Gulnaz, a rape victim in Afghanistan, is released from prison. But she is far from free.
Credit: Aref Karimi

KABUL, Afghanistan — Her sad, haunted eyes have become famous around the world; few cases have caught the popular imagination like that of Gulnaz, a young Afghan woman imprisoned for “moral crimes” after she was raped by her cousin’s husband.

Gulnaz was released from prison on Dec. 14 by order of the president; she is now in an undisclosed location, in hiding from her own family.

Her sentence has been harsh, and may be a lifelong one: while she is now relatively safe, her life is now limited to a series of unpalatable choices.

She can agree to marry her rapist, or be forever on the run. According to several sources close to the case, her brothers have threatened to kill her baby daughter, the product of the rape.

More from GlobalPost: Sectarian violence strikes Kabul

In Afghanistan, there are few fates worse than being “harami,” or illegitimate. The little girl, Moska, now barely a year old, was born in prison. In Afghanistan, she is a disgrace to the family honor, and will never be accepted by society unless her parents marry.

So Gulnaz, who served two years of a 12-year sentence for “forced adultery,” may ultimately agree to marry the man who attacked her. Those who have worked with her most closely over the past two years say that she is motivated solely by concern for her daughter.

“She is a loving mother,” said Kimberley Motley, the American lawyer who is representing Gulnaz. “She does not want to marry her attacker. She just wants to protect Moska.”

One aspect of the case that has drawn substantial negative attention has been Gulnaz’s insistence that she would only marry the man who raped her if he gave a girl from his own family — preferably his daughter, who is the same age as Gulnaz herself — in marriage to Gulnaz’s brother.

“So now she wants to ruin another woman’s life?” has been a common reaction from Westerners here.

But Gulnaz is just using an age-old Afghan custom to try and protect herself.

Called “b’adal,” or “exchange,” it is commonly used when families cannot come up with the fairly hefty “bride prices” that are still demanded in many areas. A daughter will be given in marriage if her new husband’s family contributes a wife for her brother — thus saving both families quite a lot of money. Bride prices run into thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars.

More from GlobalPost: Key players absent from Afghanistan conference

But it is also used in cases where a wife fears that her husband may harm her. The girl given to Gulnaz’s brother would, in effect, be a hostage. Any violence visited on Gulnaz could then be perpetrated on the brother’s new wife.

So far, Gulnaz’s attacker has refused the offer. He is, in any case, still in prison, with five years still to serve on his sentence, also for “forced adultery.”

While the practice of b’adal may seem abhorrent to most Americans, it is easily accepted in much of Afghanistan, even by those who have been exposed to more modern ways.

“If she marries the man, and her brother marries his daughter, then the case is resolved,” said Mohammad, an Afghan-American who works in Kabul but whose family lives in the United States. “Who can say they will have a bad life? Maybe they will all be happy together.”

Gulnaz came to public attention after a team of documentary filmmakers funded by the European Union made her the heroine of their film, “In-Justice: The Story of Afghan Women in Jail.”

The film has never been released; the EU said it was concerned about the safety of the women portrayed in it. More cynical minds, including many close to the film team, say that the EU was afraid of upsetting the Afghan government.

But “In-Justice” was screened privately for several journalists in Kabul, and bootleg copies made it onto the internet. Soon women’s rights groups were calling Motley and asking her to help.

More from GlobalPost: Is Afghanistan on brink of civil war?

“I took this case not only to help Gulnaz but also for the bigger picture of helping other abused Afghan women,” said Motley, who operates her own law firm in Kabul and says she is besieged with requests to look into the plight of women. She took Gulnaz’s case on a pro bono basis, convinced that it might change things.

“I wanted to use this case to help women who have been systematically victimized even during the US stint of 10 years in Afghanistan personally and legally,” she said.

Motley is convinced that Gulnaz’s case has set an important legal precedent.

“President Karzai, the Ministry of Justice, the Supreme Court, and the Attorney General’s office have all acknowledged that she was a victim,” Motley said. “This will put lower courts on notice.”

Others are not so optimistic.

Gulnaz was freed by the media spotlight, not by legal arguments, they insist. President Hamid Karzai, under some pressure to polish his government’s image in advance of the recent Bonn conference on Afghanistan, signed the release order just days before he left for Germany.

“Gulnaz does not represent social change,” said Noorjahan Akbar, co-founder of Young Women for Change, an advocacy organization in Afghanistan.

More from GlobalPost: It's been a really bad year for Afghanistan

Akbar is at university in the United States, and spends her semester breaks lobbying for women’s rights in her native country. Her American education shows through at times: “This is not Brown v. Board of Education,” she insists. “This was media advocacy. It is not going to help all the other Gulnazes.”

While the case seems extreme, it is hardly unique in Afghanistan, where, despite major efforts over the past 10 years, girls and women are all too often deprived of any say in their destinies.

In fact, there is some evidence to show that all the hoopla over Gulnaz may close the doors on other women who hope to attract attention to their own situations.

“The Gulnaz case may actually have done some damage,” Akbar said.“ People are afraid of all the publicity. It is much more difficult to get into prisons now to talk to the women. Maybe a good solution for Gulnaz will be to leave the country. But how many women can we take out of Afghanistan? The problem is not in the law, it is in the society. It will take generations to change.”

Related Stories