KABUL — When clans in Afghanistan fight over land, water or other resources, community elders form a council to mediate the conflict and prevent bloodshed. When a villager kills a member of a rival clan, for instance, this council enacts a practice called “baad” wherein it chooses a young woman from the perpetrator’s family and orders her to marry a man from the victim’s clan. In theory, the resulting bond between the two families is meant to stop further turmoil. In practice, it is the young woman who pays the price.
Khanwali Adil, 28, says it’s time to stand up against the barbaric practice. Surrounded by young activists and university students, he lives in a colorful tent in Kabul, the capital. The tent is decorated with slogans. “Women are not our concubines,” says one. “Let’s end inhumane treatment of Afghan women,” reads another.
“I knew Baad was wrong and unjust…18 months ago I launched a hunger strike for five days in protest,” says Adil, who grew up in the rural province of Paktia. “Ten years ago my family received a girl in Baad — she was only two years old — to stop a fight with another clan. It really shocked me. But my family did not support my protest. No one supported me so I left my home.”
Two of Adil’s sisters — one aged just 12 — were also given away to resolve a dispute. “What happened in my family pushed me to fight against Baad,” Adil says. “I have not seen my family for five years.”
“I don’t go near my house because my brothers are powerful warlords. They have guns and that is what they know. They have threatened me, told me to stop my protest, that it is bringing shame onto the family,” he says.
Since Adil moved to Kabul, his campaign has received the support of civil society activists.
“When Mr. Adil’s tent was taken by the police in Paktia province and he decided to come to Kabul we supported him and made a tent for him so that he could continue his protest, and it is still here,” says activist Nasrullah Safa. “We fully support him. He is protesting to defend women in the right way.”
Adil says he is embarking on a non-violent struggle to bring about change to a region marred by violence and regressive cultural practices that often target weak and vulnerable groups such as women.
Tofan Mangal, an activist, says there are many traditions in the country that are not Islamic or human. Adil’s fight, he says, is a fight for all Afghans. So far, Adil’s protest has shown some results.
“First, my family returned the girl they had received as Baad 10 years ago. In Paktia province that was the first time that had happened. Second, the Afghan Ulamas council for the first time declared Baad non-Islamic. And third, my protest is an achievement for all people in this country now. Women and men can follow my way and stand up against Baad,” Adil says.
Zeba Haidry, of the Afghan human rights commission, says there is growing awareness that Baad is an inhuman practice. “Compared to the first six months of last year, the numbers of Baad weddings decreased this year,” she says. “The main reason is more public awareness and the declaration from the ulamas. Before the ulamas were silent. But after Adil’s protest they also declared Baad a crime.”
It’s not unusual for a Baad bride to be in her early teens or younger, and for the groom to be 50 to 60 years old. There are no official statistics on the number of Baad marriages. Many people in remote areas of Afghanistan still support it.
“I hope my sister or daughter never have to pay (the cost of crime). But sometimes when you want to stop more murders and fights between two families or tribes, one person should sacrifice to stop it. That is why I say Baad tradition is good,” says Ahmad Shekeb, a 20-year-old university student in Kabul.
Adil says that girls forced into Baad never live as somebody's wife. They live like slaves to the whole family, he says. Adil has vowed to continue his protest until the practice ends in Afghanistan.