KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) — It is an unimaginably hideous outcome.
To be raped by your cousin’s husband; be jailed for adultery as your attacker was married; to suffer the ignominy of global uproar about your jailing and assault, but be pardoned by presidential decree; and then to endure the shame and rejection from a conservative society that somehow held you to blame.
The solution in this society? Marry your attacker.
That’s what happened to Gulnaz, who was barely 16 when she was raped. She’s now carrying the third child of her attacker, Asadullah, who was convicted and jailed for 12 years — though this was then reduced.
Gulnaz’s plight — like so much in beleaguered Afghanistan — disappeared from the world’s gaze once she was pardoned and released courtesy of a presidential pardon. Instead of a new start, what followed for Gulnaz was a quiet, Afghan solution to the “problem” — a telling sign of where women’s rights stand in Afghanistan despite the billions that have poured into this country from the U.S. government and its NATO allies during more than a decade of war.
‘Rescued’ from shame
We found Gulnaz in her family home. Smile, the name of the daughter born of the rape, is now a shining little girl, bouncing around the house that her mother shares with Asadullah’s first wife — who is also Gulnaz’s cousin.
Asadullah agreed to let us speak with him and Gulnaz because, it seemed, he wanted to show us that things were now settled, that under Afghanistan’s version of social morality he had done the right thing. He had rescued Gulnaz from shame.
“If I hadn’t married her, (but) according to our traditions, she couldn’t have lived back in society,” he tells us. “Her brothers didn’t want to accept her back. Now, she doesn’t have any of those problems.”
Gulnaz remains subdued throughout our meeting and does not once look her husband in the eye. “I didn’t want to ruin the life of my daughter or leave myself helpless so I agreed to marry him,” she says. “We are traditional people. When we get a bad name, we prefer death to living with that name in society.”
As Smile attempts to pour tea, the other seven children in this household run around the courtyard. The first wife remains unseen in the house. A portrait of Gulnaz’s liberator in 2011, the then-president Hamid Karzai, hangs on the wall. But the sense of order here is undermined by the fact that this is a house built around a crime.
Pressure to marry
How Gulnaz ended up here requires some explanation. There was pressure upon her to marry her attacker after her release. But at the same time, other activists were trying to assist her with an asylum bid abroad.
“Unfortunately, Gulnaz was heavily pressured to marry her attacker by various people within the government which, in and of itself, was immensely disappointing,” her former attorney, an American citizen named Kimberley Motley, tells us.
“Gulnaz was constantly told that neither she nor her daughter would be protected if she did not succumb to their pressure to marry… Gulnaz essentially became a prisoner of her environment.
“As an uneducated, young, single mother with no family support, it would have been an uphill battle for Gulnaz and her daughter.”
Local pressure won out. She was introduced to her attacker in the shelter where CNN first interviewed her upon release from prison. They talked and it was agreed she would marry him.
Most disturbingly, the woman who — despite knowing the stigma it would create around her — defiantly insisted she had been raped when we spoke nearly four years ago, now says she was told by her relatives to make up the allegations.
“Now she is beside me and knows that it was not as big as they had shown it,” says Asadullah.
“No I am not thinking about it anymore,” Gulnaz adds. “I don’t have a problem with him now and I don’t want to think about the past problems. My life is OK… I am happy with my life… It is going on.”
She is then permitted to talk with us alone. Asadullah moves away but stands close to the door of the room. Though she now maintains she was not raped, she explains her decision. She contradicts her husband, saying her brothers would have taken her back, had she not married him.
“My brothers opposed the marriage and told me to take my daughter and go to Pakistan to live with them instead,” she says. “But now we’re married, they disowned me and won’t see me again.”
Her decision was for her daughter.
“No, I couldn’t fulfill my wishes in life. I married this man; I cut relations with my family only to buy my daughter’s future.”
It is truly chilling to see how things have gone for Gulnaz after the level of international attention her story received — pregnant with the third child of the man who was once her rapist, accepting a life as his second wife, trapped in his home.