KABUL, April 18 — To escape an abusive marriage, Wida Saghari struggled for five years to finalise a divorce. When it was done, she thought, finally, she could get some peace. Instead, she had stepped into a different kind of hell.
Saghari, 31, a mother of two who has worked for years as a television host, found that neither Afghan society nor the government sees young divorced women as adults who can function independently of men.
And women also confront persistent harassment, much of it insinuative or sexual, beginning even during the divorce proceedings.
“You are like a piece of china that everyone, every minute, can hit to the ground to break you,” Saghari said.
When she needed government identifications for her children, the clerk never asked about her relationship to them but kept inquiring, “Where is their father?”
When she wanted to rent an apartment, Saghari had to lie about being divorced, say that her husband was away and take her brother to sign the lease. Many times, landlords refused to rent to her, fearing that the apartment would become, as Saghari put it, “a brothel.”
Her story is not unique. As women in Afghanistan, particularly in urban centres, have increasingly asserted their rights over the past 15 years, many husbands have not caught up or never get on board with the changes. The slow pace of shedding entrenched misogyny has led to a clash of values at home. And women often realise there is no option but to part ways.
Afghan officials could not provide exact numbers on divorces initiated by women, as is the case with most statistics in the country. Most marriages are traditional and not registered in courts. But some officials suggested that the increase in the number of women who formally initiate divorce could be as high as fivefold over the past decade.
“Earlier, when I started at the family court, we would receive seven to eight divorce and separation cases per week,” said Rahima Rezaee, a senior Afghan judge who led the family court from 2006 to 2016. Since she has left, Rezaee said, “we’ve received seven to eight cases per day”.
“We are optimistic because now women have come out from behind the house walls and ask their rights, and now they know how to ask their rights and from where,” Rezaee said.
Since 2009, one non-governmental organisation, Justice for All, has provided legal advice to about 1,250 women seeking divorce across seven provinces, according to its executive director, Mahfuza Folad.
In 2016 alone, another organisation, Medica Afghanistan, provided legal help to about 215 women seeking divorce in western Herat province, according to its provincial director, Jamila Naseri.
Men, said Folad, “are used to the old lifestyle, so now they cannot tolerate that women can stand against them”.
If women “stand and ask their rights”, she added, “men think it is shamelessness and think that they do not have authority on women, and there the problem starts”.
The most dangerous time for women may be when they seek to leave, but they also face a pervasive and persistent social struggle after divorce: The most mundane activities become daunting obstacles. Often, the easiest way is to hide the fact that they are divorced.
“I did not tell anyone about my status — sometimes, I told them my husband is in Iran,” said Zahra Yaganah, 32, an activist and writer who published her first novel last year. A mother of two teenagers, she has been divorced for about a decade. “But when people find out that I am divorced — I feel like a divorced woman is up for grabs for the men around her.”
Much of the harassment begins in government offices. One woman who turned to the government after exhausting traditional means to separate from her husband said the government lawyers became one of her biggest headaches.
She was being abused by her husband, and she had the physical wounds to show it. At first, the government lawyer assigned to her, a man in his 60s, asked for a bribe. She decided to pay for his phone credit and gas for his car. Then, even after she got her divorce and her husband was sentenced to three years in prison, the lawyer would not stop calling.
“Sometimes, he would call me at 1am or 3am and say, ‘You forgot how good I was to you’,” recalled the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she has since remarried and fears the public stigma that could come from revealing what she went through.
“Other times, he would call and say, ‘The weather is good; let’s go out,’ or he would give me the address of his house and say he had a big house and he was alone.”
The predatory behaviour became so overbearing that as soon as her case was settled, she quickly got married again.
Yaganah recalled that in 2013, she had to go to the police to report a man who was harassing her and blocking her way at night.
“Then the police station deputy became my problem,” she said. “He called me every week and asked: ‘Where are you? Are you at home? I want to come to your home to have tea together.’ Sometimes at midnight, he would call me and say: ‘Is there any problem? If there is anything, I will come’.”
She changed both her cellphone and house numbers.
Yaganah said her divorced status followed her everywhere, from the office to her apartment block, with men thinking that she was an easy target.
“As a divorced woman,” she said, “to them you are a thing — like a pot without a cover.”
Men have approached her privately. Married senior officials have invited her on foreign trips. Two years ago, after a celebration for International Women’s Day at her office, a male colleague she had worked with only for three days started sending her text messages.
“He told me that, ‘Your dress was beautiful. Let’s we two have a celebration together tonight, and be with me all the night’,” Yaganah said. “I was in shock for three days.”
At public social gatherings, however, her closest male friends keep their distance.
“Sometimes when they see me, they ignore me or just say hi from afar,” she said. “Then they write me that we did not come to you because people will start rumours because you are a divorced woman and people will think that we have a relationship.”
Saghari, the television anchor, was harassed often — by her apartment building attendant, colleagues, social media users. When she turned down the men, they quickly made up their own reasons.
“They would say ‘she is a lesbian’, or that ‘she is feminist; all feminists are like this — they do not have sexual needs’,” Saghari said.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for divorced women like Yaganah and Saghari is navigating the neighbourhoods they live in. They have to constantly find a balance: Fend off advances from male neighbours, yet go out of their way to declare their male visitors to avoid rumours.
When Yaganah has male guests over, she feels obliged to knock on neighbours’ doors with some excuse — to borrow additional teacups, for instance — to be transparent about her visitors. When her brother or other close relatives visit with their children, she shows them off to signal, she says, that she is a decent family woman.
Even though renting a home remains a major hurdle because landlords require a man to sign, Yaganah has had a breakthrough.
“This year, I have an achievement: I signed the lease myself for the first time,” she said. “But I told the owner of the house that my husband went to Germany as refugee — I did not tell him that I was divorced.” — The New York Times