Child Brides in Afghanistan

By Molly Lower

On November 19, Women’s Voices Now co-hosted with the International MA in Middle Eastern Studies program at Tel Aviv University a screening and group discussion on child marriage in Afghanistan. As part of an international gender-based violence awareness campaign, the screening sought to inform this year’s students about the complicated causes and ramifications of child marriage. The two films shown were “Half Value Life” and “Male and Female,” first- and second-place winners, respectively, from WVN’s 2011 film festival that also touch on the theme of WVN’s upcoming film festival, Women Bought and Sold: Voices United Against Violence.

 “Half Value Life” follows the work of Marya Bashir, a female public prosecutor working in Herat province of Afghanistan, as she hears cases of domestic abuse from child brides seeking to prosecute their husbands. “Male and Female” is a humorous animated short portraying the pressure women face to bear sons to their husbands, and the perception that a woman’s societal value is intertwined with her reproductive abilities. Attendees were asked to prepare for the screening by reading the March 2013 issue of The WVoice on the division between religious law and cultural practice regarding the mahr, or bride price, in Afghanistan.

The students’ audible reactions to the gruesome images of domestic abuse in “Half Value Life” were a harbinger of the emotional and vibrant discussion that was to follow. The collective sense of injustice was palpable in the room as we picked apart the supportive structures that enable and perpetuate child marriage in Afghanistan. Both civil and religious law are recognized in the country, creating a tension between the Shari‘a requirement that a girl reach puberty before marriage and the civil law that recognizes age 16 as the legal minimum marriage age for women. In practice, the legal marriage age for women is widely disregarded, and girls are pulled from their families and denied further access to education to be wed and/or sold.

While some parents sell their daughters into marriage to pay off a debt, most in Afghanistan nevertheless benefit from the income that the mahr provides. However, the cultural understanding of the mahr contradicts its original intent in Shari‘a law. In Islam, the mahr was intended to be a short-term financial safety net for a bride; a sum of money that she herself would receive upon marriage to ensure her well-being should the marriage fail. In Afghanistan today, the mahr is given by the groom’s family to the parents of the bride, and has assumed the cachet of measuring the bride’s worth in society. Though Afghani law requires a mahr that is paid to the bride for a Muslim marriage to be valid, this law is not enforced, and Afghani custom continues to disenfranchise women.  Ironically, the poverty that often compels parents to sell their daughters into marriage, independent of a mahr, often deprives the daughter of further access to education, which could allow her not only to enhance her personal well-being but also to challenge such widespread misconceptions as the ones that perpetuate the modern practice of mahr in Afghanistan

The effects of child marriage are widely recognized as negative, with male religious leaders claiming some positive outcomes. Of the few cited benefits of child marriage are the girl’s protection from illegal behavior such as prostitution, the girl’s increased economic status, and a greater amount of time to bear children and enjoy their company. The negative implications of child marriage are more numerous and pervasive. In addition to destroying further educational opportunities, child marriage places undue emotional and physical stress on the girl. Not only does she lose parental influence and support very early in life, she is asked to take on domestic chores and to care for children (either hers or her husband’s from a previous marriage). Aside from the enormous responsibility of childcare, the physical stress that pregnancy and childbirth places on a girl’s body threatens her health, sometimes leading to infertility and maternal mortality. Also, many girls are often domestically abused by their husbands, and may be murdered in an honor killing if they attempt to run away. Some commit suicide.

As with all dissections of social injustice, the conversation eventually settled on the unavoidable question: “So what?” Yes, we have informed ourselves about child marriage in Afghanistan. Yes, we have carved out time in our day to talk about it, show our outrage, shake our heads in disbelief. But what do we do about it? The most common answer I hear, and provide, is to raise awareness. The more people know about this violation of human rights, the greater the momentum of change. And I fully agree with this assessment—I would not have hosted this screening if I did not believe that raising awareness about issues of social injustice had immeasurable and far-reaching positive effects. But when I watch these films, or hear stories from the audience about government directives to not interfere in tribal affairs to the point of witnessing two women hanged, I feel furious and powerless. Change takes time, especially when it is culture that must change. But I am not a patient person, and in matters of human rights, I don’t count patience as a virtue. I hope you will take the time to learn about child marriage in Afghanistan—there’s no time like the present.


Women’s Commission of the Eğetim Sen-Kadiköy Branch

An Evening with the Women’s Commission of the Eğetim Sen-Kadiköy Branch

By Heidi Basch-Harod

Getting off the ferry at the Kadiköy Station on the Asian side of Istanbul, we went in search of a building 50 meters from the Deniz Hotel, looking for a sign with the acronym KESK. Distracted from the smells of roasting meats and vegetables, perfumeries selling orange-scented fragrances, and throngs of people shopping and socializing on this early Friday evening, we managed to focus enough to find our destination point: the Public Labor Union Confederation, where a group of women from the Eğetim Sen’s Women’s Commission- Kadiköy Branch, a teacher’s union with a leftward political leaning (as we came to understand), was expecting us.


Tas, Elyse, and Heidi, on the way to the Asian side of Istanbul.

The most rewarding experiences of the WVN Global Tours are the impromptu meetings that take place once we actually are on the ground. Indeed a women’s organization, coming from the Unites States, is often met with a bit of skepticism by the women that we really are trying to reach. Starting in the university setting, however, gives us the entrée we need to be granted the opportunity to meet with smaller groups of women organizing, working, or cooperating at the grassroots level to improve the status of women. So, with the circulation of our joint programming with Sabancı and Marmara Universities – opportunities, thankfully, arose.


Dilşa Deniz, academic, activist, author of an anthropological study of ancient symbols of faith in her hometown, Dersim/Tunceli.

This particular last-minute screening also came through a personal connection. While conducting research on my master’s thesis focusing on the changing roles of Kurdish women in Turkey since the 1980s, a woman by the name of Dilşa Deniz responded to my query for interviewees from the Kurdish Studies Google group. Dilşa is a founding editor of, and contributor to Kurdish feminist journals that enjoyed a few years of publication from the mid-late 1990s to the early 2000s. She provided me with a wealth of insight into the formulation of a specifically Kurdish women’s feminist consciousness, discourse, and perspective over the past two decades in Turkey- invaluable information for a student of Middle Eastern History located far away from the place and women about which she was writing. I never thought I would actually get to meet Dilşa in person. When the dates and details were confirmed for the global tour visit to Istanbul, though, I once again reached out to Dilşa to see if she was available to meet.


Women protesting against police-perpetrated sexual abuse during the summer Gezi Park protests.

As we were sitting on a rooftop café, we heard a group of women shouting in unison, their voices growing louder and louder as the moments passed. The women were marching in protest against sexual violence committed by police officers during the summer Gezi protests. Apparently, police conducted public strip searches and other inappropriate methods of intimidation that specifically targeted women by sexually harassing them. Dilşa had intended to march side-by-side with these women but met me instead. Of course, I was grateful both for her presence and a translator who could inform me about the cause of the protest and translate the shouts of the women demonstrating.

Dilşa made a number of calls to her friends in the Teacher’s Union, gauging interest in a WVN screening. After a few calls back and forth, she confirmed that a group of 7 women would meet with us to discuss the films and ways to cooperate in the future. So there we were, walking up the spiraling staircase to the 4th floor to meet a small group of women from the Egitim Sen.


Women of Eğetim Sen-Kadiköy Branch accepting our small gifts of WVN Tote Bags.

We were greeted with tea and snacks and warm smiles of welcome. We conducted an equipment check and explained our work a bit more, introduced Süleyman Şanlı, our last-minute interpreter, and by 7:30 we began our program.

Similar to our first audience at Marmara, In the Morning received some strong criticism for the lack of women’s voices in it, and for presenting something of which these women claimed Turkish society is quite aware. There was also a comment that the film made it seem as though honor killings occur only in rural, Kurdish communities, and this is an inaccurate portrayal of the widespread incidence of honor killings. In fact, honor killings are happening in Diaspora communities as well, in Europe, in the United States. These women also shared an upsetting statistic that, each day, five women are killed by a man in Turkey. But instead of focusing on the shortcomings of the film, we were able to steer the conversation in the direction of learning what exactly is being done to address the incidence of honor killings in Turkish society and whether or not there is progress in reducing this unfortunate reality that afflicts all women of Turkish society.

As we suspected, while awareness is high and there is a discourse on honor killings, the government, neither at the national nor the local levels, have invested anywhere near enough resources into attending to the matter. Also, while reform to the Turkish Penal Code has seen some reform to make honor crimes easier to prosecute and punish, this has not served as a disincentive to perpetrators, and, very often, judges will still carry out sentences that “favor” the perpetrator. Basically, this means that prevention, emergency assistance, and education against honor killings fall upon civil society, local initiatives, and NGOs. While such entities and institutions are on the rise and gaining legitimacy within society, they are too far and few to make the impact they would like to make. Furthermore, it appears that honor killings are on the rise. Whether or not that is the case or it is because honor killings are now being reported more frequently, the point is, there is a long road ahead to ending this form of violence against women in Turkey. Also, according to them, while women are making their voice heard against honor killings, there are few men involved in any of these campaigns, in a prominent way, just yet.


We then asked the teachers if they felt it an obligation to bring up the social reality of honor killings to their students. Each woman present taught anywhere between seventh through twelfth grade. One of the women said that she has approached individual parents when she became aware of a possible escalation in violence in the family, but that nothing organized has ever been planned. Another teacher mentioned that, indeed, since the incidence of honor killings is so widespread, she teaches a unit on honor killings in her health education class, and she uses the materials provided in a textbook to do so. To that effect, however, not all schools use the same textbooks and in communities that may teach from AKP-produced, conservative materials, a section on honor killings will not be found. Ultimately, then, it depends on the teacher and her willingness to broach this sensitive and loaded subject.


Brochures published by the Women’s Commission, including a new project raising awareness about sexual abuse of children.

Sitting with such a small group of women also afforded us the opportunity to get into a more substantive conversation about women’s rights work in Turkey. We discovered that these particular women not only focused on women’s rights but also the rights of the teacher. Teachers in Turkey are public servants. Their salaries are prohibitively low, below the poverty line in fact. They are not allowed to be members of political parties, and one woman went so far as to say, “as a teacher one is not a free citizen.” Accordingly, the teacher’s unions arose in the late-1980s and while they advocate for pay increases and other teachers’ rights, they are still not allowed to organize public events or protests against the government.

At this particular meeting, we were also introduced to the ongoing tension that exists between politically mobilized secular and religious women. With the rise of the AKP, a conservative Islamist party that is promoting what is called a neo-Ottomanist approach to governing the people of Turkey – secularism, the foundation of the Modern Republic, has come under question. For staunch secularists, this is rather threatening. For the more conservative religious factions of society, this is an exciting time. Unfortunately, often this societal divide also fractures the women’s movement, perhaps stymieing the progress that the movement could make if there was a unified (as much as possible) women’s rights coalition.

Overall though, we were left with an exciting glimpse into the dynamic activities of women’s organizations in Istanbul; an insider’s view of the many political factions, complications, and challenges that women face vis-à-vis their government, society, and even as individuals as they navigate the complexities of the multi-layered identities that they juggle as women of Turkey.



İlksen and Ece

Without the help of these passionate, reliable, and talented individuals, our global tour experience in Istanbul would not have been as fruitful, interesting, and exciting. Special thanks goes to İlksen Bostancı and Ece Budak for all of their support, assistance, and planning of the last leg of the WVN 2013 Global Tour.

In the many conversations that took place in between and on the way to meetings, İlksen and Ece were extremely generous in sharing their experiences as women in Turkey, and helping us understand the complex, multi-layered socio-political, religious, secular identities - either chosen or placed upon them and their compatriots by family, society, and the nation. Through this experience of open and honest sharing, the vehicle of Women’s Voices Now truly functions to build networks between activist women who are striving for women’s rights. When we cross the divides that the media, politics, and distance may place between us, we get a glimpse of the incredible power of women to articulate the kind of world in which we hope to build around us and articulate ways that we may be able to get there, most importantly, together. Please meet two new friends of Women’s Voices Now:

İlksen Bostancı

My name is İlksen. I live in Turkey and I am studying at Marmara University in the Department of Political Science and International Relations. I got involved in Women’s Voices Now through a friend of mine, Şevin (WVN Global Tour Coordinator), and I am really glad to be involved. Being a woman in a patriarchal society made me more sensitive about women’s issues. My desire is to raise women’s voices against social norms and taboos, because traditional norms limit women from reaching their potential in the society we live in. With organizations like WVN, I hope we can work together to express exactly what women feel when they’re repressed and how they become unable to show their full potential with the obstacles of patriarchal societies, and to show, without the boundaries around women, how creative we are.

Ece Budak

Ece Budak is a visual artist completing her master’s degree at Sabancı University, where she also teaches drawing, welding, and modern art history. She works in many mediums, most recently ink, clay, and metal. Being raised in both Canada and Turkey has given Ece a simultaneously insider/outsider perspective which is the foundation for her research in areas such as addiction, women’s issues, and urban transformation. She has worked in collaboration with independent art spaces and women’s organizations to realize her projects in Istanbul, Bursa, and Toronto. She has worked on shows at Siemens, IKSV, Haliç Congress Center, Toronto School of Art, and guided VIP groups at the Bienale and Contemporary Istanbul. She always seeks to initiate creative group activities that utilize play and participation as a medium for new social re-imagining.

Visit Ece’s website: gezispeaks.tumblr.com, where you can read about her involvement in the Gezi Park Protests that took place in May-July 2013.


War and Woman

War and Woman

Summary of the Statement given by Gülseren Tekin, Diyarbakır Women’s Assembly

(Read by İlksen Bostancı)

The coldness of war has been inside of us, hurting and smelling of blood. Over the centuries, societies have been fighting each other over land, power, and wealth. In these times of war and always, women are the ones who give birth, give life, but it is women who are killed and raped.

Is the violence of war in our genes? And the violence against women and children, the massacre, why?

No matter how much research is conducted on the issue of war, violence, and the ways in which these things especially affect women and children, we are unable to prevent it. Over time, I think we have even lost our sensitivity to these problems.

I think this because, every day, we hear or read about violence against women in the news, and we quickly pass over this information in search of other news. In fact, we are used to the kind of news reporting violence against women. We are used to news like the story that I read today, about a girl from Yemen who died because of internal bleeding after having sexual intercourse with her 40-year old husband.

Despite the many laws that are written to prevent these sorts of atrocities, girls are dying from these acts. Even more women and girls are still breathing, though, suffering through lives that do not belong to them and are ruled by those who abuse them.

When I think of the women I try to help in places like Bingöl, Mardin, and Siirt, many memories and stories of violence against women come to mind. One in particular, of a young woman, age 16, a victim with no security or recourse - raped by eight adults and still no one is convicted of the crime. What does the judge say in defense of this horrendous ignorance of the violence? What decision has been made to bring justice to this abused girl? He gives a statement that the files are confidential, classified; the investigation continues.

Everyone knows who the girl is – her name, her address. But the identities and whereabouts of the perpetrators remain classified, even her lawyer is denied access to reaching the criminals for questioning. How can the lawyer possibly pursue justice in the name of the client? How is this young girl to explain the situation in which she finds herself, over and over again, in front of her people?

There are other cases of abuse and violence against women in which religious justification condones the crime. For example, in Sakarya, where a defense lawyer cited the Prophet Muhammad and his marriages to mitigate a case of sexual abuse: “Muhammad had marriages like these,” he said, “we’re living in a Muslim country.”

Another example I offer from my work involved a woman and her child. For years this 30-year old woman sustained beatings at the hands of her husband, keeping her mouth shut for fear of even worse treatment or reprisal. She tries to continue on with her life, with raising her children. Then the school counselor reports that her daughter has become introverted, that her behavior has changed. The counselor shares with the mother that her daughter confided that the girl’s father molested her. The mother, horrified, unable to defend herself against the violence, cannot remain silent in the face of her daughter’s abuse.

The husband, threatened with exposure for his insidious behavior gathers the family together, accuses his wife of attempting to escape with a lover, and demands his wife’s death in an honor killing. The family believes the pack of lies he spreads about his wife, even when the truth was unequivocally revealed - that this man had molested his daughter – the family does not want to believe it. The verdict is given – the woman must be killed and quickly.

If we want to end this madness, society must question itself. In order to prevent this violence, women should be raised with an understanding of sexual identity and sexuality. Conservative sexual taboos need to be discarded.

Our continued discrimination against our girl children, the superiority we give to our boys, this must end. We must see each child as a human being, as an individual, we must stop differentiating between the sexes.

What I have said here is not news to anyone. We are all aware of these issues, but we can’t seem to put solutions into practice. If we don’t continue to question the causes and incidents of violence against women we do not have a bright future to look toward to, together.

If we keep our silence today, tomorrow it will already be too late.


A Disgruntled/Curious Audience, an Embarassed/Intrigued Staff

 “Where was this film made?” our translator Ece whispered. “The accent is strange…”

As the opening scene of In the Morning progressed, the serious subject matter of honor killing and rape was met with a couple of stifled laughs at the accent of the “Turkish” people in the film. We were intrigued.

On the first day of our conference at the Göztepe Campus of Marmara University (on the Asian side of Istanbul), we screened the only two short films we have from Turkey: In the Morning and Saturday Mothers of Turkey. It happens that Turkish nationals made neither film– an important detail we learned (only in hindsight) was worth mentioning before showing the films. After the films were presented and the speakers gave their presentations, we received some challenging questions and responses from the audience. One that inspired the most discussion – even amongst those of us who stuck around after the conference was over – was a critique from a journalist in attendance.

From beneath her headscarf, her eyes appeared serious; she spoke pointedly about how, as Turks, they are aware of the issues, of honor killings – but where were the voices of the women? Personally, she had come to hear something different from an organization called Women’s Voices Now. She expected to hear from the women themselves, and not be presented with films regarding the issues facing women that are already part of the Turkish discourse on women’s rights issues.

In the Morning, a film based on the 2003 murder of a young woman of Turkey who, after being raped, became pregnant and whose family delegated her younger brother to kill her to restore the family’s honor, truly does not focus on the voice of the murdered girl. Rather, it mostly tells the story of those who decided her fate – her male relatives. We immediately understood the journalist’s point. Again, she emphasized, she attended the conference to hear the voices of women, the issues she already knew. The journalist found the film lacking in complexity. Professors and audience members seemed to agree. So what was the point of presenting the film, indeed?

Yet, here was a short movie that won nine film festival awards, had screenings before members of the U.S. Congress and again before members of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

In fact, film critics in the West raved:

“Themes of horror and revenge have rarely been as brilliantly explored…a bold and important film.”
~ Daniel Wilbe, Film Threat

“COMPELLING … illustrates the issue of sexual assault without engaging in hyperbolic melodrama. … addresses critical issues that intersect with sexual assault including cultural values, sexism, family norms, the role of governments, and how the culture of violence facilitates sexual violence… an excellent educational tool. I recommend it without hesitation.”
~ Abigail Sims, Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women

“A compelling short film that demonstrates the power of short films to inform us about the plight of women around the world.”
~ Lois Vossen, Independent Lens Series, Producer & Co-curator

But, was this perhaps the first time such an acclaimed film had been screened in front of an audience of men and women of Turkey – the very people the film is supposed to represent?

The conflicting responses raised a lot of questions and fostered deep and difficult discussion – a valuable learning experience for us. How were the perspectives of our audience members and viewers in the States so different? How did this film, yes, produced in the U.S., but one that won so much recognition, not even have a recognizable Turkish accent to a Turkish audience? Why did some of the Turkish women feel that this film, which told the true story of a victim in the country, not accurately represent them, though they readily say honor killings are a continuing reality faced by women in Turkey?

As a young organization, we have much to learn from both our film submissions and the people and societies they aim to portray. As a women’s rights organization striving to accurately represent women’s voices in Muslim-majority societies, and not just what we think those voices are, or need them to be to fulfill our analysis of the Muslim World, the global tour is the most substantial way that we can get to the bottom of the disconnect. Spending a week in Turkey affords us the opportunity to have meaningful and significant exchanges with the women (and the men) of this country in which, together, we break down complex feelings, identities, perceptions, assumptions, reactions, and stereotypes about each other. Women’s voices in Muslim-majority societies - really DO differ from place to place. Acknowledging, understanding, and integrating these differences into the operations and presentations of Women’s Voices Now is absolutely crucial to our success. If we are sincerely trying to support the empowerment of women whose voices speak out for a more just, peaceful, and pleasant world for all races, religions, colors, and creeds, then we have to be honest in our evaluation of our work and really listen to what the women we meet are saying, and vice versa. In those moments of true understanding through open and honest sharing, we get a glimpse of better days to come and hope our counterparts in Turkey feel the same way too.