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Guest Host: Indira Lakshmanan
Two years ago a young couple in Afghanistan fell in love. They’re from different races, ethnic groups and Muslim sects. She’s a Caucasian Sunni and he’s an Asian Shiite. They defied their parents’ opposition to marrying and eloped. His family came to accept the marriage, but hers wants her dead – to restore their honor. This Afghan Romeo and Juliet story gained international attention when a New York Times reporter wrote about the couple in a series of articles – and now in a book. We talk to the author, a young Afghan human rights advocate and an Afghanistan expert about honor killings and the struggle many Muslim women are engaged in to win basic rights.
- Rod Nordland Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, The New York Times; former New York Times bureau chief in Kabul; author of "The Lovers: Afghanistan's Romeo and Juliet: The True Story of How They Defied Their Families and Escaped an Honor Killing"
- Noorjahan Akbar communications associate, Women for Women International, and an Afghan human rights advocate
- Gayle Tzemach Lemmon senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations and contributor to The Atlantic's "Defense One"; author of "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana"
Read An Excerpt
From THE LOVERS by Rod Nordland. Copyright 2016 by Rod Nordland. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANThanks for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's recovering from a voice treatment. A young couple in Afghanistan dared to marry against their parents' wishes. The bride's family has vowed to kill her to restore their honor. The couple's Romeo and Juliet story captured headlines at home and abroad, thanks to a series in the New York Times. But theirs tells a larger stories of the plight of Afghan women living in a tribal, conservative Muslim society.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANJoining me in the studio to talk about the status of women in Afghanistan more than 14 years after the Taliban were ousted by U.S. military force is the New York Times reporter who first brought their love story to the public eye, Rod Nordland's new book is "The Lovers: Afghanistan's Romeo and Juliet." Also, Noorjahan Akbar, Afghan human rights advocate who works for women for Women International in the U.S.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANAnd from an NPR studio in Los Angeles, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon of the Council of Foreign Relations and the author of two bestselling books about women in Afghanistan. Welcome to all of you.
MR. ROD NORDLANDThank you.
MS. NOORJAHAN AKBARThank you.
MS. GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMONThanks.
LAKSHMANANSo I want to start out -- of course, we're going to be taking your questions and your calls throughout the hour. You can call us on 1-800-433-8850. You can send us your email at firstname.lastname@example.org or join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. But first, Rod, I want to start out by having you tell us this extraordinary story of Zakia and Ali. They're the Romeo and Juliet couple who you made famous in Afghanistan and around the world. You followed them now for two years. Tell us their tale.
NORDLANDWell, when I met them, you know, Zakia was in a shelter, a women's shelter, for her own protection 'cause her family had vowed to kill her because she wanted to marry this boy, Mohammed Ali, from her community. The family was angry 'cause he -- first of all, the father didn't approve of the marriage, but also because he was a different race, different sect, different ethnic group. And they were -- they hadn't seen each other for quite some time. I was able to talk to them, but separately because they weren't able to see one another.
NORDLANDAnd the initial story I did on them, I thought that was pretty much the end of it. The girl would eventually be released to her family and probably killed like so many girls in that situation.
LAKSHMANANUm-hum. But, in fact, that's not what happened. What you chronicled over the course of the last two years has been sort of an extraordinary story that they dared to defy their community's wishes.
NORDLANDYeah. And that daring was their own and they decided, you know, to take their chances and she escaped from the shelter, was not a prison so it was fairly easy to escape from, and they ran off into the mountains and that's where I kind of picked up the story and started following them and following their case for the next couple years.
LAKSHMANANSo before we get to the details of that, I want to say that they're both Muslim so I think many listeners may wonder why their families objected so much. How did their different sects and ethnicities and even races complicate the situation?
NORDLANDYeah, he was Hazara, which is Asian race, whereas her family, who were Tajiks, are Caucasian. Also, the Hazaras are mostly Shia Muslims and he was as well and his family and Tajiks are Sunni Muslims.
LAKSHMANANUm-hum. And so it was sectarian. It was not religious, but also racial and also this ethnic question.
NORDLANDAnd even more so, it was dad didn't approve, you know. A girl's father in Afghanistan typically, even in urban settings, decides who she will marry. And if he was against it, then she has not right, in his view, to oppose it. And people will kill their daughter over that kind of defiance.
LAKSHMANANNoorjahan, you were born in Afghanistan. Help us to understand how a father and a mother would rather see their daughter dead than marry someone that they didn't choose for her. Is it about fear of a woman making her own decision?
AKBARI think this is a characteristic of patriarchal societies everywhere. I think many people attribute this to religion, but in fact, we have seen that this happens across the world in different religions, different cultures, different ethnicities. A lot of it is men in the family and older men in the family having power over women's bodies. I think, to me, that's what it comes down to because I have seen this problem in Hazara families. I've seen it in Pashtun families. I've seen it in all kinds of -- and I've seen it in Muslim families.
LAKSHMANANAll different ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
AKBARAnd outside of Afghanistan. I've seen it in Muslim families and Hindu families and, you know, all kinds of families. I think that's at the root of it. But a big part of it in Afghanistan is the war really changed the way women are treated. We have had, you know, decades and decades of war and conflict and...
LAKSHMANANStarting from 1979 invasion by the Soviets, right?
AKBARAbsolutely. And Afghans, I think, have had very little access to infrastructure and in a way that has made women's bodies into a commodity so families sell their daughters off in marriage. It's sort of a business. And then, the family uses that money to marry off their sons, which we see in the book as well.
LAKSHMANANMeaning, they're given a bride price based on how valuable the bride is thought to be, how young or how beautiful of how wealthy...
LAKSHMANAN...her family is, how skilled. And that comes in the form, though, in farming families, it might be a handful of goats, something like that.
AKBAROr land, yes.
AKBARAbsolutely. So I think the women's body becomes a commodity and especially in countries where there's no infrastructure, that law is not being implemented. There's no social welfare. Families don't have a backup emergency fund. They can't go loan money. They can't, you know, in war without these out of the law systems to make money and often women's bodies become a commodity in that, whether is in marriage or it's in prostitution or any other kind of business over women's bodies.
AKBARSo I think it's two fold. A part of that is that patriarchal, you know, owning women's bodies for profit. And another part of it is the lack of infrastructure and war in Afghanistan. A lot of families in the 1980s, for example, in Kabul, started marrying their daughters off at a really early age in a way they hadn't done before also because they were scared for their daughter's life. With war and rape and kidnappings of women, families saw that really the only way they could protect their daughters was to marry them off to usually someone powerful so that they can be kept in a more secure way.
AKBARSo it's a very, very complicated situation that we cannot diminish to, you know, culture or religion, a lot of socioeconomic power plays also got into it.
LAKSHMANANSo you're saying it's partly social, partly sexual norms, partly about living through a war culture and having a view of what would protect the woman and partly also about who controls limited resources, all of those things.
LAKSHMANANAll right. So explain to us why in the minds of Zakia's family would their honor be restored if she were killed.
AKBARI think this is not a very foreign concept. We have seen this everywhere. For example, if we go to a lot of Western movies in the U.S., this concept of protecting women's chastity, protecting women's bodies in order to insure that the family is respected in the community. So especially in a tribal community where a lot of the family's respect is dependent on what people think of the men of the family. Men feel the need to prove their power and control over the women of their family. They have to protect their sexuality.
AKBARThey have to protect their -- every aspect of their lives. And the way that it shows up most as women's sexuality is because it's tied to women's bodies, to owning women's bodies, to having control over women's bodies.
NORDLANDYeah. A good example of that in Zakia's case, when she grew up, and I didn't realize just how pervasive that ownership of the woman is, but when she grew up, her brothers decided what she would wear when she went out the door. In fact, her brothers would decide if she went out the door. When there was some imagined breach of etiquette or behavior on her part, her brothers would be the ones who beat her, kind of delegated by their father. And sometimes her father did, too, but it was every male family -- every male member of that family felt that they owned Zakia and they could decide what was done with her.
NORDLANDAnd so they grew up with that and then when suddenly, she breached all that and defied all of it, the reaction was very violent. And they felt they were going to be help up to ridicule in their own community and to some extent, that was true, too, that they were help up to ridicule and only by killing her could they remove that blemish, as they saw it.
LAKSHMANANDoes Zakia's family also feel that they need to kill Ali as well?
NORDLANDThat's not as important. I think that would be a nice benefit from their point of view and they certainly would if they had an opportunity, but their efforts would be mostly aimed at Zakia. In fact, an example of that, they did find Ali, at one point, but he wasn't with Zakia so they turned him over to the police, rather than doing him any violence because they hoped that he would then lead the police or them to Zakia. Killing Zakia was much more important to them than killing him.
LAKSHMANANIn fact, in your book, you write about how it was Ali's own family, his father and his brothers, who beat him so badly that he was bruised for months initially, at the beginning of their relationship. So Ali was being beaten by his own family. Zakia was being beaten by her family and threatened with death. Rod, you also write that there are about 150 so-called honor killings a year in Afghanistan and that fewer than half of them are ever reported, almost none end in conviction. Is this on the rise?
LAKSHMANANAre there other situations that might lead to honor killings, other than choosing a mate who your parents don't approve of?
NORDLANDLots of situations. There are cases where women have been killed by their husbands because they imagined that they glanced at another man. I mean, there are all sorts of offenses that women could commit that might lead to an honor killing, certainly any sort of adulterous behavior or, you know, kissing a boy, you know, before you're married to him, for instance, what we would see as minor as that could easily result in an honor killing.
NORDLANDAnd I think it's actually 150 documented cases. There are probably many more that are never reported and I think in most cases, they're not reported 'cause communities and families do everything they can to hide them.
LAKSHMANANI have to ask quickly. There have also been so-called honor killings in the U.S. and Britain. You were talking about other neighboring countries like India and Pakistan. But even in the so-called Western world, the FBI estimates that around 25 honor killings occur annually in the U.S. with nine in ten of those women killed by their fathers for being too Westernized. Is this something that you're looking at, Noorjahan, and how does it compare with what's happening in Afghanistan?
AKBARI think it's very similar in that the theme of owning women's bodies comes up again here also to control how women behave in society, how women act in society and in the public. And there's this divide between public and private. Women own the private and men own the public sphere.
LAKSHMANANAll right. We'll take a short break. More when we come back. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm. Joining me here in the studio to talk about Afghan women, their status and the problem of so-called honor killings is Rod Nordland, the Pulitzer Prize- winning reporter, currently correspondent-at-large for The New York Times. Formerly, he was based in Kabul, Afghanistan and he's written a new book called, "The Lovers: Afghanistan's Romeo and Juliet: The True Story of How They Defied Their Families and Escaped an Honor Killing." Also, Noorjahan Akbar, communications associate for Women for Women International and Afghan human rights advocate.
LAKSHMANANAnd from NPR's L.A. studios, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of several books, including "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," which is set in Afghanistan. Noorjahan, just before the break, we were talking about how apparently, according to the FBI, there are some 25 so-called honor killings annually happening in the U.S. You were talking a little bit about how that compares to what's happened in Afghanistan. How is this a global problem?
AKBARYeah, I think, you know, the issue of killing women and gender-based violence really has very little to do in honor and, you know, and the way of being honorable, being a noble person. A lot of it is having ownership over women's bodies. In fact, in the U.S., everyday three American women are killed by an intimate partner.
AKBARThat is a staggering statistic that we should look into.
LAKSHMANANAnd nothing to do with religion in that case. It's straight-up, what we would call domestic violence.
AKBARAbsolutely. And I think honor killings are also a kind of domestic violence, a kind of gender-based violence that has a lot to do about who has power in the family and the society and who gets to make decisions about women's bodies, women's lives, whether a woman can choose who they love, whether they can choose what to study, where to go to school. We see this kind of violence around the world. Gender-based violence is a huge issue. It's a topic of conversation right now at a global level. One in three women around the world face gender-based violence. On the other hand, I think Rod's book is as much about an honor killing as it is about courage.
AKBARIn Zakia and Ali, we see a new Afghanistan. We see hope for two young people who see and imagine a different kind of life. And they do everything they can to achieve that life. And I'm happy to hear that they're living together in Bamyan and they are still scared for their safety. But I think the fact that they succeeded, that they stayed together, that they fought for what they thought was right, is really this message that around the world people are waking up to gender-based violence, they're waking up to why it's wrong, and really bringing it into question and talking about these power dynamics.
LAKSHMANANMm-hmm. Rod, I've seen you describe Ali and Zakia's situation as both ordinary and extraordinary. Tell me why.
NORDLANDWell, it's ordinary because it's so common that they would face this kind of risk in their lives. And it's also ordinary in that, you know, people are people everywhere and they fall in love. And it's a normal thing to do. And no matter how often the Mullah's in Afghanistan inveigle against the idea of romantic love, you know, people do still fall in love. And what's so extraordinary is that they were able to act on that outside of the norms that their society and their parents' set for them and in defiance of those norms. It's also extraordinary that they've managed to survive that.
NORDLANDI think it's also very fragile. And I think, you know, while they're a big example -- especially to younger Afghans and...
LAKSHMANANYounger Afghans were even putting Facebook messages up about them, tweeting about them, right?
LAKSHMANANI mean, that was part of what put pressure on the Afghan government to release Ali from prison and to release Zakia from a shelter, because there was so much pressure domestically because of the articles you had written, isn't that right?
NORDLANDThat's right. I mean, secretly, we discovered later, President Karzai had intervened too, to get Ali released from jail so they could be reunited. And that probably wouldn't have happened without all the intense press attention to their case. And without that attention, in a way it's kind of artificial, and so much of the progress in better treatment for women in Afghanistan generally has been kind of artificial, propped up by the international community and by, you know, in this case, and by my own involvement in their own case, you know, gave them a much better chance to survive. They can still be killed and that would, you know, pretty much wipe out that lesson and turn that back. And I think that's still a very live possibility.
LAKSHMANANWell, Rod, in fact, you've taken some heat in Afghanistan for reporting on Zakia and Ali's situation. Tell us about that.
NORDLANDYeah. Not so much recently. But while this story was going on, there was a lot of criticism from some quarters in Afghanistan, the women's ministry particularly was very hostile to this. They felt the idea of making it, as they put it, into a Romeo and Juliet story was wrong. It was a violation of their cultural norms and we had no right to do that.
LAKSHMANANAlthough, in fact, you write about how in Persian verse and literature there are many Romeos and many Juliets. There are many parallel cases that exist in Afghan history or at least literature, right?
NORDLANDYeah, that's right. And I think one of the most inspiring things about their story is that, although they're uneducated, unlettered farm kids from Bamyan, from a very remote corner of the country, those Persian stories and that tradition of love and romance, it very much inspired them. I mean, they can't read poetry, but they can listen to songs that are actually based on a lot of those old poems. And most of the Afghan pop music is not so much Western-inspired as it is Persian-inspired and based on these ancient stories. And that very much informed their thinking and helped inspire them, I think. And, you know, what happened didn't just happen in total isolation.
LAKSHMANANTell us about Ali's ringtone on his cell phone.
NORDLANDYeah, he -- I notices kind of early on that every time we called him he had a different ringtone. And we -- I started asking the translator, because I don't speak Dari, to translate the ringtones. And they're almost always these old love tales and often based on Persian poetry.
LAKSHMANANWell, finally, Ali's family did accept the marriage but Zakia's did not. Why?
NORDLANDWell, Zakia's, you know, they were sticking to their position. But Ali's family, in the end, it's a little mysterious to me, actually, why they finally came around. But, as they put it, they decided -- they saw that Zakia was so determined to be with Ali and to risk everything for him, that they felt that they should, you know, embrace that. I think also, on a practical level, when her family threatened to kill their son, then that was an offense to them. And they rallied around their son in that case. I mean, initially, they felt what he was doing was wrong and, you know, that Zakia's father had the right to determine her fate.
NORDLANDAnd if he didn't accept him in marriage, that was his right and he should go along with that. And, in fact, they, you know, they beat the daylights out of their son, you know, to kind of enforce that. And when they saw that didn't work, eventually they took his side. And now they're very ardent defenders of both of them.
LAKSHMANANMm-hmm. Noorjahan, how uncommon is it in Afghanistan for a woman to choose her own spouse?
AKBARI think it's becoming more common, even though -- even now, the majority of marriages in Afghanistan are forced. The statistics is around 57 percent. But I think there's a lot of underreporting in the rural areas. There's no...
LAKSHMANANFifty-seven percent who are in forced marriages actually.
AKBARIn forced marriages.
AKBARBut there is so much underreporting that there's no way to really know what the correct percentage is. It's really hard to get good stats from Afghanistan.
AKBARSo the majority of marriages, I would say, are not necessarily consensual. Some of them are arranged, which is not the same as forced, because families can arrange marriages and still the bride and groom can agree to it. That happens. It's happened in my own family and the bride and groom have turned out to be happy and loved each other and have had a good life.
LAKSHMANANSo an arranged marriage versus a forced marriage.
AKBARForced marriage. So actually youth sometimes reach out to their families and say, I don't know anyone, I don't have anyone specific in mind. Could you find me somebody?
AKBARAnd then their families go out of their way. They find someone that they think will be a good fit for their son or their daughter and then the marriage happens. That's very, very common too. But forced marriages, unfortunately, are still very common. One of my biggest things that I've campaigned against is that the age of marriage for girls in Afghanistan is still 16.
AKBARAnd girls are supposedly in school until 18. And they're children according to the Convention of Human Rights, according to the Child Rights Convention. So there's a contradiction in our law there.
AKBARBecause if one is a child until 18, it means they can't give consent until they have reached adulthood, which is 18. But yet a lot of marriages happen when girls are 16. And that's the law currently in Afghanistan.
LAKSHMANANI think the former President Hamid Karzai did sign into law an elimination of violence against women law, which tried to fix a lot of those things, including raising the minimum age for marriage for women. But, in fact, I understand that it's not well enforced. Gayle, could you jump in and tell us -- you've spent a lot of time in Afghanistan yourself -- what's your understanding about what, you know, Sharia law and what civil law say, versus what actually is carried out on the ground in Afghanistan?
LEMMONWell, it's a pleasure to join you. And, you know, as you were saying, right, the elimination of violence against women law, which was a big story when it first hit the books in Afghanistan, you know, lacks in enforcement. There is no question, right, that girls are still given away to settle family disputes, that girls are still being sold, that bride price has definitely not gone away. But, on the other hand, I will say, there is a story, as Noorjahan was saying, about this new Afghanistan, in which a series of women's shelters -- and which are, some of which are mentioned in Rod's book -- they can go to Afghan courts and say, look, here's the legislation. We have a case of, you know, a girl who is, you know 15, who is -- does not want to be part of this marriage.
LEMMONAnd we can help her now because, officially, she should not be married, according to the law of Afghanistan. So while enforcement is weak and lacking, there is a law on the book that gives advocates, that gives lawyers who are there to defend girls and women in these cases a place to go and a law to stand upon. And I do think that is being used. I think, so much of the time, the lousy news coming out of Afghanistan and the very grim headlines really does overshadow the growing and -- small, but growing group of young people who are fighting for their country, fighting for their country's future. And I think that's why Rod's book is so compelling.
LAKSHMANANI wonder to what extent, Gayle, that fighting that you talk about is happening more in urban areas, among more educated young people and to what extent the women in rural Afghanistan who are not being educated are really being left behind? I mean, I read the statistic that the nonprofit Global Rights said that nearly nine in ten Afghan women are victims of violence in their lifetimes. So that means almost everyone. I mean, how many people are actually standing up and doing something about it? Or feel that they can?
LEMMONThere is a lot of that discussion about the urban-rural divide. But I will tell you, I have been in rooms where educated young women -- some from rural areas, many from urban areas -- have gone and visited three-quarters to all of the Afghan provinces and had conversations with women there. And I think, to some extent, there is an over-emphasis -- because we're talking about women and girls -- on the fact that, well, there's only benefit in the urban areas. That is absolutely true. But it is always true that in a society that is evolving and changing, where does the evolution and change start?
LEMMONWith educated people who are making a difference not just for themselves but for other people who maybe have less of a voice and less access to a seat at the table. So I do think that there is almost sometimes a higher bar when it comes to talking about women and girls -- that, well, you know, you're not representing everyone. And I have yet to see any social change that represented every single person at the outset, right?
LEMMONBut what it was trying to do was bring voiceless people into a conversation about what a country looks like. And in a country that has endured, you know, four decades of war like Afghanistan has, that conversation is even more complicated. Because no matter where you are in the world, people in power want to stay in power. And there are people who have found ways to hold onto power. And as Noorjahan was saying, you know, accessing women, you know, and exercising control over women and their lives and their bodies...
LEMMON...has very much been a part of that.
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, you can call in at 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email to email@example.com. You can also follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Rod, you have reported that there were 4,500 cases of violence against women reported in Afghanistan in 2014, including preventing women from choosing their own husbands, even though, technically, under the law -- both Sharia law and civil law -- Afghanistan says that women can't be forced to marry against their will. So tell us about this disconnect.
NORDLANDWell, I mean, part of it -- and a lot of people that there's actually been an increase in the last few years, as the elimination of violence against women act has criminalized such behavior and as there's become a greater awareness among women what their rights are and they've started to demand those rights and started to, you know, to try to prosecute husbands who've beat them half to death, for instance, or fathers who deny them the right to marry whom they choose. And that has resulted in a kind of backlash among men and it actually increased the level of violence against women.
NORDLANDNow, some people think that's partly because it's -- they're emboldened to report it more. But there has definitely been a pretty significant increase these last couple years.
NORDLANDAnd in the case of Zakia and Ali, I mean, there's an awful lot of social approval for what they've done among young people.
NORDLANDBut at the same time, her family has to know that if they were successful in killing them, there's almost no chance that they would ever be punished.
NORDLANDThere's hardly any cases of honor killings where people have served serious jail time. Judges will often even just dismiss the case outright. The law in Afghanistan actually gives a father or a husband the right to kill somebody and only be given a year or two in jail, nothing more.
LAKSHMANANThat's actually under the law? It's legal to kill a family member?
NORDLANDActually, the law actually says, where a man defends his honor and kills a woman in his family, he cannot be sentenced to more than two years in jail.
NORDLANDIf a woman were to kill her husband out of some imagined sense of honor, she could get the death sentence.
LAKSHMANANHmm. So a real disparity that remains on the books. Noorjahan, the U.N. Development Programme has rated Afghanistan one of the worst countries in the world to be born female. Another survey ranked it next to last above only Chad. Is that fair?
AKBARThe Afghan women have a lot of problems that they're facing. Around 87 percent of Afghan women face gender-based violence. That's one of the highest around the world. After the six years of Taliban, a large number of Afghan women are not literate. They have never had the chance to go to school. Less than 20 percent of Afghan women can actually read and write. These are all true. Life being an Afghan woman is extremely hard. I've seen it firsthand. I've seen it in my friends and I've seen it in women that I've worked with who have lived in violence. But on the other hand, there's another side to that story, that there are so many Afghan women who, like Zakia, like Ali, are really risking their lives to change things.
AKBARI have a large group of Afghan friends in Afghanistan who are protesting for things to change, who are writing, who are holding photo exhibitions, who are making poetry, who are making art, who are making movies about women's issues and really raising awareness. And I think that kind of change is more sustainable. So change in mindsets that's really brought by our own people -- it's not sort of this top-down approach and it's more grassroots...
AKBAR...I think, investing in women at the grassroots, so that they have the tools to know about their rights, they have the tools to demand their rights. It might cause some immediate backlash, but it's much more sustainable. And it's happening in Afghanistan now more than ever. Right now, in Afghanistan, there are around 4 million kids are in school -- 4 million girls are in school. In 2001...
LAKSHMANANOut of a total population of how many girls?
AKBARWe are 30 million people. So 15 of them are women.
AKBARWe are 60 percent of our population is under the age of 30, so that's a really big population. But 4 million girls are in school. Compared to 2000 or 2001, where only a couple hundred girls were in school and they were in underground school where they could have been killed for going out of the house. They had to hide their books under their burkas. That is a big change. And you can't...
LAKSHMANANIt's an improvement, but it's still not 50-50, boys and girls in school.
AKBARNo, absolutely not. Around the world, it isn't. But it is a change. And you can't take back what women have learned from them. You can't take education.
LAKSHMANANAll right. We're going to take a short break. Coming up, your calls and your questions on the situation of women in Afghanistan. We'll be right back. Stay with us.
LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Today we're talking about so-called honor killings in Afghanistan and the true life Romeo/Juliet story chronicled in a new book by a New York Times correspondent. Joining me are Rod Nordland, Noorjahan Akbar and Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.
LAKSHMANANI want to start out with a listener who sent an email from Phoenix, Cathy. And she says, "I object to the term honor killings. The word honor proffers validity. I think the media should find a different term for this act to show how misguided and wrong it is." Gayle, what's your reaction to that?
LEMMONIt is a sentiment that a lot of people share with your listener. And it's one I can very much appreciate. Right? I mean, the whole issue of honor killing is that it's about dishonoring a family, right, so they get back their honor by killing their children or killing whomever is involved in this story.
LEMMONAnd I do think that that is a conversation because there can be a sense, if you don't know too much about the issue and are picking it up for the first time, that there is something acceptable about it, when it really is murder. Right? And it's murder for the sake of a family's honor or perceived honor. And the young women who are perceived as holding it.
LAKSHMANANAll right. Let's go to the phones. We have a call from Amin, in Salisbury, Md. Amin, you're on the air.
AMINThank you for taking my call.
AMINI -- your panel -- one of your panel said that has to do religion. They said because of religion. In my view, it's -- really religion doesn't have anything to do with almost 99 percent of what goes on in the Middle East today because there's not one Muslim religion. There's 100 Muslim religions. And at that time the prophet -- and during his lifetime, none of his wives wore the -- what you see, the hijab and even the Afghan style burka.
AMINNone of his wives wore that. And none of the women of the Arabian Peninsula was under such -- those kind of honor rules or stuff like that. They would go into battle, they ride with men, just as much as the Israeli defense force today has women going to war.
LAKSHMANANSo may I ask, Amin, where are you from originally?
AMINI'm from Yemen.
LAKSHMANANOkay. And so you're saying it's culture, it's not religion. There are hundreds of variations of Islam. Okay. Thank you very much for that. Noorjahan, can you address the caller's comment?
AKBARI think we all agreed that it's not religious. That this kind of gender-based violence happens around the world. And I agree with the listener who said we should maybe think about using the word honor because there is no honor in killing people. I agree. I think using the word honor also sort of attributes it to certain cultures. While we know this kind of violence happens everywhere.
LAKSHMANANNow, earlier, Noorjahan, we were talking about how two-thirds of the pupils in Afghan schools are boys. Only one-third are girls. Yet, you were born in Afghanistan. How did you manage to get an education and how unique is your case?
AKBARI think the only thing unique about my story was that I was given an opportunity. I was raised in a family of educators. My parents are both educators and are very, very passionate the education of their daughters. We are five sisters and two brothers. And the only thing that really changed my life was education. I was given a chance to come here to go to school. I was able to get a higher education here, which most women don't.
AKBARAnd I don't necessarily think that most of us need to get education outside the country, but I think having quality education makes a huge difference. And I'm seeing that more and more in Afghanistan. I have a couple cousins who have moved from our ruler area in the North to Kabul City. They're all women. They live on their own, which is not very typical, as we see in the book, and they're going to school. And it's making a huge difference in their lives.
LAKSHMANANRod, you had some thoughts about the caller's comment, I think.
NORDLANDYeah, I think all of us would agree that these abusive customary practices, like so-called honor killing, are not religiously based. But what happens, especially in a country as -- or in backward areas of Afghanistan, and even in urban areas, a lot of people confuse customary practices with being religiously based. And they will use and twist religion to justify the kinds of things that they do to women.
LAKSHMANANI want to ask you a little bit more about Zakia and Ali 'cause they're such a fascinating couple. I mean, the, you know, they have tried to escape. They went to Tajikistan, and very miserably were robbed and ultimately had to come back into Afghanistan. Where are they and their daughter today? And are they happy?
NORDLANDThey're pretty happy, yeah. But they're partially a little bit in denial about just how safe they are. They're in hiding in Bamyan, in their home area. They're safe, I think, for this winter because Zakia's family left Bamyan and they're not nearby. And probably won't be until at least after the winter ends. But they're in a kind of constant state of discussion between themselves, whether they should try to flee the country again and find safe asylum somewhere else. And so far they've decided not to do that.
LAKSHMANANSo their lives are still very much under threat?
NORDLANDI think so. Yeah, I think, and in fact, their own family -- Ali's family especially would agree with that. They've been pressuring both of them very strongly to leave the country and seek asylum somewhere.
LAKSHMANANNow, on that question of seeking asylum, what has the U.S. response been to Zakia and Ali's situation? And could they get some sort of asylum Visas to come here?
NORDLANDThey couldn't unless they -- and the U.S. and European embassies have been consistent in this. The only way they would give them Visas is if they fled the country as refugees and then applied for asylum in a third country. You know, like the model…
LAKSHMANANIn which case they would easily qualify, but they have to leave the country first to do so.
NORDLANDThey would easily qualify. Their case is kind of an open and shut case. And they've all told them that. But they have to somehow get to a country where they can apply for asylum and take those risks. And they've decided they don't want to do that.
LAKSHMANANBecause they had such a bad experience the one time they tried to flee and seek asylum.
NORDLANDThey had a terrible experience. And then more recently, and this is since the book's been written, but more recently, last summer, they were thinking of going to Europe when the floodgates kind of opened into Europe. And then they saw the picture of that little boy, Aylan Kurdi on the beach, and just thought of their own daughter, who is now…
LAKSHMANANThat's the Syrian child who washed up on the shore, who drowned trying to escape with his family.
NORDLANDRight, right. And they just thought of their own daughter, who by then had just started walking and -- herself. And just didn't want to take those chances. And I think that was a sensible attitude on their part.
LAKSHMANANRod, delicate question. I hope you'll forgive me for asking it. But if Zakia's family succeeds in killing her, God forbid, or Ali, do you feel that some of the blame would rest on your shoulders?
NORDLANDI would certainly feel guilty in a way, but I also think that if I hadn't pursued this story as aggressively and if my paper hadn't, you know, published it as aggressively as we did, that they probably would have been killed a long time ago.
LAKSHMANANSo in other words, you gave them protection by making their case very visible. At the same time, their faces were everywhere so they were easily recognized, which made it somewhat hard for them to run, as well.
NORDLANDRight, right. But the people that are gonna kill them are not just casual strangers who'll see them on the street. The people that would kill them already know what they look like.
LAKSHMANANThat's right. All right. Let's go to the phones. I'd like to take a call here from Jim, in Akron, Ohio. Jim, you're on the line.
JIMHi. Thank you for taking my call.
JIMI wanted to ask your guest, something I have wondered for quite some time, the world seems to be full of Islamic fundamentalist groups that not only hate, but fear the West. And I've often wondered how much of a role…
LAKSHMANANJim? Okay. We seem to have lost him there. We'll see if we can get him back. In the meantime, Rod, I want to go back to some of the ethical questions, as a journalist. What kinds of questions did you have to ask yourself before deciding to help Zakia and Ali?
NORDLANDWell, if I had thought about it before maybe I would have taken different actions than I did, but I was kind of found myself in a situation where I had to make decisions as we went along. And in one case, you know, on a very kind of very short notice, they were on the verge of being caught by police and I decided to intervene and help them escape. And that kind of, you know, put me outside the role of a journalist.
NORDLANDAnd it raised very serious ethical questions for me that I felt I didn't have any way to resolve, except to try to do the best by them that I could. And, you know, having followed them that far. And also, as you point out, you know, bringing attention to them as well gave me a kind of responsibility to them.
LAKSHMANANAnd, of course, I think you write about how you felt that you had to abandon that sort of classic sense of a journalist being completely objective and not part of the story at all when you realized that if you didn't bundle them into your car and take them away that they were facing certain death.
NORDLANDRight, right. And I think I would have been justly blamed for that because at least part of the reason that they would have been found was because, you know, I was there with a team of journalists trying to find them myself. And we were -- and you cannot move around in mountains, parts of Afghanistan as a group of foreigners without drawing a lot of attention to yourself. On the other hand, I could have not done the story at all, as some people have suggested maybe I should not have done, and I think the outcome then was foreordained.
LAKSHMANANWell, you write about other women who have been victims of these honor killings. One woman who agreed to go back to her family when they swore testimony that they would not kill her. And tell us what happened to that woman.
NORDLANDShe did not even survive the three-hour drive home. And the family concocted a story -- almost everyone believes they concocted a story that they were set upon by robbers who then killed the girl, but nobody else in the car. And it just wasn't plausible. It was pretty clearly her own family.
LAKSHMANANKilled her before she even got home. I think we have the caller back on the line now. Jim, from Akron, Ohio, go ahead.
JIMYeah, hi. Thank you. As I was saying, I wondered how much the Islamic fundamentalists that seem to fear and hate the West around the world, if the changing role of women in the world, and not only that, but the sexual revolution that has occurred in the West over the past 40 years, if that, you know, including homosexuality, if these aren't really the -- a big part of what these Islamic groups fear about the West, to try -- kind of trying to hold back the hands of time.
LAKSHMANANOkay. So, Noorjahan, the caller is essentially asking whether there's been a reaction to -- whether some of this violence against women is in reaction to what they see as a perceived Westernization of more freedom for women.
AKBARI think a lot of the fight, at least in Afghanistan, is around resources. The Taliban occupy a lot of land. They're able to use that land to produce narcotics. Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world's narcotics. And they use it to fuel their war. I think the religion has simply become an ideology.
AKBARThey could replace it with any other extremist ideology to galvanize support, to terrify people into submission. I think religion has become a tool into their hands. And there are many who are reclaiming that. There are many Muslims who are coming forward and saying this is not our religion. This is not in our name. We don't agree with this. We are standing up to this.
LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Gayle, I want to bring you back in and ask you about the money that the United States has poured into Afghanistan in the last 14 years, for a variety of things, but including in an attempt to improve the conditions for women. By some estimates, more than billion dollars has been spent on programs for rule of law and trying to help Afghan women in various ways. Has this foreign donors' money gone to waste? Are women as bad off nearly as they were under the Taliban?
LEMMONI would say that there is a generation of young women, who are less young than when I first started covering them 10 years ago, who have been at the forefront of finding the openings that the international community's presence has created and using those openings to create opportunity to organize, to be -- to speak out. Not just on their behalf, but on the behalf of women around the country.
LEMMONAnd look, if you want to -- last week, seven journalists who work for Tolo TV, a pretty forward-looking television station that goes across Afghanistan, were killed in a suicide bombing that the Taliban claimed. Three of the seven were young women. Right? Think about. These are young people at the forefront. And I think so many times there is a tsunami of awful headlines coming out of Afghanistan that absolutely overwhelms this story about people who are fighting for Afghanistan's future. And that includes women and girls.
LEMMONI would actually argue with how much money was spent specifically on programs for women and girls because I've tried to unearth, Indira, some of those numbers and it's not terribly easy to break those out. But I do think that if you're gonna talk about the money that has been spent, you know, why -- funding change agents who are already on the ground, not talking about foreigners who come in and tell Afghan women how to live, but Afghan women who are leading their communities.
LEMMONWhether the international community is there or not, they are the canary in the coal mine for modernity in many ways. Right? They're the proxy for what their country is gonna look like in a lot of ways. And I think we often have failed because the one thing that international donors and sometimes Taliban and other folks can agree on is a lack of women at the table when it comes to conversations about Afghanistan's future.
LAKSHMANANWell, you know, you make a good point. Because you're talking about a lack of Afghan women at the table. And that's been a real criticism…
LAKSHMANAN…by groups like Human Rights Watch, who say that women have been involved in the peace talks that are proposed with the Taliban. I mean, Rod, you yourself have said that one of the problems is that many of these reform efforts have been directed by foreigners, funded by American money, and that there wasn't really enough of an indigenous movement by Afghan women.
NORDLANDThat's right. And I think a lot of them have been kind of -- a lot of it has been money wasted on frivolous programs and on organizations, contractors for USAID who spend most of their money on their own security and quarter-of-a-million-dollar salaries for their own staff and so on.
LAKSHMANANAnd in that regard, how hopeful are you for the future of Afghan women? These funding programs from overseas you think have not helped? Is there enough going on at home by Afghan women that they can make themselves a better future?
NORDLANDNo. I think the funding programs have helped, though. And I don't think -- I think that most Afghan women would agree that without a continued Western involvement, you know, they're not gonna have any future at all. That it's only that Western support that's really helped them to get as far as they have. And it's only Western pressure, for instance, that brought the elimination for Violence Against Women law into being. And that it's prevented it from being repealed, despite many efforts by the Afghan parliament.
LAKSHMANANWell, you were there until…
LEMMONAnd, Indira, sorry.
LAKSHMANANYes. Go ahead, Gayle.
LEMMONI'm sorry. Just one thing that I would want to add is that I think so many times we have seen the conversation about Afghan women's fate as peripheral to the conversation about Afghanistan's future, rather than central to it. And I do hope that Rod's work and the book and the conversation today really leads people to say this is really a conversation about modernity and about people fighting for their own country and their future, whether they be male or female.
LAKSHMANANNoorjahan, you're -- as the only Afghan in our conversation, I want to give you the last word. Are you hopeful? What is realistic? What is ahead for Afghan women? And what should the U.S. be doing?
AKBARI am hopeful. I think that's a surprising answer for most because I come from a war zone. But I am hopeful. The reason I'm hopeful is the thousands of Afghan women who are risking their lives to be teachers, to join the police forces, to join the government, to join the private sector. And I work with an organization that works with women at the most grassroots level. 94 percent of the women that Women for Women International works with have no -- in Afghanistan -- have not formal education.
AKBARBut they want to rebuild their lives. They want to have businesses. They want to make money. They want to make decisions at home. And they're learning about their rights. These women are the future. We can't ignore them. We can't play with their rights. They're going to stand up.
LAKSHMANANAll right. A strong message to send us off with into the rest our day. Thank you so much, Noorjahan Akbar, of Women for Women International, an Afghan human rights activist, joining us by phone from the NPR L.A. studio, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon of the Council on Foreign Relations. And right here in front of me, Rod Nordland, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the new book, "The Lovers: Afghanistan's Romeo and Juliet: The True Story of How They Defied Their Families and Escaped an Honor Killing." I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you all so much for listening.
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