Moral Crimes, Afghan Justice, and a Small Town in Ohio

I am sure that they will try to kill her again. If her brother did this and they did not put him in jail, why would he have changed? And maybe he will even feel more strongly.
– Hassina Nekzad of Women for Afghan Women

In December, I wrote about Gul Meena, an Afghan girl who ran away from home with a man who was not her husband and survived an attempted honor killing – thanks in large part to the support of villagers and medical personnel in conservative eastern Afghanistan. Finally, we have an update on her story – complete with an incredible photo of her head and face, scarred by ax blows but still held together. Her survival is inspiring. But her story is also a challenge to those of us who believe in putting public pressure on the justice system to do the right thing.

Gul Meena’s story broke at around the same time that the Steubenville, Ohio rape case hit the national media and the whole world learned the horrifying story of a rape in New Delhi. I had just written about a teenage girl who took to Twitter for revenge after the courts let off two boys who sexually assaulted her. In all three cases, thousands of people like me are concerned that the courts will not do their jobs. We contend that these cases are about more than just the individuals at stake; their outcomes will determine whether sexual assault is taken seriously by the courts and therefore by our society. We worry that not punishing these criminals does more than just let dangerous men go free – it endorses a culture that blames victims, not perpetrators, for assault. In other words, our worries are strikingly similar to those of the Pashtun villagers mentioned in the Times’ original article.

While Gul Meena has survived for now, she remains in danger of what an American would call vigilante justice and what many Afghans would call reality. Tribal law and the court of public opinion could yet decide that her “moral crime” merits the punishment her brother tried to inflict, and if she goes home, the justice system can do little to protect her. Her best hope would be a trial of both her and her brother for their separate crimes. While the entire category of “moral crimes” is about as acceptable to women’s rights advocates as blaming a female rape victim for getting drunk, it’s the reality of Afghan law and the reason I was furious over criticism of western Afghanistan’s chief prosecutor, Maria Bashir that was published in the Times last month.

After all, Bashir’s effectiveness as a woman is directly tied to her performance as prosecutor. A respected advocate for Afghan women and winner of the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage award, Bashir has been a powerful force for fighting corruption and establishing rule of law in Herat Province. In a country where the formal justice system is often trumped by commonly held ideas about sharia and tribal law, Bashir’s prosecution record – including for adultery, which is a crime under Afghan law – is outstanding. In the article, she is quoted as saying, “I want to be an enforcer of the law rather than human rights.”

While it may pain Bashir to prosecute these women, she’s taking the long view. It’s the wise one. A functioning justice system that entitles any citizen to a fair trial under existing law is humanity’s best solution to the vexing problem of crime. While some Americans still yearn for the Wild West, I am willing to bet that most women recognize they are safer inside a justice system than outside of it.

That’s why today’s news out of Steubenville is actually heartening. One of the lawyers for the two small-town football players accused of rape has requested a delay, a change of venue, and a closed trial. When I think about this case, a moral crime if ever there was one, I feel angry. I worry that the courts will find some absurd reason to let these boys go, silencing present and future victims of sexual assault who may lose their faith in justice as a result. But the only way to ensure justice in the long run is to give the accused a fair trial.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can do as so many Afghans have done for Gul Meena: support victims, even when that means risking our reputations on their behalf; advocate for necessary changes in our laws and our cultures; and hold the justice system accountable – not to our personal consciences, but to the law.