The sixth in a series of posts that portray the complex journeys of individual asylum seekers who come to Asylos. 

by Julia Z. Pohl and Olivia Baskerville

Arranged marriage is a relatively common occurrence in conservative parts of Afghanistan. They are an opportunity for families to form alliances, using marriage to solidify alliances and maintain fruitful relationships. These women are rarely given choice or control over their future, and defiance of familial authority is often seen as a breach of family honour. So when L, a young woman from a rural province, made the mistake of falling in love, things turned ugly very quickly. Despite the threats her family issued to her and the young man, he and L managed to pay a mullah, a local cleric, to marry them in secret. But such marriages rarely stay secret forever, and when her family found out L had defied their plans and taken control of her future, their threats turned increasingly violent. Afraid for her life, L was forced to flee the country to escape domestic violence, coercive control, and possibly even death.

 

Betrayed and alone in Belgium 

L’s older brother was living in the Netherlands, so leaving behind her friends, loved ones, and belongings, L set out on a long journey hoping to find shelter and protection with him. But when he learned about L’s marriage, her brother made clear that he was unwilling to support his sister and threatened to send her back to Afghanistan to face the wrath and anger of her family. Devastated and scared by her brother’s betrayal, L fled to nearby Belgium, desperate for a place of safety. What she did not know at the time was that under the Dublin Regulation the Belgian authorities had no obligation to process her asylum application. The Dublin Regulation stipulates that refugees must claim asylum in the first European country they arrive. Because L had first made for the Netherlands her asylum application was denied outright. At this point, she was traumatized by her experience, terrified of the prospect of having to return to her brother or Afghanistan and distressed by the isolation from her husband. Filled with fear and loneliness, L made use of the legal aid available to her, and found a lawyer to appeal the decision. 

Punishment for unsanctioned marriages can go as far as honour killings 

During L’s initial interview with the Belgian protection officer, it had become clear that the authorities knew little about the possibly dangerous consequences in Afghanistan for women who defied tradition and chose their own spouse. Due to the lack of available information, the asylum officer decided that L’s fear of retribution would not prevent her from safely returning to her family either in the Netherlands or, subsequently, Afghanistan itself. But L knew otherwise, and with no other way to prove her story, her lawyer turned to Asylos for help. We were asked to investigate the frequency of unsanctioned marriages in Afghanistan and any social consequences faced by women who had defied their families before L and married out of love rather than social convention.

 

Researching social stigma

Our report found that stories like L’s are prevalent in Afghanistan but severely underreported. A newly-produced interview source and several media reports showed that the social pressure on young women to conform to what is seen as family duty is extreme, leaving women only two choices: to conform or to elope. Media reports confirmed that those couples who do marry for love against their families face heavy stigmatisation by family and society, and can even face criminal charges, often pushing them into poverty and even going as far as honour killings in some particularly rural regions. L’s lawyer submitted these findings as evidence in the appeal in order to substantiate her client’s claim that, if returned to Afghanistan, she would face violence, abuse and possibly death at the hands of her own family. And finally, after fleeing Afghanistan, escaping her brother, and fighting for a place of safety in Belgium, L was granted refugee status. 

L’s story is particularly important because she represents those whose claim to asylum is based on their active insistence on their human rights, their willingness to blaze a trail for others. L and other women defying social tradition in Afghanistan are not passive victims of war, but activists insisting on the equality and values which European states claim to defend. Asylos was delighted that we could help L find a place of safety after her long ordeal, and help her lead the way in insisting on the women’s right to control their own future.