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War and Love in Kabul

War and Love in Kabul

by Helga Reidemeister
Icarus Films, Brooklyn, NY, 2009
DVD, 86 mins, color
Sales, $398
Distributor’s website:  icarusfilms.com.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg

War and Love in Kabul is a Romeo and Juliet Afghani drama, an oxymoron and most likely a prelude to disaster. Shaima and her fated love Hossein are up against Islamic law and traditional tribal economics. What chance do they have? The facts that either of them are alive and that both families and communities tolerated the intrusion of this film into their awkward lives are remarkable.

Set against the backdrop of a ruined world in which daughters are considered currency, and honor killing a cultural norm, the film provides an intimate insight into Afghan society. As an unrequited love story in an unlikely context, it comes across as intensely anachronistic. Simply put, romantic love and personal happiness are not options for women in Afghanistan though the pursuit of romance was not unknown there prior to the Soviet invasion. An excellent film for introductory college courses in history and gender studies, law and politics, the film will however be especially useful for anthropology classes. As a prelude to any introductory lecture on cultural relativism, this film will bring the enlightenment-based issues of liberty, never mind the Victorian notion of romantic love into irresolvable tension with the reality of life for women in such societies.

The film is awkwardly intrusive. The camera and interviewers seem barely welcome. Presenting a story of forbidden love between two childhood friends from different ethnic backgrounds, it is above all an account of the life of a most extraordinarily stubborn and willful young woman, Shaima. She refuses to submit to tradition. She defies her family and society and prefers to die should her demands not be met. Indeed, one wonders at what point, provoked by what opportunity, she and her crippled love, will meet their deaths.

In the meantime, in limbo, they and their families simmer. Strangely, as unexpected as it might be, while one cannot help be stirred to natural compassion for the couple, one also comes to realize how problematic their recalcitrance is for their families. Herein it is a poignant fact that the reason for the problem in the first place is Shaima’s family’s fall into relative poverty from their former affluence. Circumstances have pushed them and their daughter into a situation far from the kind of lives they may have aspired to in the 1970’s and 1980’s. At this point, for them and Afghanis across the board, survival is the name of the game, not principles and certainly not romantic love.

The film’s most obvious message is that women everywhere should be able to marry for love rather than being sold as chattel to old men or given away as compensation for murder in order to prevent a blood feud. However, the film provides material for considering a much more serious set of questions in the realm of Islamic jurisprudence. In fact, the case presents a fascinating case study. As a teenager, Shaima was sold to a much older man, a perfectly normal fate she repeatedly and bitterly resisted. In time, after the consummation of the marriage and the birth of a child, the husband failed to pay the dowry. As a consequence her father brought her and her child home. We know from the film that she attempted suicide to prevent being returned to the husband but we do not know anything about the older man or his household and her life there though we can assume that it would most likely have been grim. We do not know whether the young bride had been so difficult to control despite harsh punishments accepted as the norm that this might have been the reason why the husband had not paid the dowry. For all we know, it was a matter of an incomplete payment of dowry until the wife could be brought under control or simply a refusal to pay because of the problems at hand. It also could have been related to the economic and political crisis. These types of issues are not explored. Instead we simply have a wishful romantic love story in a place where such love has no name.

The film centers on Shaima’s desire for a divorce so that she can marry Hossein. Though it is a case of hopelessly tragic wishful thinking on their part, the situation does present an opportunity for exploring more deeply anthropologically informed issues. The marriage ceremony was conducted and the marriage consummated, her child at this point being five years old. What we need to know is whether she actually has any grounds for divorce according to Islamic law and local tradition. Does a woman even have the right to seek divorce in Afghanistan? Are there any legal precedents? If the entire dowry or merely part of it was unpaid what does tribal, in this case inter-tribal law and Islamic jurisprudence stipulate? If the husband had beaten, starved, raped and locked her up for her recalcitrance, would that change the situation in any way? And in any event did he not have the right to do so according to local norms? What rights if any does a woman have in Afghanistan either de jure or de facto? Does Shaima not presume far, far too much? Does she not technically deserve a death sentence in refusing to accept tradition? While the film alludes to or refers to these issues, it could have gone much further and thus have made a much more serious contribution to our knowledge of life and law in Afghanistan.  Nevertheless, it certainly presents an excellent context and opportunity for doing so.

Anthropologically speaking, it would be interesting to know what rights her husband as opposed to her father technically has over her and her child in terms of Islamic law and local tradition considering that the dowry had not been paid and thus the marriage technically not a marriage. Could the husband not have sold off the child in advance to pay Shaima’s father the dowry had he wanted to keep this latest and youngest wife? In any event, who does the girl child technically belong to, the grandfather or the husband? Might it also have been an issue of who would have ownership rights over her for in a society where girls are currency considering that the child will be a useful commodity even before the age of eight. Is this even an issue to consider or is this being cynical in the extreme?

In any event, these are the type of brute realities that we need to know about. Is it normal for a father to take back a daughter, and another man’s child, if the husband is unable to pay the dowry? Is the payment of dowry sometimes delayed and under what terms? Surely a father can only regain “his property” if unequal power relations exist in his favor. And is not the daughter in this case technically the husband’s property? Is it not actually also a matter of Islamic law that the mother has no propriety rights regarding the child? Such questions lead us to ask the heartless questions: What are the father’s real motivations? What is the husband’s position? What do we not know? We do know what the mothers think, that the daughter should bow to tradition and accept her fate.

For all we know, the husband may have demanded that the father take his daughter back. Again, perhaps he simply refused to pay the dowry. If it were simply a matter of lack of money, what legal recourse would the father have had according to tradition if the husband could not pay the dowry? Certainly the father now has damaged goods on his hands and no acceptable solution at hand. What then are his options for renumeration? And most important of all, has there been any single instance of a woman divorcing her husband in Afghanistan and how can she or her husband even get divorced if the dowry was not paid as technically the marriage is therefore not complete. What are the laws? And finally, why wouldn’t the man divorce her if he wasn’t prepared to pay the dowry?

Fortunately we have the report Family Structures and Family Law in Afghanistan: A Report of the Fact Finding Mission to Afghanistan, January-March 2005 prepared by the Max Plank Institute for Foreign Private Law and Private International Law as well as the relevant marriage laws posted alongside the report. [1]. There we find the unfortunate answers. Though very rare exceptions do exist, and usually only for the educated upper class the report confirms that “there is no such thing as a divorce for women (there is not even a proper term for it)” as well as the fact that “[T]o give a sharia divorce is the right of a husband.” The report further confirms that divorce is essentially unheard of because of this and no less because of the social and economic consequences a divorce would have for the woman. Alongside the stark evidence of problems women face in this regard, the report also provides statistics about marriage. For instance, 15% of girls in rural areas are married between the age of 8 and 10. And despite the Koranic injunction that intercourse with minors should be delayed until the age of puberty, in traditional tribal context this is not an issue and even if it were it would never be brought to a jirga (informal, that is non-state traditional court) or formal court, and in most instances neither would murder or rape. What we are left with is a very stark disjunction between the modern legal codes adopted only in 1976 and the reality of the application of those laws never mind the complete rejection of these laws by both the Taliban and society at large, excluding perhaps the women and girls themselves.

To return to the film and what we do know. No one in either Shaima or Hossein’s family supports the couple. They are all dead set against the romance. As for Hossein, crippled as he is, he cannot earn a living, has no capital and cannot look after himself. And returning to the above-mentioned legal issues. Even if he had the means he could not possibly marry another man’s wife whether or not the man had failed to pay the dowry. For both, the legal consequences of any culmination of their desires to be married are certainly death. There is no ambiguity in that. It is tradition, both a matter of honor and tribal law in a state that only temporarily exists as it is because of American security concerns.

Finally, at some point, Shaima’s husband or his family might either try to reclaim or kill her, if in fact it matters at all to him, or she or Hossein might become the victim of an honor killing by her own family. In the meantime, Shaima insists on visiting a house in which she is unwelcome and attempts to take care of Hossein as she can under the circumstances barely tolerable for everyone involved. Refusing to accept their mutual love and refusal to accept their fates, both sets of parents are in a bind. On one hand, they are heading for a blood feud. On the other hand, the young lovers both threaten suicide. It seems to be just a matter of time before the natural order of events takes its course one way or another unless . . . .


[1] See http://www.mpipriv.de/ww/en/pub/research/research_work/foreign_law_comparative_law/islamic_legal_system/family_law_in_afghanistan.cfm.

Last Updated 7 July, 2010

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