MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan — The first women's shelter in Afghanistan rises obliquely above the smog-choked orchards on the southwestern edge of the city, trimmed in a mother-of-pearl veil of almond blooms: the abraded pre-Islamic ruins of Qaleh-e-Chel Dokhtaran, the Castle of Forty Maidens.
When Genghis Khan's horde laid waste to the kingdom of Balkh, a legend tells, 40 young Bactrian virgins sought refuge within the fort's thick crenelated walls of clay and mud brick. For 40 days and nights in the castle's endless enfilades of vaulted chambers the women prayed that they be killed rather than raped by the Mongol conqueror's mounted legions.
The latest invasion to roll across these ancient plains has resulted, to a degree, in a tentative attempt to ease the Afghan women's dole. Since 2001, international organizations, private donors, and Western governments have funded more than a dozen safe houses to shelter women and girls from sexual violence, physical abuse, forced marriages, and honor killings. One of the shelters is not too far from Chel Dokhtaran, operated by a Mazar-e-Sharif nonprofit that has provided legal assistance and refuge to more than 700 women since the safe house opened in 2007.
For more than a year, the shelter has granted asylum to Hakima, a moon-faced girl who cracks her pale fingers incessantly when she speaks to strangers. Hakima's father, a day laborer, had given her away as baad -- a type of compensation for debt or crimes in which a girl is handed over to the family of the aggrieved as a bride, a tradition that Human Rights Watch has called "one of the most abusive customary practices in Afghanistan." In return, Hakima's street vendor husband forgave her father a debt of about $700. She was 13 years old.
The beatings began a month after the wedding. Hakima's husband whipped her with power cables, beat her, kicked her. Each morning he would lock her in the house, and when he returned from work he would beat her some more. After a year of abuse, she ran away, first to her uncle's house, then to her sister's. For a few nights, she squatted at a mosque. The shelter's lawyers are now working to secure her divorce.
But changes to traditional ways do not root easily in Afghanistan's hardscrabble, biblical soil. The concept of women's emancipation arouses suspicions here; the very expression "free woman" -- khanum free, the adjective transliterated from the English -- is a post-2001 neologism that means a loose woman, a prostitute. Some say the shelters' mere existence undermines family values and encourages women to leave home. Some say the safe houses are brothels in disguise.
This year, the government in Kabul drafted a new set of rules that, if approved, will require the women who seek refuge to justify their flight from home before an eight-member government panel, which then will determine whether they should remain at the shelter, be sent to jail, or be ordered back home to face more violence or even death for having escaped. The rules appear to be an effort to appease the most conservative Afghans as the government tries to negotiate a peace deal with the conservative Taliban insurgency -- a collective baad of sorts.