Court sides with husband who beat and chained her
Afghan girl, given as bride at 9, fights for divorce
By Sudarsan Raghavan
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
KABUL, Afghanistan - Dusk crosses into night, and still Pekay isn't free. After a long day of walking from office to office, pleading with stubborn judges, her quest has failed: She's still married to her abusive husband.
Once again, her memories take control. Her father's selling her in marriage to a man five times her age to pay the rent; the beatings and sodomy that followed. She was 9 years old.
Her mind drifts toward suicide. She's tried twice - first with a knife, then with kerosene and a match.
Pekay is 13 now, one of thousands of girls and women who are trapped in forced marriages, caught between the rural, tribal and Islamic customs that ruled the country for centuries and the promise of a new Afghanistan ruled by laws that apply equally to everyone.
Domestic violence is widespread, but most cases never go to court. The laws are weak, and women stay silent out of fear or shame: Divorce disgraces the family and the tribe. Each year, scores of Afghan women escape bad marriages by setting themselves on fire or other forms of suicide.
The Muslim fundamentalist Taliban regime collapsed three years ago. Hamid Karzai has won the country's first presidential elections. Women, who couldn't leave their homes freely in the old Afghanistan, voted in droves.
Yet none of this momentous change has helped Pekay. Under Afghanistan's civil law, it's illegal for girls younger than 16 to marry. But the Supreme Court, led by conservative clerics and Islamic law, ruled that she can't get divorced, even from a violent child molester.
Her last hope is that Fazal Hadi Shinwari, the ultra-conservative chief justice of the Supreme Court, will reverse the decision.
"If he doesn't, I'll kill myself," said Pekay, who like many Afghans uses one name. "And I'll leave it up to God to punish the judges in the next world."
"Pay or give me your daughter"
Pekay is less than 5 feet tall and slight. Her nose is puffy and crooked from a thrashing. Her left cheekbone is higher than her right, as if a bone is out of place. Her lower lip is split.
She was smaller when she met Malik Muhammad four years ago. At 48, he was old enough to be her grandfather. He offered to rent a room in his house to Pekay's family.
Four months passed, and Muhammad never asked for the rent. Pekay's father, Muhammad Omar, was too poor to remind him. One day, Muhammad demanded the rent money: $80, a princely sum.
When Omar asked if he could pay in installments, Muhammad said, "You must pay me now or give me your daughter," Omar recalled. Four days later, Muhammad started planning a wedding.
"We had no choice," said Omar. "He was a Taliban intelligence agent. He was very powerful. He said if I didn't allow the marriage, he would take us to the Taliban central office and do the wedding there."
On her wedding night, Pekay was confused. Why was the man she called "uncle" taking her to his bedroom? Why was her mother so sad?
"I'll be back soon," she recalled telling her mother.
Smiling, she stepped in. Her new husband shut the door.
"I started to hear screams," recalled her mother, Qudbi. "I thought he was going to kill her."
The next morning, Muhammad refused to let Qudbi see Pekay. He'd chained her hands and legs to his bed, said Pekay. Four days later, he evicted her parents.
Pekay lived as a slave for the next 2 1/2 years. Muhammad locked her in a room, releasing her only to cook, clean and do the washing. He pounded her with sticks and rubber tubing. When he stopped beating her, he started raping her.
"I can't tell you what happened," Pekay said. "It's the type of thing that happens only with animals."
Muhammad, now 52, denies he abused Pekay, but his next-door neighbor, Zalmay Quasimi, remembers her screams.
A short man with chipped yellow teeth and a thick beard dyed black, Muhammad claims that Pekay is "15 or 16," not 13. Pekay's identity card proves otherwise.
"Physically her body is small, but she's older," said Muhammad, who wore a silver ring topped with a turquoise stone and a white skullcap. "She was fine in my bed. She never complained or told me she was very small.
"If she comes back, I'll get her pregnant."
Blood stained the floor
Fifteen months ago, Pekay's parents finally went to the police. Officers raided Muhammad's house and found Pekay and his first wife, Samar. Dried blood stained the floor and chains dangled from a bedpost, according to court documents. The police took Muhammad into custody.
But Afghanistan's legal system, a mix of civil and sharia, Islamic law, still favors men. Once Muhammad proved he was Samar's and Pekay's husband, he was released. Samar was told to go with him. Because of her age, Pekay was returned to her parents pending a court decision.
Pekay and her parents went to Kabul's family court to get a divorce. Muhammad, in court documents, called the allegations "a massive lie."
But in front of two female judges, Pekay undressed and showed the marks around her waist from the chain that Muhammed used to bind her.
The court, filled with progressive young judges, granted her a divorce. Pekay was ecstatic.
Her joy, and her freedom, soon vanished.
Muhammad appealed the decision. The appeals court ruled in his favor, as did the Supreme Court.
Pekay was ordered to return to her husband or go to jail.
Supreme Court Justice Sayeed Omar Munib explained that sharia allows a father to marry off his daughter even if she's under 16. And Pekay hadn't met the standard of evidence - two witnesses who saw the abuse or a confession from her husband.
When asked why he didn't rule according to Afghanistan's civil law, Munib replied: "In Islam and sharia, it's not like that. Women are very smooth operators. If we let her get a divorce, then women will be encouraged to divorce their husbands if they see another man they like. We'll have a lot of divorces in our society."
When asked if he believed that women and men have equal rights, as Afghanistan's constitution states, Munib replied: "It's impossible. We are Muslims, and God has given a place for men and a place for women. We can't change that. Women don't have the same brains like men. They are very forgetful. They can't make big decisions. You should ask your own Western doctors about this. It has been proven that women are not like men."
Chief justice intervenes
Friends of the family got Pekay an appointment with Chief Justice Shinwari. They were educated women and now had a voice, if a faint one, in the new Afghanistan. It took them weeks, but they finally got a meeting for Pekay.
Shinwari, also a cleric, dispensed justice according to strict sharia. But he looked at Pekay's face and body, and listened to Pekay's witnesses. After considering the evidence, he approved Pekay's divorce.
Muhammad, however, is determined to get Pekay back.
"I'll die before divorcing her," he said. "I can't force her to come back to my house, but I can make sure she won't marry again. One day she'll come back. She has to."