I never met Jamila, but I feel like I knew her intimately. She was the embodiment of the many victims of abuse I had met in Afghanistan, and the primary key to their suffering was being born the wrong sex in a country that disdains women.
An expat living in Afghanistan will rack up stacks of anecdotes of sexism, misogyny and vicious acts of hate against women. One friend told me that an Afghan colleague in her European governmental aid organization felt that if a woman in his family committed a dishonor, it was his duty to kill her. Girls are traded to settle murder disputes among men – the killer’s family gives a daughter or sister in marriage to the family of the male murder victim, after which society believes justice has been served. It is a society that does not want to sever a hand for a hand, because they have seen revenge killings that continue for generations, so by marrying off a girl, they can mix blood to end the bloodshed. The girl, meanwhile, is beaten, left to sleep in a cage, or killed, for in her veins runs the same blood as the murderer’s. The family sees in her face the eyes of a killer, but her death is never avenged. It is seen as the cost of settling the dispute.
I once attended a large meeting in eastern Afghanistan with dozens of bearded tribal elders, in hope that they would introduce me to a girl who had been traded for murder. The elders assured me that a girl in such a situation is treated with utmost respect – telling me that after all, Afghan women, once married into a family, are given a seat of honor. I told them I was pleased to hear that women were treated well, even though they were used to settle blood crimes, but when I asked to meet these women, the elders demurred. Their schedules were packed; it wasn’t convenient that day.
There may come a brief moment when an expat suspends criticism after Afghan male friends offer assurances, as my own colleagues did to me, that in fact, Afghanistan has great respect for women and holds them upon a pedestal, which is why the men so fiercely protect them, why the women “do not have to work” and “can stay at home” – as if these are privileges bestowed upon a superior race. But then we shake our heads, denying these untruths, for we witness and we come to know that Afghan women are treated like chattel, bartered or sold like beasts of burden.
I interviewed so many women in Afghanistan – victims of child marriage, forced prostitution and rape. I wrote about infant and maternal mortality rates that make Afghanistan one of the worst places in the world to be a mother and a baby. But never had I heard the story of one woman who had suffered every single one of these problems. That was Jamila.
I don’t know her full story, but after a few years of hearing the stories of countless women, I can come up with some basic assumptions: She was likely forced into an arranged marriage at a very young age, as most Afghan girls are – that way the husband-to-be could be sure that he was marrying a virgin.
Rights workers told me that Jamila was then forced by her mother-in-law into prostitution. In fact, in many cases of prostitution in Afghanistan, the relatives and even the husbands are the pimps. One women’s rights advocate told me of a prepubescent girl who was living in her sheltered for battered women: The girl had been married off to a young boy, and then pimped out by her father-in-law, who ran a child prostitution ring. A 2005 report by the German aid group Ora International said that 39 percent of the sex workers interviewed found clients through their relatives – including 17 percent through their mothers and 15 percent through their husbands.
Jamila finally made the very difficult decision to run away from her abusive home, landing in a women’s shelter in Kabul, which told me her story. However, it was too late for Jamila was already pregnant. She lived in the shelter, came to full term and then some, and at a week after her due date, she started bleeding. She was taken to one of Kabul’s main maternity hospitals, but her cervix did not dilate, so the doctors decided to perform a cesarean. They botched it and killed the baby. It was a Sunday in March.
I arrived in Afghanistan a few days later, and while meeting with several different women’s rights advocates, I met with friends who were rushing to save Jamila’s life. She, too, had been butchered, and had fallen unconscious. Her organs were failing. We called all the doctors we knew to get her transferred to another hospital. Later that night, a few days after her baby had died, she followed. She was 18.
The hospital performed an autopsy to determine the cause of death. Government officials investigated. She and her baby became statistics, filed away in anonymous charts and reports.
There was no funeral, and other than the NGO that gave her refuge, no one cared. I write this so that you could meet Jamila, that she could be remembered.