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Teens’ romance tests Afghan traditions, incites rage

By Jack Healy
New York Times / July 31, 2011

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HERAT, Afghanistan - The two teenagers met inside an ice cream factory through darting glances before roll call, murmured hellos as supervisors looked away, and finally a phone number folded up and tossed discreetly onto the workroom floor.

It was the beginning of an Afghan love story that flouted dominant traditions of arranged marriages and close family scrutiny, a romance between teenagers of different ethnicities that tested a village’s tolerance for more modern whims of the heart. The results were delivered with brutal speed.

This month, a group of men spotted the couple riding together in a car, yanked them into the road and began to interrogate the boy and girl. Why were they together? What right had they? An angry crowd of 300 surged around them, calling them adulterers and demanding that they be stoned to death or hanged.

When security forces swooped in and rescued the couple, the mob’s anger exploded. They overwhelmed the local police, set fire to cars, and stormed a police station 6 miles from the center of Herat, raising questions about the strength of law in a corner of western Afghanistan and in one of the first cities that has made the formal transition to Afghan-led security.

The riot, which lasted for hours, ended with one man dead, a police station charred, and the two teens, Halima Mohammedi and her boyfriend, Rafi Mohammed, confined to juvenile prison. Officially, their fates lie in the hands of an unsteady legal system. But they face harsher judgments of family and community.

Mohammedi’s uncle visited her in jail to say she had shamed the family and promised that they would kill her once she was released. Her father, an illiterate laborer who works in Iran, sorrowfully concurred. He cried during two visits to the jail, saying almost nothing to his daughter.

“What we would ask is that the government should kill both of them,’’ said the father, Kher Mohammed.

The teenagers, embarrassed to talk about love, said plainly that they were ready for death. But they were baffled by why they should have to be killed.

Rafi Mohammed, who is 17, said: “I feel so bad. I just pray that God gives this girl back to me. I’m ready to lose my life. I just want her safe release.’’

Mohammedi, who believes she is 17, said: “We are all human. God created us from one dirt. Why can we not marry each other, or love each other?’’

The case has resonated in Herat, in part because it stirred memories of a stoning ordered by the Taliban last summer in northern Afghanistan.

A young couple in Kunduz was stoned to death by scores of people after they eloped. The stoning marked a brutal application of Sharia law. It was captured on a video released online months later. Afghan officials promised to investigate after an international outcry, but no one has faced criminal charges.

The immediate response to the violence in Herat was heartening by comparison. Top clerics declined to condemn the couple. Police officers risked their lives to pull the teens to safety and deposit them into the legal system rather than the hands of angry relatives. And the police reported that five or six girls had fled the city with their boyfriends and fiances in the weeks after the riot.

After discussing the case, the provincial council decided that Mohammed and Mohammedi deserved the government’s protection because neither was engaged and because each said they wanted to get married.

“They are not criminals, even if they have committed sexual activities,’’ said Abdul Zahir, the council’s leader.

But so far, their words have not freed either of the teenagers.

Mohammedi was initially taken to a women’s shelter, but the police transferred her to the city’s juvenile detention center. The police said they referred the teens’ cases to prosecutors.

“From their point of view, she committed a crime,’’ said Suraya Pakzad, director of Voices of Women Organization, a rights group that provided Mohammedi with a bed for one night.

The couple talked on the phone most nights, even though the girl’s stepmother disapproved. After a year, they decided they were fed up with hiding their relationship. They would meet, go to the courthouse, and get married. Mohammed persuaded a cousin to take him to Jabrail, where she was waiting.

They had not driven 30 feet when a car blocked their path and angry men jumped out. Mohammedi was not hurt, but the crowd beat up the cousin and pummeled Mohammed until he collapsed.

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