Rezaie stood before the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission building, protesting violence against women and the acid attacks she and others feared. That day, Nafisa Nouri, a wife and mother of two girls, was hospitalized after an attack. Nouri’s 7-year-old daughter Parinaz and another female relative of the family also suffered burns to their bodies and face from the acid.
Mobilzed by her anger, Rezaie rapped against the government’s weak response to violence against women. “I went to visit the acid victims in the hospital to tell them I feel their pain,” Rezaie told Women in the World. “Then I decided to demonstrate … because the rest of the world seems to have forgotten about us.”
The 22-year-old joined the chorus of women activists who have been warning of an abandoned international campaign to curb violence against women in her country after the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban in 2001. Afghan women say they can no longer depend on outsiders or the Afghan government to help them. They can leave the country — thousands have escaped — or find ways to defend and protect themselves. Some women say their goal is rarely about gaining rights but staying alive and healthy amid rapidly deteriorating security, that is allowing heinous methods of violence such as acid attacks — which the Mujahideen spearheaded — to re-emerge.
Hizb-e-Islami, a former Mujahideen faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who the Afghan government recently welcomed as foe-turned-partner, threw acid on women wearing Western dress four decades ago. In 2008 in Kandahar, and last year in Herat, men on motorcycles used squirt guns to spray acid on schoolgirls in protest of education for females. The crime is more common in Pakistan and India than Afghanistan.
Women’s rights advocates say assaults in public in urban centers have become bolder in the last two years. But many of the recent attacks in the capital seem to involve personal rather than political motives, said Gholam Dastagir of Kabul police. In Kabul, at least three separate acid attacks against women were reported just in July, according to local Afghan news reports. The aim of attackers may be to punish women who might refuse a suitor, or insist on going to school or want a divorce. Families may not report the attack fearful of gossip and isolation.
Nouri, the acid victim, told Women in the World from the hospital that she was walking home with her family after visiting her brother for Eid when a man threw a bottle of acid at them from behind. The chemical poured down her face, disfiguring her and endangering her eyesight and hearing. She said she didn’t know why anyone would attack her.
She cries from the pain and said she can still smell the acid on her face. “I can’t breathe well. I have burns inside my throat. I still have nightmares about what happened, and I’m tired of being blamed for what happened to me,” Nouri, 27, said on the phone.
This attack and other incidents of reported rising violence in Kabul in the last year have created an atmosphere of heightened fear, activists from Women for Afghan Women and Women for Women International say. Neighbors and relatives often blame women for inciting the attacks instead of demanding justice, victims say.
The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission reported a seven percent rise in violent assaults against women — from 1,394 to 2,579 — in the last two years in Afghanistan. But these statistics can mean that women are more empowered to report violence, not necessarily that the number of incidents are growing, said Horia Mosadiq, Afghanistan’s researcher for Amnesty International. “We know for sure that there’s more fear,” Mosadiq said. “But some of the systemic use of violence and attacks against women’s rights activists and women in public offices by Taliban have always been our concern.”
The Taliban have claimed responsibility for numerous assassinations of women across Afghanistan in their fight against the Western-backed Afghan government, although the hardline group has denied attacking women with acid.
That fear is disrupting women’s already limited freedoms in Kabul, said activist Frozan Marofi, who travels to dangerous parts of the country to meet with women and discuss economic and health empowerment. She receives frequent anonymous death threats on the phone and was rescued by male neighbors as two men threw punches at her on the street near her home a year ago.
Marofi said women in Kabul are changing their daily routine to protect themselves. Students and professionals who enjoyed a relatively urban lifestyle stay indoors more often, some have stopped wearing makeup, cover their faces and wear full body veils. They no longer take taxis in the dark or stroll in the evening, and some say they have a hard time even trusting co-workers and classmates.
“Girls are killed, then thrown in a creek, brothers burn sisters, infant girls are murdered,” Marofi said. “There’s no accountability, no follow-up of what happened from the police or media. This just creates fear and worry.”
Marofi said women’s rights are on the back burner for Afghanistan’s international supporters. While Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his wife Rula stand firmly for gender equality, the lower ranks in law enforcement and the judiciary don’t consider violence against women a serious crime, she said. Even when culprits are arrested, they pay bribes and are either freed or receive light sentences.
Yet women in Kabul continue to work, go to school and some, like Rezaie, confront the violence. Two dozen demonstrators joined Rezaie holding signs that said “Where’s my face” and “My sin is not being a woman.”
But two weeks after the acid attacks, Nouri complained that no one had been arrested for the crime that has her screaming in agony still. She borrowed $10,000 from friends and relatives to receive treatment in India where she is now soon to undergo surgery.
Manizha Naderi Parand of Women for Afghan Women, a New-York based nonprofit with women’s shelters in Afghanistan, said one way to tackle the apathy is to protest like Rezaie. But Afghan women need more allies, including men.
“Demonstrations are great. But they have to be much larger and systematic than this,” Parand said. “The problem is people don’t feel safe enough … people are afraid of bombings.”
Rezaie said her protest with a symbolic bandaged face probably didn’t have much of an effect, but she had to do something to fight the violence.
“Last year, I had more peace. It’s getting worse every year. This year, I’m afraid every day,” she said.