What kind of crimes are women accused of committing as part of Afghanistan’s Zina laws, and what are the punishments?

 There are two main acts treated as ‘moral crimes’ in Afghanistan. The first is ‘running away’ which is when a girl or women flees her home against the will of her father or husband. Running away is not a crime under the Afghan penal code but the Supreme Court of Afghanistan has instructed its judges that they should treat it as one. The second main ‘moral crime’ in Afghanistan is Zina, which is sex outside of marriage. Zina is a crime under the Afghan Penal Code and is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

How does the Afghan legal system disadvantage women who are accused of moral crimes?

The Afghan legal system is biased and heavily stacked against women at every stage. An accusation from a man seems to almost always be enough for a woman to be arrested. Statements are taken from women who are alone in police stations without a lawyer or even a friend, signed (with a thumbprint) by women who cannot read. Invasive ‘virginity tests’ which have no medical validity are routinely administered and treated as valid evidence. In one case, even a letter from a woman’s husband saying that she was disobedient was treated as evidence by the court.

The defence of women’s rights was a major justification for the invasion of Afghanistan. How has the presence of NATO troops changed the situation for women?

There has been important progress. Several million more girls go to school now than did in 2001. Maternal mortality has been falling steadily, and life expectancy has increased dramatically. About 28% of the elected house of the Afghan parliament is women. There are female police officers, prosecutors, defence attorneys, judges, civil servants and even two female ministers. But overall, progress has been less forthcoming than that which women had a right to expect in the heady days after the fall of the Taliban. Worst of all, the progress that has been made is terribly fragile and could disappear within a few years, if the international community walks away entirely from Afghanistan.

What restrictions do women still face in everyday life?

Segregation of the sexes in Afghanistan is extreme. In many families, especially in rural areas, women are not permitted to leave the house at all, or at least not without a male chaperone. A large proportion of families will not permit women to work outside the home where they might come into contact with strange men. Many women still wear the burka, and all women have to wear concealing clothing and head scarves. Forced marriage is the reality for most women, and underage marriage is still very common.

What would you say are the forces behind the Karzai government that are keeping the system of moral crimes in place? President Karzai has always faced a difficult balancing act of maintaining good relations with the international partners he relies on for military assistance, while also partnering with powerbrokers in Afghan society. As the international community increasingly appears ready to turn its back on Afghanistan, Karzai’s calculus about the relative importance of these partners is shifting and it becomes less and less important for him to be seen to care about women’s rights.

Kenneth Roth is the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch