women trying to escape abusive or drug-addicted husbands, according to the former judges and lawyers. Since that government’s collapse in 2021, power has shifted in the favor of the divorced husbands, especially those with Taliban ties.
Changes to the country’s marriage laws are another wrenching example of how the Taliban has stripped women of their rights. Taliban rule also has severely restricted their access to education and employment, banned them from public parks and mandated ultraconservative female dress.
“I was living a new life — I was happy. I thought I was safe from my [first] husband; I didn’t think I would be hiding again,” said the woman from western Afghanistan, speaking on the condition of anonymity, like all the women interviewed for this article, to protect her safety.
The woman, originally from a rural area, had been living safely in an urban area for several years. But when the previous government was ousted, the legal system and security forces that once shielded her dissolved overnight.
The woman, now 22, said she began to get threatening calls from her ex-husband just weeks after the Taliban takeover. He told her that he had informed Taliban members in her home village about what she had done and that they were helping him find her and seek revenge.
Last year, her second husband abandoned her, fearing that he could also be charged with adultery because their marriage was no longer considered valid. She was left behind with her two young daughters from her first marriage and four months pregnant with his child. “I never heard from him again,” she said.
Her neighbors started asking questions about where her husband was, and Taliban security forces were routinely conducting house-to-house searches. So, she said, she fled with her daughters to another area. Since then, she has moved four times and hasn’t seen the rest of her family, fearing that a visit could help her ex-husband track her down.
“When I’m too scared to leave the house, I send my daughters to the bakery to beg for old bread so we have something to eat,” she said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid refused to respond to questions about how divorce law has changed under the Taliban or the status of divorces granted during Afghanistan’s previous government.
But Mujahid said both parties must appear before a judge to request a divorce under the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law.
No choice but divorce
Afghanistan’s deeply conservative society made it difficult for women to secure a divorce even under the previous government. Especially in rural areas, it’s rare for women to live outside a traditional family unit.Despite social and family pressure, one 36-year-old woman recounted, her marriage had been so abusive that she felt she had no choice but to seek a divorce. “It was a shameful thing for me to ask for a divorce,” she said. “Both sides of my family were threatening to kill me if I didn’t return to my husband.”
After she was granted the divorce, she contacted her brothers to see if she could return to their family home. They refused to help. “They said the only option is if you take rat poison and kill yourself,” she said.
The sole family member she’s still in touch with is her sister, whose husband also beats her. “She told me, ‘I wish I had been as clever as you and escaped before, but now [under the Taliban] that’s impossible,’” she said.
Another woman, a mother of three, recalled that her first husband had been addicted to drugs, beat her and refused to provide her and her children with enough food. After she ran away from him, she was apprehended and imprisoned for nearly a year, she said, for fleeing her home. Her husband’s family took her sons and daughter away from her.
Later, she said, she was transferred to a women’s shelter and kept in a windowless room for several more years. “It felt like a second prison,” she said. She was able to leave the shelter only after she got a divorce and remarried. There was no other way to support herself and her children, she explained.
Her second husband was kind and provided her with a home and food, she said. But after the Taliban took over, she began to receive threats from her former husband’s family.
Her new husband disappeared. “At first he would call and send me money, but now it’s been months and I haven’t heard from him,” she said. Like the other women interviewed for this article, she said she has gone into hiding.
“All I ever wanted was to educate my children, but now I can’t even put them in school,” she said, for fear that local authorities will inform on her if they find out about her past.
Nowhere to turn
Under the Taliban, local aid groups that provided shelter and counseling for women seeking to escape abusive relationships have been shuttered. One psychologist said the security forces closed her practice after accusing her and her colleagues of organizing protests against Taliban rule.
Proving domestic abuse has also become harder. “Under the new law, women need to first go to the police station and provide multiple witnesses to prove abuse or if their husband is addicted to drugs,” she said. But in cases of marital abuse, there are often no witnesses because the crime occurs behind closed doors.
The Taliban has also banned women from holding many jobs in the judicial system — including positions as judges, its spokesman confirmed to The Post — a move that lawyers say will make it more difficult for women to seek legal help.
One female lawyer said women often asked her to handle their cases because they weren’t comfortable discussing private details of their marriages with a man. She had practiced law for over five years, handling criminal and family law cases before the Taliban took over and barred her from going to work. She said she’s afraid domestic violence will increase further as Afghanistan’s economic situation deteriorates.
“I think now fewer women will come forward,” she said. “More will stay in bad situations and more will die from domestic violence.”
This lawyer has herself gone into hiding after receiving threatening phone calls from people she previously helped convict of crimes.
“The Taliban have created the perfect situation for men seeking revenge,” she said. “The courts have lost their effectiveness and instead we see on the news women receiving [public] lashings for adultery.”
Susannah George is The Washington Post’s Afghanistan and Pakistan bureau chief. She previously headed the Associated Press’s Baghdad bureau and covered national security and intelligence from the AP’s Washington bureau.