Pious Peripheries
Runaway Women in Post-Taliban Afghanistan
Sonia Ahsan-Tirmizi



Samia Sarwar was my neighbor, my older sister’s classmate, and a close family friend. We grew up together, and I attended her wedding to her first cousin (her mother’s sister’s son) in Peshawar. In 1999, Samia acquired a lover and ran away from a miserable marriage to a women’s shelter. Her own mother followed, found, and killed her at the shelter. Samia’s family and friends, which included my family, did not give a single interview to the media. A shroud of secrecy fell on those nearest Samia, and no one close to her has spoken publicly since the day she was killed. Yet accounts of this killing saturate the public via television shows, articles, and books. For example, the BBC made a documentary about Samia called License to Kill without a single interview from a family member or friend. Princeton University professor Anthony Appiah wrote an impressive theoretical book called Honor Code, which includes Samia’s killing as a case study, without ever visiting Peshawar or conducting a single interview with the affected families. Oxford University Press published a book called Honor Killing based on Samia’s death, with no ethnographic insight. Even without any knowledge of Samia’s life or how she was raised, everyone still had an opinion. Feminists and activists presented ideas about alleviating the conditions of downtrodden Muslim Pashtun women through education. Some academics spoke about poverty and destitution, others about Islam, the Taliban, honor, and pashtunwali.1 But Samia and her family were educated, secular, and affluent. Her mother, who killed her, is a gynecologist, and her father is the president of the Sarhad Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa. She was raised in a magnificent mansion in an affluent neighborhood of Peshawar, overlooking a golf course. Although her family practiced pashtunwali and Islam, they were not conservative. Like my five sisters and me, Samia and her younger sister, a medical doctor, were raised in an affluent, educated, modern, secular part of Peshawar city, where families also took pride in their Pashtun and Muslim roots. We studied at Peshawar Convent, a progressive school for Muslim Pashtun girls. How could her mother, a woman we cherished and loved, kill Samia? For the last twenty years, I have tried to solve this puzzle.

Samia’s father and her vali (male patron) forgave her mother, and thus no legal action could be taken against her based on Qisas and Dayat laws, which allow the male patron to forgive a family member’s murder. Samia was killed at a shelter run by a powerful women’s rights activist, Asma Jehangir, which made her story famous. As a result of the international outrage, a bill was presented in parliament that would curtail such killings of women. However, the chairman of the Senate, an Oxford-educated lawyer, a Rhodes scholar and friend of Samia’s father, vetoed it. No one has been punished. Samia’s death has slowly receded into the past, but I have not forgotten. A few years later, my young cousin died under suspicious circumstances, leaving behind two toddler daughters, after she left her husband, also a cousin. Asna and I were very close.2 There was no investigation into her death. Again, the family drama continued, with the specter of violence ever present but never spoken about.

After these deaths, I conducted private research and found similar deaths. My mother’s sister Sophia was found dead one morning in her bed with her two young sons, ages seven and nine. When Sophia is remembered at family gatherings, her defiance, rebellion, and unruliness are at the center of our recollections. In some cases, the deaths garner international attention with endless news cycles of misleading information. Other deaths are relegated to obscurity. What do these deaths have in common other than that a woman is killed? In almost all cases, the woman is killed by a family member and then her in-laws and her birth family reach a tacit agreement to remain silent. In all cases, the dead women are labeled unruly, mad, disobedient, and promiscuous as a means of making her responsible for her own death.

Sheltering Runaway Women

This book is a reflection on the courage and bravery of ordinary women who persist and subvert despite the real threat of death. For example, I met Nurzia Athmar at the shelter—she had left her husband because he was abusive. She was a parliamentarian from Nangarhar province, and as an MP, was well known to the women of the shelter. There was also Gulalei, who had run away with her young son from her husband when he joined the Taliban. She was a long-term resident of the shelter who had been given the task of supervising the daily activities. One day when I was taking a break from the shelter, Gulalei called me. “Come immediately,” she said on the telephone. When I arrived at the shelter, I saw Nurzia perched on a bed. Women sat around her on the floor. Her husband had arrived at the shelter to find her, so in order to protect the other women there, she could no longer stay. Thus, in 2014, she fled Afghanistan and still remains in hiding. Her position in parliament had given her no protection. Nurzia is a tall, stately, impressive Pashtun woman who is confident and well spoken. She articulated the reason for her running away in these words: “My family did not side with me after I told them about my husband’s abuse. It was as if marriage made me another person, not their daughter.”

Women’s shelters across the globe are places of refuge against threats of violence. In Afghanistan, shelters are called khana-yi aman (home of safety) and house women who have been classified as “runaways” by the state and who are in the midst of legal and social sanctions. Women become runaways for a variety of reasons, including to get married or divorced, and/or to flee sexual and physical abuse. Many women at the shelter were the wives and daughters of the Taliban. Once women are ensconced in the shelter, the state can step into family arbitrations. What would have once and otherwise been resolved informally through jirgas (tribal councils) and family meetings can now be adjudicated by the state. This provides some protection to the women, but as the ethnography presented in this book demonstrates, it also subjects them to grotesque forms of violence, including mandatory virginity tests, indefinite imprisonment, forced abortions, and separation from infant children.

Women in the khana-yi aman are now at the mercy of the state without family safeguards and, in some cases, suffer gang rapes and other violence at the behest of the officials in charge of protecting them. Paradoxically, when such stories of rape and violence circulate outside the shelter in the public arena, they reinforce a stereotype of the runaway women as sexually licentious. A raped or sexually abused woman becomes part of the repertoire of promiscuity surrounding the shelter. Women in Afghanistan have few resources once they are marked as promiscuous (fahhash), licentious or prostitute (randi), or shameless (bi-sharm), which can happen for reasons that have little to do with actual sex or sexuality.3 Yet the women persist and form a supportive community inside the shelters.

A lot of ink has been spilled about the oppression of Afghan women. This book is not interested in how those outside Afghanistan see Afghan women but is instead preoccupied with how ordinary Afghan women understand and inhabit their own worlds. The uniqueness of the khana-yi aman women is that their actions are in harmony with their principles. They are not simply taking a rhetorical position; they are enacting a socially risky, promiscuous position and endangering themselves in the process. In doing so, they are demanding equality and redefining what it means to be equal and pious. While deeply implicated within Western liberation discourses of modernity, the women at the khana-yi aman are unconcerned with debates in the West on Muslim women’s emancipation. They do not run away to escape Islam, piety, and pashtunwali or to embrace freedom in its Western incarnation; rather, they run to own their Muslim piety and “Pashtun-ness” in ways unconstrained by Western or local patriarchal discourses. While their running away implies autonomous individual will, their fasting and praying demonstrate pious embodiment and religious self-discipline. By running, they lay claim to new possibilities of being Muslim women. These new feminine possibilities of being Muslim neither reject Islam nor entail obedience and submission to its nonegalitarian gender precepts. In inhabiting the contradictory positions between individual will and collective obligation, they transform the discourses that seek to subjugate them and demonstrate alternative ways of being pious Afghans.

Women run away for remarkably different reasons. Many run away after their husbands or fathers join the Taliban, others run to get divorced or to escape sexual and physical abuse, and others run away from conservative Muslim Pashtun families so that they can marry for romantic love rather than out of familial obligation. Ironically, still others run from secular-minded families who disapprove of their decision to become second or third wives. Each case has a complex history. The actions of the women at the khana-yi aman cannot be detached from the historical contexts embedded within the rich canonical sources through which piety is established. The women were proficient in Quranic and hadith sources and often recited them verbatim in Arabic and translated them spontaneously into Pashto or Dari. Women rendered intelligible their subject positions vis-à-vis pashtunwali and Islam through reflection on an Islamic past, and understanding the past was constitutive of how the women understood themselves in the present. Running away should not be read as a wholesale rejection of their Muslim identity, nor can becoming a willing second wife be read as a complete consolidation of their Muslim identity. The ethnographic work at the shelter dismantles the binary of tradition (pious) and modern (promiscuous) and demonstrates the historical complexity of each decision to run away at the risk of “becoming promiscuous.”

Do public expressions of promiscuity render Muslim women modern in the way that public visibility of piety renders them traditional? What does it mean to be modern or traditional in the context of Islamic feminism? In Afghanistan, notions of modernity and tradition as they relate to female piety and promiscuity are entwined in complicated ways. The conditions of gender inequality affect almost all Afghan women. Despite its marginalization, the khana-yi aman was not completely outside the patriarchal discourse, and the women lived in accordance with most Islamic and pashtunwali precepts. They clearly saw themselves as Muslim. In many of our conversations, they described themselves as adherents of Islam, which they did not view as incompatible with being Afghan or with their decision to run away. Yet the women were ostracized from their communities, which constrained them through Islamic notions of pious womanhood. Running away was not always an abandonment of tradition but rather an embrace of tradition but toward a different end. For instance, some wanted to lay claim to a world in which their rightful inheritance was given to them, a world possible in a nostalgic Islamic past, but not necessarily in a secular future. In all these cases, binaries of tradition–modernity and Islam–secularism fall apart as women inhabit multiple subject positions, sometimes contradictory and sometimes complementary. This nomadic way of being, in which women rebel against some norms while inhabiting others, opens the possibility for alternative ways of being modern.4 I call this notion promiscuous modern. Women rebel from a position of rootedness, not simply against tradition or Islam, but toward a future in which tradition and modernity cease to exist as simplistic binaries.


1. Sometimes defined as an honor code, pashtunwali is a historical, discursive, and material practice that women embody through praying, fasting, poetry (landay), and participating in rituals of honor, piety, hospitality, refuge, and sanctuary.

2. Names of some women have been changed except when they are already well-known cases in the media.

3. Randi is used mostly in Pashto-speaking areas; the remainder of the words to signify promiscuity are shared across Pashto and Persian.

4. Rosi Bradiotti (2011, 2012) has developed a theory on nomadic subjectivity in which, following Foucault, she emphasizes the generative nature of power. Power relations are not only outside but also inside (2011, 17). She observes about her own work, “[O]ur own currently situated perspective in a globalized contest is the premise for my project of redesigning subjectivity as a process of becoming nomad (2011, 5).