Editor’s note: Five men are scheduled for execution on Wednesday, October 8 for the gang rapes of four women in the Paghman district. Human rights groups are calling on the new Afghan president to delay the expedited executions.
It was the early morning of August 23, 2014 when a group of thieves wearing police uniforms and armed with Kalashnikovs stopped a family convoy returning from a wedding celebration in the Paghman district, outside Kabul. They took the families’ belongings, tied up the men, and raped four of the women. The women’s cries deafened the sky but nobody came to help.
The first time I heard about the Paghman gang rape was on Facebook, where my friends’ furious comments popped up on my computer screen and got my attention. The comments kept adding to threads condemning the immoral acts. I had tired of all the tragic news from around the world but this was different. I needed to know what had happened and I went to BBC Persian news and read the report. One woman had been raped at least ten times. Another of the victims was a pregnant woman. Another was an 18-year-old who later died in a local hospital as a result of the attack. This was outrageous. I had never heard of a gang rape in Afghanistan, probably because rapes are either not reported or not publicized. What outraged me the most was when I read that the male victims reported the armed robbery but they did not report the rapes of the four women.
Nevertheless, hospital officials reported to the police that the female victims were assaulted and raped multiple times. I imagine the women’s conditions were very serious since they were all taken to the hospital and one died. Thinking how selfishly their men hid the sexual assaults angered me to the bone and nerves. Of course they wanted to hide the rape to keep their honor, but in my eyes they are as guilty as the thieves because if the hospital had not informed police, the rapes would go unnoticed. God knows how many more similar cases are overlooked and the women never brought to a hospital.
The news of Paghman became a wave of rage among people, especially among men who staged many protests in different provinces and demanded severe punishment for the criminals. I remember seeing one male protestor carrying a banner on the BBC that read Your sister is my sister; your honor is my honor.
I was happy to see the powerful protests. But I wondered why this was the first time that people held such protests. What about all the other cases of young girls being raped and the cases where a woman’s nose or ears were cut off. I read an Afghan man’s comment on Facebook that answered my question. He said: “I can’t help but to imagine what the household men felt when they heard their women’s screams and crying while they were raped by thieves. Probably it’s the worst punishment for a man to see his honor get dishonored. God damn these rapists; they should be punished to death.”
It again came back to the men’s sense of honor. Would there be as many complaints, discussions, rage and condemnations if the husbands had not been involved in the assaults and there were only women? I do not think so.
In a patriarchal society, men tend to support each other and if a group of men dares to attack another man’s honor in his presence, that’s breaking the territory, and it alarms every other man. Their insecurity and anger surfaces and brings a man to his feet to not let the same incident happen again, because then it is not just about raping but it’s about breaking a man’s confidence, zeal and personality through attacking his most sensitive spot and assaulting his so-called “honor”—his woman.
For a few weeks, the Afghan media was filled with rape news that followed the trial, step-by-step. I saw the thieves on television saying the police tortured them until they confessed.
“If you were beaten with a stick and tortured, you would also confess to crimes you haven’t committed,” one of the seven men arrested told a reporter for Tolo TV News. For a moment I had sympathy for the accused men. What if they were telling the truth and were forced to confess? But then I thought that no, they would lie, because they knew that harsh punishment awaited them if they were convicted.
I saw Kabul Police Chief General Zahir Zahir being interviewed on television. He is a well-known respected police officer who has arrested many criminals and he confirmed that the police investigation determined that the seven men were involved in the Paghman robbery and gang rape. Three other men haven’t yet been arrested.
Under the pressure from the demonstrators and at the request of then-President Hamid Karzai, a Kabul primary court expedited the case, putting it far ahead of many other cases sitting in court’s drawers for years and gathering dust. The trial happened very fast and the court took less than three hours to issue the guilty verdict for the seven men. Initially, all seven were sentenced to death but later, Karzai reduced the sentences of two of the men to 20 years in prison.
The irony is that the death penalty was given for the crimes of armed robbery and zina (sex outside of marriage). The rapes were not discussed. In Afghan’s legal system there is no clear difference between adultery, unmarried sex, and rape. If a woman is raped, she is considered to have committed adultery. The Afghan penal code advises 7 to 15 years jail for adultery and rape.
I think it is ridiculous that the same patriarchal system which always talks about a man’s “honor” pays less attention and gives less justice to his “honor” when it comes to punishing a rapist but instead puts more value on a man’s wealth. What would the court have done if there had been no robbery, just the rapes? The judge might have sentenced the rapists to a few years of prison, and then the rapists would buy their freedom from the corrupt system and be released after a few months. One of these thieves was involved previously in murder and rape and was sent to prison and freed.
An Afghan woman is not the “honor” of a shameful man who does not dare to report a crime. An Afghan woman is an honor to herself and an honor to her nation. A woman’s body must be respected. Our nation was dishonored in Paghman, and the criminals should be punished for rape, not just for armed robbery. When a woman gets raped, the earth shakes in shame and curses the rapist.
Mahnaz lives abroad. Photo by James Gordon.