SHEBERGHAN, JOWZJAN PROVINCE // Juma Gul's muffled crying became noticeable only when she wiped the tears away using her burqa or slumped forward with her head in her hands. Speaking Uzbek, she described how she made the equivalent of about Dh440 by selling her baby daughter off for marriage. The girl's fiancé had memorised the Quran and his father promised that her virginity would be respected until she was an adult. The couple eventually wed four years ago, when she was eight and he was in his late twenties.
Afterwards, "during the nights she was raped and during the days she was beaten and forced into making carpets", Mrs Gul said. Desperate for help, mother and daughter have come to the offices of the Afghanistan Human Rights Organisation in Sheberghan, the capital of Jowzjan province. They are not alone. Families from across the north are arriving at the organisation's office in increasing numbers with the kind of horror stories the US-led invasion was meant to consign to history. They do not trust the government, so instead they spend money they can barely afford to spare on taxis or a bus ride, and make the journey out of hope rather than any real expectation.
Mrs Gul agreed to sell her daughter, Zulaikha, after members of the Taliban regime assaulted her husband and left him needing expensive medical care. Her sister, a widow, also advised that in a country so often wracked by violence and uncertainty, an early wedding was for the best. The girl was a year old when the deal was done. Now 12, she is mentally ill and her parents want her to be granted a divorce. Meanwhile, the family is still mired in poverty.
"I am just going to people's homes to do cleaning and wash their clothes. As a payment they give me money or food, which I can eat with my children," Mrs Gul said. Before September 11, it was the plight of Afghanistan's female population that made this country notorious in the West. Taliban rule was characterised by a series of repressive laws against women that included banning them from work and forcing them to wear a burqa when in public.
Much has changed since then, and millions of girls now attend school and are able to look forward to potential careers such as teachers and MPs. But for men and women in Jowzjan, the past eight years have also ushered in a period of criminality and fear. The powerful now do whatever they want, whether it is inside or outside the home. Maghferat Samimi runs the human rights organisation's regional office in Sheberghan. She keeps a photo album containing an image of a naked young body, burnt to the colour pink. Elsewhere, infant boys and girls stare blankly out from the pages - each one a rape victim. They are just some of the cases she has investigated.
"It's getting worse because there is no law. There are rules, but no one is following them," she said. According to Mrs Samimi, the most significant impact of the US-led invasion has been a rise in violent crime because the perpetrators know they have a good chance of getting away with almost any offence. The social restrictions imposed upon women have also continued, albeit largely unofficially. "People were 100 per cent happier under the Taliban. OK there was some fighting and people were poor, but they accepted the law," she said.
Another case shuffled quietly into the office. Taj Niaz was 12 when she married a man in his forties. Now 20, she has spent the past five years unsuccessfully trying to divorce her physically abusive husband. "If the government will not give me a divorce and he wants to cut my head off, I would rather he did that than live with him again. Or if the government wants me to jump in front of a car and commit suicide, I would also prefer to do that," she said.
Later, her mother Rahima added that life had been safer for women under the Taliban because they could at least go out after dark in those days. It has been this way for some time now. Last year the rape of an 11-year-old girl by a commander in the Afghan National Army briefly garnered some global press coverage before the media's attention again turned to the insurgent violence in the south. Jowzjan and its neighbouring provinces are relatively stable compared to much of the country, but people's anger is clearly growing and unrest is spreading as a result. That the international community and the Afghan government is losing support far away from the Taliban's heartlands should serve as a stark warning for the future.
Abdul Basir's son, aged four, was raped in the spring. The man who carried out the attack has been arrested and is awaiting sentencing. Only the toughest verdict will satisfy Mr Basir. "In the Quran and according to the hadith, if somebody rapes a four-year-old boy or girl, he should be put next to a wall and then the people will collapse it on to him," Mr Basir said. "Right now the Islamic government of Afghanistan has its own laws and he has been brought in under them. But I want President Karzai and the foreigners to listen to us and give him the worst punishment possible, which means either executing him or putting him in jail for 20 years.
"The government calls the Taliban al Qa'eda, but during the Taliban this would never have happened. If something had happened then, they would not have taken the rapist to court, they would have done exactly what the Shariat Islam says." @Email:email@example.com