Seventeen months after Setara’s husband cut her face and chest with a knife, disfiguring her for life and only narrowly failing to kill her, the laws of her native Afghanistan have still not allowed her to divorce him.

The reason is not because anyone disputes what happened to her.

Throughout their marriage, Setara’s husband, a drug addict, would demand that she bring him 5,000 Afghanis (RM310) daily to sustain his habit.

“Where is a woman supposed to get that kind of money from?” asked Setara, who goes by one name.

The night in December 2013 when her husband lost control began as any other. “He was laughing, I prepared food for him, and we went to sleep together,” Setara recalled. But in the early hours, in a fit of rage possibly fuelled by drug withdrawal, Setara’s husband attacked her with a rock and hit her unconscious.

Setara woke up when he was cutting off her nose with a knife. As she fought back, he stabbed her chest, slashed her lips and continued to beat her until she lost consciousness again. The next time she woke up, she was being dragged, bleeding and throbbing, outside. Alerted by the turmoil, her four children awoke and managed to chase him away.

He went on the run and reportedly joined insurgents in Herat’s Shindand district. But though she hasn’t heard from him since, Setara has still not been able to get a legal separation.


Suspects in a public lynching case stand before a judge during a Primary Court trial in Kabul. An Afghan court on May 6, 2015, sentenced four men to death for the public lynching in Kabul of a 27-year-old woman falsely accused of burning the Quran. Judge Safiullah Mojaddidi, announcing the verdict in a case which sparked a public outcry, said that Zainul Abiddin, Mohammad Yaqub, Mohammad Sharif and Abdul Bashir would be hanged. Photo: AFP

Like many Afghan women in rural areas, Setara doesn’t have an identification card, or tazkera, a requirement for having a divorce plea handled in a court of law. To obtain a tazkera, an Afghan woman needs consent from her husband or father, which can prove particularly problematic in cases of domestic abuse.

Setara, though, had a stroke of luck. Her case came to the attention of a local attorney and also the Spanish army, which helped her to undergo surgery in Turkey and Spain. When she came back to Herat, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), an NGO, offered legal counselling and got her an identification card so she could start her divorce process.

Despite what happened to her, Setara said her father has no regrets about selling her off to her husband at the age of seven. “My father said, ‘It was your destiny.’ He even warns my mother that he will do something even worse to her,” she said.

In Afghanistan, the vast majority of women who experience domestic violence don’t seek a legal divorce, partly due to economic dependence on their husbands and cultural pressure to keep families united. As a result, only 5% of cases involving violence against women surveyed by the UN in a recent report ended in prosecution in a formal court. Even for women who do file for divorce, the process is exhausting.

“The right of divorce is with the man,” said Gulsum Sediqi, an activist with the Civil Society Institution Network in Herat. “He can divorce her any time, without reason. But women can’t divorce unless her husband doesn’t give her food or clothes. If she is beaten, it has to be proven by two witnesses, and the process can take more than a year.”

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