Thousands of Afghan women at risk as Taliban annul their divorces, experts say

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

Thousands of Afghan women who divorced under the previous government without their husband’s consent 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 addiction, the young Afghan woman struggled for years to escape from her abusive husband. She eventually fled his home, divorced, and remarried, she recalled.

Now, under Taliban rule, she is suddenly on the run again, and faces imprisonment for adultery.

Under the previous government, this western Afghan woman was able to get a divorce by testifying that her first husband was physically abusive, even though he refused to appear before the judge. But according to the Taliban’s draconian interpretation of Islamic law, her divorce is invalid and with it her second marriage.

Former judges and lawyers estimate that thousands of Afghan women who used to divorce without husband’s consent are now at risk under Taliban rule and may face imprisonment and violent reprisals.

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

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

“I lived 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, who, like all women interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their safety.

The woman, originally from a rural area, has lived safely in an urban area for several years. But when the previous government was overthrown, the legal system and security forces that once protected it disintegrated overnight.

The woman, now 22, said she received threatening phone calls from her ex-husband just weeks after the Taliban took over. He told her that he had informed Taliban members in her home village of what she had done and that they would help him find her and take revenge.

Last year her second husband left her fearing that he too would be charged with adultery because their marriage was no longer considered valid. She was left with her two young daughters from her first marriage and was four months pregnant with his child. “I never heard from him again,” she said.

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

“When I’m too scared to leave the house, I send my daughters to the baker 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 law has changed under the Taliban or how divorce was pronounced under the previous Afghan government.

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

Even under the previous government, Afghanistan’s deeply conservative society made it difficult for women to get divorced. Especially in rural areas, women rarely live outside of a traditional family unit.

Despite social and family pressures, a 36-year-old woman said her marriage was so abusive that she felt she had no choice but to 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 go back to my husband.”

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

The only family member she still has contact with is her sister, whose husband also beats her. “She said to me, ‘I wish I’d been smart like you and escaped before, but now [under the Taliban] that’s impossible,'” she said.

Within the Taliban campaign to forge a religious emirate

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

Later, she said, she was transferred to a women’s shelter and kept in a windowless room for several more years. “It felt like a second prison,” she said. She was only able to leave the shelter after she divorced and remarried. Otherwise she could not feed 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 power, she received threats from her ex-husband’s family.

Her new husband disappeared. “First he called and sent me money, but it’s been months now and I haven’t heard from him,” she said. Like the other women interviewed for this article, she said she went into hiding.

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

Under the Taliban, local support groups that provided shelter and counseling for women trying to escape violent relationships were shut down. A psychologist said security forces closed her practice after she and her colleagues were accused of organizing protests against Taliban rule.

The detection of domestic violence has also become more difficult. “Under the new law, women must first go to the police station and present multiple witnesses to prove abuse or if their husband is a drug addict,” she said. But in spousal abuse cases, there are often no witnesses because the abuse takes place behind closed doors.

A year of peace in one of Afghanistan’s deadliest provinces

The Taliban have also banned women from holding many jobs in the justice system – including positions as judges, their spokesman confirmed to The Post – a move that lawyers say will make it more difficult for women to seek legal aid.

One attorney said women often asked her to handle their cases because they did not feel comfortable discussing private details of their marriage with a man. She practiced law for over five years, handling criminal and family law cases before the Taliban took power and prevented her from going to work. She said she fears domestic violence will continue to increase as Afghanistan’s economic situation worsens.

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

This lawyer went into hiding herself after receiving threatening phone calls from people she had previously helped convict.

“The Taliban have created the perfect situation for men seeking revenge,” she said. “The courts have lost their effectiveness and instead we see it in the messages women receive [public] lashes for adultery.”

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