Hizbullah Khan in Kabul relates the harrowing story of a woman who has been widowed three times by war in Afghanistan and what it means for her life now.
Sitting in her first marital room, looking down at a picture from her childhood, an anguished Marzia Umeed* remembers her happy life before marriage. She doesn’t remember crying and tears in her former, single life, but now there is grief etched in her face, and fear in her large eyes, for she has been widowed three times at the age of 24.
The story of Umeed is a tale of war and culture. Kunduz is the Taliban stronghold and the most violent province of Afghanistan, where many women have lost husbands between the fighting of the Afghan army and the Taliban.
Marzia suffered tragedy at an early age. When she first secured a position in the matriculation exam in 2010, she decided to become a politician with the aim to achieve equal rights for women in Kunduz, and was preparing for the struggle ahead. But she did not know that her father had already promised her to the parents of a boy for her engagement when she was just three years old.
“There is a tradition in rural Afghanistan, especially in the Pashtun community, that when a woman loses a husband, she must marry one of her brothers-in-law or cousins-in-law as their first or second wife”
At age 16, she was married to Atta Ullah*, who worked in a store in Kunduz Province. She was pregnant with their son when her husband was killed in a roadside bomb coming home at night in 2012. Her son was born one month after her husband’s death. She was widowed for the first time at just 17 years old.
There is a tradition in rural Afghanistan, especially in the Pashtun community, that when a woman loses a husband, she must marry one of her brothers-in-law or cousins-in-law as their first or second wife. Widows cannot refuse, as tradition gives them no other choice about their own future. Umeed married one of Atta Ullah’s cousins, Asmat Haqyar*. It was her father-in-law’s decision.
A fortunate few widows get the opportunity to marry unmarried brothers and cousins of the deceased, however most remarry and become a second wife, no matter what the age difference is between the two. Sometimes the war widows become a third wife of their new husband as two marriages are common in rural Afghanistan. However, after only months of marriage, he left to join the conflict, and returned home in a draped coffin just a few weeks later.
Months after Haqyar’s death, Saif Wahdat*, 45 years old and Umeed’s last surviving brother-in-law, married her as his second wife. Unfortunately, Wahdat was also killed, in a Taliban attack.
Besides the immense toll of the tragedies, the now upsetting situation for Umeed is that she will have to spend all her life with her first husband’s six-year-old son, living in her father-in-law’s home. She doesn’t have a choice to go back to her own parents’ home or marry again and spend her life like other women of her young age – which is her desire – as culturally, it is understood to be a dishonour to late husbands when widows who have children leave the late husband’s home and marry outside of their husband’s family. Umeed’s father also doesn’t have a right to bring her home again.
“I tried a lot but failed to get permission from my father-in-law,” Umeed says. “A life without a man is very difficult in a society where women cannot go out from homes for the necessities of life,” she said. “I am not only living in an inhuman atmosphere from war, but outdated traditions are also in contrast with my basic rights and deprived me of human life.”
Marriage traditions dominated her life, but now another prevalent norm is a major issue she must face: the negative behaviour of the relatives and villagers.
It is believed that if anything unlucky occurs in the husband’s family within a year or two after the wedding, it is due to the bride and the misfortune she has brought to the family. Such a concept can also lead to violence and bigotry against young widows. Past reports from the country have revealed that brides have been divorced due to this superstition.
“This is not only an issue for Umeed; 2.5 million Afghan widows face the same difficulties on a daily basis from this custom, but until now no legislature has tried to resolve this problem by parliament. The jirga, (a tribal court) in Afghanistan has also ignored it so far.”
The situation is even harsh for for Umeed since three husbands from the same family were killed in less than five years. Now she faces the anguish of not only rejection from the family, but also the whole village has blamed her, believing that the tragedies occurred owing to her bad luck.
“I wish I had died – now I am dying every day, women taunting me and talking about my unluckiness,” she said. “Instead of sharing sympathies, the people hate me.”
This is not only an issue for Umeed; 2.5 million Afghan widows face the same difficulties on a daily basis from this custom, but until now no legislature has tried to resolve this problem by parliament. The jirga, (a tribal court) in Afghanistan has also ignored it so far.
“I suffered a lot because of terrorism but now forever, I have to face harsh troubles everyday due to this custom,” she said. “I am the worst victim of the Afghan war.”
Now she is seen as a very strange woman in her village where nobody understands her fear and pain. One of the most problematic issues for her is a sense of isolation. Umeed’s relatives don’t like to sit and talk with her, and she cannot share her feelings with others as she faces the humiliation of being accused of acting.
“My life has been devastated, now it should be my right to share sorrows and cries. My tears ought to be honoured,” she added. “I am not just a widow; my three husbands have been killed. And I am a woman who doesn’t have any name.”
After losing her husbands, one of the happiest days for Umeed was when she met an older widow in her village and made a friend, her only friend in the village with whom she meets every week or two.
“She is the only woman who understand my worries because we both are suffering the same issues,” she said. “We meet to express our sorrows, anger, and loneliness with each other and it diminishes the burden to our hearts and mental anxiety.”
Umeed doesn’t have hopes for a better future except one. “Now my only desire is that I do not want my son to be killed in an incident. He is my last hope. He is my life”
*Names and some details have been changed to protect identities.