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In Afghanistan’s Tribal Heartland, Activists Unite To End Female Exploitation

Women in Afghanistan's southeastern Pashtun heartland are victims of many discriminatory cultural practice.
Women in Afghanistan's southeastern Pashtun heartland are victims of many discriminatory cultural practice.

KHOST, Afghanistan -- In a sign that Afghan youth are trying to change their society for the better, young activists in a remote Afghan province are pushing to end cruel customary practices against women.

In Khost, a mountainous province in southeastern Afghanistan, young men and women campaigners have united to end forced and underage marriages, exorbitant bridewealth, and bloody feuds that often result in cycles of vengeance spanning generations.

Khan Wali Adil, 23, says he and likeminded others have lobbied hard with the region’s clerics and tribal leaders to secure their backing to end or at least reform exploitative cultural practices.

“Our immediate aim is to rid this region of one or two traditions within the next couple of months,” he said. “We want to show the people of Afghanistan we can achieve results within a limited timeframe.”

Another activist, Nasir Ahmed Rokhan, says child marriages, forced marriages -- sometimes arranged to end family feuds -- and forcing widows to marry a brother or relatives of her deceased husband are some of the traditions they hope to see brought to an end.

“We want our struggle to have social ownership. This is why we want the ulema (eds: Muslim clergymen), influential figures, and tribal leaders to support us,” he said. “We would like to end such a negative phenomenon.”

Khost and the surrounding provinces of Paktia and Paktika are collectively called Loya or greater Paktia. Inhabited by Pashtun tribes, life in the rural mountainous region is regulated by ancient codes and unwritten customary laws, which are collectively called Pashtunwali or The Way of Pashtuns.

Adil and his allies say they now need to reform Pashtunwali by ending some of its exploitative traditions. Most discriminate against women and are carried out in the name of following Pashtunwali.

Earlier this year, he protested outside Afghan Parliament in the capital, Kabul, for months. His protest camp, a modest tent, attracted considerable attention. His activism was spurred by family disagreements; Adil protested a family ban on his younger sister’s education and some male relatives refusing to heed his calls to end a long-running land dispute.

Back in his homeland, Adil has encouraged women to speak out, as well.

Feroza, an activist who goes by one name only, says that among many of greater Paktia communities, women are married as a means of ending feuds.

“Many women still have no say in choosing their spouse,” she said.

Feroza says the custom of paying bridewealth for the women is also highly exploitative. “In many cases, men pay a lot of money as bridewealth for their brides. And the women suffer because their in-laws expect them to do a lot of hard labor to justify the money spent.”

Halima Ehsas, a women’s rights campaigner, says ending exploitative traditions will require individuals to change their outlook, which should go hand in hand with government efforts to implement laws to end the exploitation of women.

“Our clerics and community leaders need to embrace changes within their families and communities by banning forced and underage marriages or other discriminatory practices, she said. “I demand that the Afghan Women’s Affairs Ministry make it their priority to end such practices.”

Mawlawi Abdul Qudus, a Muslim cleric in Khost, backs the campaigners and says such practices are a violation of Islamic injunctions.

“What we also need to push for is to enable women to claim and receive their due share in family inheritance,” he said.