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Ultimate taboo: Actress takes on rape in Afghanistan

Fereshta Kazemi's film "The Icy Sun" breaks new ground for Afghanistan, where victims of rape can be forced to marry their attackers to preserve their families' honor. NBC News' Mandy Clark reports.

KABUL, Afghanistan — A woman is raped. Instead going after her attacker, the law and society imprison the victim.

This is often the reality in Afghanistan. To bring attention to the issue, Afghan-American actress Fereshta Kazemi took the role of a rape victim in a recent film, "The Icy Sun."

"The concept of honor for the men rests on a woman’s shoulders," said Kazemi, 33. "Her brothers and her family feel that they have been raped of their honor."


This perception of honor means that society often blames the women who are attacked, she says.

"There is this atmosphere where women are vulnerable to having people talk about them or say negative things or say that she wanted to be raped or say, 'Look at the way they were behaving,'" Kazemi said.

These deeply ingrained attitudes exist against a hostile backdrop for Afghan women and girls: The country remains one of the most dangerous countries in which to be a woman, according to a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey. Close to 90 percent of women face at least one form of physical, sexual or psychological violence in their lifetimes, according to a Human Rights Watch annual report. Up to 80 percent of women face forced marriage, Thomson Reuters Foundation reports.

Additionally, many Afghan women are imprisoned for so-called moral crimes, which include running away from an abusive home or fleeing a forced marriage. Human Rights Watch estimates that around half of the approximately 700 women and girls in prison in the country are facing such charges.

One woman’s real-life story vividly illustrates the problems confronting women who are violently attacked.

In 2009, Gulnaz’s cousin’s husband tied her to a bed and raped her when she was home alone. She was left pregnant from the assault. Her family reported the crime to local police in the northern province of Kunduz, but instead of going after her rapist, officials jailed her for adultery. While in prison she gave birth to a baby girl, Masqa.

Her plight made international headlines over a year ago. American lawyer Kim Motley took on her case and helped Gulnaz get a presidential pardon in December 2011.

"I think in theory justice was done. She was released, she was exonerated," Motley said. "What trumped that once she was released was the culture. It was the … perception of her probably going to fail as a woman, as a single woman with a kid in Afghanistan."

After her release, Gulnaz was confined to a women’s shelter for 13 months.  She felt it was no different from prison. Afghan officials blocked Gulnaz, now 22, from getting papers to apply for asylum in another country, Motley says.

The same officials pushed Gulnaz into a decision -- two weeks ago, Gulnaz married her rapist.

"Basically there were people in the Afghan government who helped to facilitate and pressure her to marry the guy," Motley said.

Many Afghan rape victims are forced to marry their attackers as a way of restoring the family honor.

Against this backdrop, Motley says she understands why women hesitate to go to the authorities.

"I can certainly understand a woman not wanting to report a rape," she said. "Frankly … if I was raped here as an Afghan woman, I don’t know if I would do the same," she said.

A recent United Nations report found one positive trend: In some areas, such as the major cities of Kabul and Herat, more women are reporting rape. This does not necessarily mean that more are being assaulted, only that victims are willing to come forward. In contrast, in Taliban strongholds such as Logar and Wardak, there were no reports of rape. U.N. officials say in the report that this does not mean that no rapes occurred but that women were too scared to report them.

So when it comes to security, it is safety close to home that seems foremost in the minds of Afghan women. 

As one American diplomat speaking on the condition of anonymity said:

"I am always taken aback when I talk to Afghan women and ask them what worries them the most. Their reply is domestic abuse. They are more concerned with being beaten or set on fire by their husbands or uncles than any larger issue like Taliban."

Related: 

Afghanistan: Where actresses risk their lives for their art

'Game with a purpose': Vietnam vet, teen bring Scouting and help to Afghanistan

Photos: Afghanistan - Nation at a crossroads