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A Filmmaker's Battle To Expose The Broken Promise Of Women's Rights In Afghanistan

ICE Graveyard 7/04/2016 Jesselyn Cook

After the U.S. military ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, American leaders vowed to prioritize the restoration of women's rights in the country.

"America's beginning to realize that the dreams of the terrorists and the Taliban were a waking nightmare for Afghan women and their children," then-President George W. Bush said in December 2001, before signing a bill that pledged U.S. aid to Afghan families. "This great nation will work hard to bring them hope and help." 

But despite "significant improvements” in the lives of Afghan women in the past decade and a half, such as millions of girls returning to school, widespread oppression of women remains engrained in society.

In a new documentary for Vice, filmmaker correspondent Isobel Yeung shines a light on the ongoing human rights abuses Afghan women endure on a daily basis, despite domestic and foreign promises to improve their quality of life. 

In a hidden shelter discreetly operating to support women fleeing violence, Yeung spoke to a pair of 17- and 18-year-old women who are sisters-in-law and had escaped an abusive family. 

"[My husband] would beat me as if he wanted to break my arms and knees," explained the younger girl, who said she had attempted suicide by poison at least twice since getting married at age 12.

She said they ran away to the shelter together after her father-in-law brutally beat them both when she denied him sex.

"They are looking for us everywhere," the teens told Yeung. "And once they get us out of here, they won't let us live. There are several ways to die, but this will be the worst way."

The two young women were discovered by their family six weeks later, Vice reports.

There is a strong need for increased awareness about the current state of women's rights in Afghanistan, Yeung told The WorldPost.

"I think there was a lot of attention to the topic in 2001 and around that period when the moral obligation to Afghan women was kind of used as a motivation [for the U.S.] to invade and remain in Afghanistan," she explained. 

"Things are a lot better [now] than they were for women under Taliban rule," she added, "but at the same time, for the majority of Afghan women, life is really tough. It will take a lot of time and persistence and commitment from all sides to change that."

Today, with a sobering 87 percent of Afghan women afflicted by domestic violence, Afghanistan is still one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman.

While the country initially made headway -- a new constitution approved in 2004 enshrined basic rights for women, including access to education, and the government adopted the Elimination of Violence Against Women law, or EVAW, in 2009 -- the demand for gender equality still faces opposition. 

Parliament, for example, refused to ratify EVAW, and its implementation has remained "slow and uneven," according to the United Nations. 

Without the effective enforcement of laws like EVAW, women remain vulnerable to discrimination and abuse. Married Afghan women can actually be jailed and punished for being raped by men, which is considered a "moral crime” akin to adultery. 

Nazir Ahmad Hanafi, a prominent Afghan legislator, strongly opposed EVAW in Parliament, claiming it contradicts Islamic values. "The EVAW law will destroy Afghan families and our way of life," he told Yeung in an interview. 

When Yeung asked him about rape, he said there are two different kinds: "There is a kind of rape you have and another kind we have in Islam."

He then proceeded to interrupt Yeung, abruptly ending the interview with one final thought: "Maybe I should give you to an Afghan man to take your nose off."

Hanafi's grisly suggestion of facial mutilation reflected a tragic reality for 20-year-old Reza Gul, whose husband of six years chopped her nose off in January for running away, another so-called moral crime. Last year, a 27-year-old Afghan woman named Farkhunda was falsely accused of burning a Quran and subsequently killed by a mob in a savage public execution. Both incidents garnered international media coverage and outrage. 

Despite the country's slow progress toward gender equality, Yeung said she was moved by the resilience of several women she encountered while shooting the documentary.

"I was really impressed by the amount of hope there was," she said. "The war for Afghan women's rights is not over."

Vice's "Afghan Women Rights” documentary airs April 8 on HBO.

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