Thousands of Afghan women are at risk as the Taliban cancel their divorces, experts say

Taliban law has annulled thousands of divorces, experts say, and many remarried women are now considered adulterers

Thousands of Afghan women who were granted divorces without their husbands’ consent under the previous government are now at risk under Taliban rule. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)


KABUL – After her stepfather sold her into marriage at the age of 13 to support his drug habit, the young Afghan woman struggled for years to escape an abusive husband. He eventually left home, secured a divorce and remarried, she recalls.

Now, under the rule of the Taliban, she is suddenly on the run again, at risk of imprisonment for adultery.

Under the previous government, this woman from western Afghanistan could get a divorce by testifying that her first husband was physically abusive, even though she refused to appear before a judge. But under the Taliban’s draconian interpretation of Islamic law, her divorce is invalid and, therefore, her second marriage.

Former judges and lawyers estimate that thousands of Afghan women who previously secured divorces without their husbands’ consent are now at risk under Taliban rule, facing possible imprisonment and violent reprisals.

“Unilateral” divorces under the previous government were largely granted to women trying to escape abusive or drug-addicted husbands, according to former judges and lawyers. Since the collapse of that government in 2021, power has shifted in favor of divorced spouses, especially those with ties to the Taliban.

Changes to the country’s marriage laws are another tragic example of how the Taliban have stripped women of their rights. Taliban rule has also severely limited their access to education and work, banned them from public parks and enforced ultra-conservative women’s dress.

“I was living a new life – I was happy. I thought I was safe from mine [first] husband; I didn’t think I would go into hiding again,” said the woman from western Afghanistan, speaking on condition of anonymity, like all the women interviewed for this article, to protect her safety.

The woman, originally from a rural area, had been living safely in an urban area for several years. But when the previous government was toppled, the legal system and security forces that had once shielded it fell apart overnight.

The woman, now 22, said she began receiving threatening calls from her ex-husband a few weeks after the Taliban took over. He told her that he had informed the Taliban members in her home village about what he had done and that they were helping him find her and get revenge.

Last year, her second husband left her, fearing that he could also be charged with adultery because their marriage was no longer considered valid. She was left behind with her two young daughters from her first marriage and four months pregnant with his child. “I didn’t hear from him again,” he said.

Her neighbors began asking questions about her husband’s whereabouts, and Taliban security forces regularly conducted house-to-house searches. So, she said, she fled with her daughters to another area. Since then, she has moved four times and hasn’t seen the rest of her family, fearing a visit could help her ex-husband track her down.

“When I’m too afraid to leave the house, I send my daughters to the bakery to beg for stale bread so we can have something to eat,” she said.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declined to answer questions about how divorce laws have changed under the Taliban or the status of divorces granted under Afghanistan’s previous government.

But Mujahid said both parties must appear before a judge to seek a divorce under the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law.

Afghanistan’s deeply conservative society made it difficult for women to secure a divorce even under the previous government. Especially in rural areas, it is rare for women to live outside a traditional family unit.

Despite social and family pressure, a 36-year-old woman said her marriage was so abusive that she felt she had no choice but to seek a divorce. “It was a shame for me to ask for a divorce,” she said. “Both sides of my family threatened to kill me if I didn’t return to my husband.”

After her divorce was granted, she contacted her siblings to see if she could return to their family home. They refused to help. “They said the only option is to take rat poison and kill yourself,” he said.

The only family member she still keeps in touch with is her sister, whose husband also beats her. “He said to me: ‘I wish I had been as clever as you and had escaped before, but now [under the Taliban] that is impossible,” he said.

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Another woman, a mother of three, recalled that her first husband was a drug addict, beat her and refused to provide her and her children with enough food. After running away from him, she was arrested and imprisoned for nearly a year, she said, for running away from her home. Her husband’s family took her sons and daughter away from her.

Later, she said, she was taken to a women’s shelter and kept in a windowless room for several more years. “It felt like a second prison,” he said. She was only able to leave the shelter after she got divorced and remarried. There was no other way to support herself and her children, she explained.

Her second husband was kind and provided her with a home and food, she said. But after the Taliban took over, she began receiving threats from her ex-husband’s family.

Her new husband disappeared. “At first he was calling and sending me money, but now it’s been months and I haven’t heard from him,” she said. Like the other women interviewed for this article, she said she has gone into hiding.

“All I wanted was to educate my children, but now I can’t even send them to school,” she said, fearing that the local authorities would inform her if they found out about her past.

Under the Taliban, local aid groups that provided shelter and counseling to women trying to escape abusive relationships have been shut down. A psychologist said security forces closed her practice after accusing her and her colleagues of organizing protests against Taliban rule.

Proving domestic abuse has also become more difficult. “Under the new law, women must first go to the police station and provide multiple witnesses to prove abuse or if their husband is a drug addict,” he said. But in spousal abuse cases, there are often no witnesses because the crime happens behind closed doors.

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The Taliban have also barred women from many jobs in the judicial system — including positions as judges, their spokesman confirmed to The Post — a move lawyers say will make it harder for women to seek legal help.

A female lawyer said that women often asked her to handle their cases because they did not feel comfortable discussing intimate details of their marriage with a man. She had practiced law for more than five years, handling criminal and family law cases before the Taliban took over and barred her from going to work. He said he feared domestic violence would increase further as Afghanistan’s economic situation worsened.

“I think now fewer women will come,” she said. “More will remain in bad situations and more will die from domestic violence.”

This lawyer has gone into hiding after receiving threatening phone calls from people she has previously helped convict of crimes.

“The Taliban have created the perfect situation for men seeking revenge,” he said. “Courts have lost their effectiveness and instead we see in the news that they are taking women [public] lashes for adultery”.

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