National Geographic photographer Lynsey Addario says that a new Afghan law, passed by parliament and awaiting signature by President Hamid Karzai, would effectively silence victims of domestic violence.
Addario first traveled to Afghanistan 14 years ago when it was under Taliban rule and has returned every year since. Over that time, rights and protections for Afghan women have been strengthened, and many women now have access to education and jobs.
But last year, Afghanistan saw a 28 percent increase in reports of attacks against women, according to the UN, with little rise in prosecutions. And now, a small but consequential change to the criminal code could make domestic violence—already rampant in Afghanistan—nearly impossible to prosecute.
In her 2010 photo essay for National Geographic, "Veiled Rebellion," Addario bore witness to both the abuse and the progress of Afghan women.
Her photographs show women maimed by their husbands for small acts of defiance. By contrast, ebullient teachers-in-training are seen picnicking in a women's garden established by a female Afghan governor.
The groundbreaking 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) criminalized acts of child marriage, rape, and other forms of violence against women.
But laws are only as effective as their enforcement, and Addario details how the proposed new law could roll back many of the hard-won protections she's documented in recent years.
Can you tell us about this new law the Afghan parliament has passed?
Basically what it's saying is that relatives cannot testify when a woman has been assaulted or raped. Essentially what that means is that no one can testify, because a woman only sees relatives, and a woman is only seen by relatives. Often it's a family member who is perpetrating the crime, and the only other witnesses are relatives. They are the only people who would ever be privy to a woman while she was getting abused or afterwards. It's a very indirect way of saying that you can do whatever you want to the women in your family. It's essentially giving free rein to people as they'll never have to worry about prosecution.
From what you've seen in Afghanistan, what do you think that change will mean for women?
Violence is ubiquitous. I interviewed about 300 women over two years for the National Geographic story, and an extremely high percentage of them were beaten repeatedly or suffered some sort of abuse. Being beaten is pretty prevalent—it's a phenomenon that happens, I don't know why. I've often talked to my male translators about it, and they've said maybe it's a product of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] or war, or that it's a cultural thing. This law will basically mean that it happens without any repercussions at all.
What's changed since 2009—why has it gone from the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women to this?
I think rather than starting with 2009, you should start with 2000 or 2001—the war and the fall of the Taliban. There have been advances in protecting women's rights, but a lot of them are not actually put into practice. Women don't really have a place to go if they're being abused. There are women's shelters, like those run by Women for Afghan Women, but they're not universally accepted in Afghanistan, and they're constantly under threat of attack or being closed down.
If a woman's husband is beating her on a daily basis, she can't just ask for a divorce. It's not acceptable in society. And if she does ask for a divorce, often she'll be killed by her family—because it brings shame to her family—or she'll be put in prison. I've met dozens of women in prison who've done nothing more than try to ask for a divorce. The international community is going to be pulling out of Afghanistan, and Afghans need to make decisions for themselves. If these are the decisions they're making, it's pretty terrifying. It's a very scary future for women in Afghanistan.
When you're photographing women rather than men, do you work with the camera differently?
Yes. I often don't shoot very much, and I'll keep my cameras in my bag. I'll spend a lot of time talking to people and making them feel comfortable. Then I'll get their permission, and then I'll photograph. A lot of what I'm doing when the story is very sensitive is just hanging out, and then I'll photograph very sparingly.
During your most recent visit, what were the women you were photographing communicating to you? Were you ever struck by some of the things they told you, or their impressions of you as a woman photographer?
I was there in September, on a women's story that has not yet been published, so I can't really talk about it yet. But I think my lifestyle, as a Western woman, is very confusing to an Afghan woman. Afghan women rarely leave their home or venture outside. They get married and have children, and their life revolves around the home. For years when I went to Afghanistan, the only questions they would ask me were "Are you married?" and "Do you have children?" And I answered no to both of those questions for many years. They always looked at me with these very sad expressions. They thought I would be lonely.
Educated Afghans who travel understand both worlds. But I try to be very careful as a journalist, to be very mindful of their culture and their traditions. I can't really bring my perspective or my opinion and try to impose that on anyone. But if we're talking about women's human rights abuses, if we're talking about ownership of women and basically taking away the only justice they have, then I would argue the laws are condoning and perpetuating violence against women.
Do you think the law will pass?
I don't know. Human rights organizations are making their case to Karzai and asking him not to sign it. I don't know, he's pretty irreverent these days, so I'm not sure.
When you were in women's shelters, did you see extreme violence?
Yes. Unbelievable. Extreme. I've seen women who have been burned with metal. I've seen women who have been gang-raped. I've seen women who've had their noses cut off. Everything. I mean everything. I've seen things that I never imagined a human being could do to another human being, much less a woman. I used to go to shelters routinely over the years, and almost every time I would end up in tears, paralyzed by sadness. For every step forward there are ten steps back. At some point Afghans need to decide for themselves if they want to move forward. This law, essentially, rolls back all the gains that have been made in terms of protecting women.