Clean-shaven and dressed in a Western-style suit, the stranger seated on Rasoul’s carpet asked to marry his host’s daughter, the wife he’d chosen for himself. Rasoul had never seen the caller before—a rarity in his tight-knit neighborhood near the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad—so he stalled for time to ask around. Bullying and beatings followed, and a colleague soon confirmed what Rasoul had deduced: the beardless man was a Taliban fighter in disguise. “I love my daughter more than myself,” Rasoul tells me, explaining why he chose to flee Afghanistan. Two years later, he lives in a cramped flat in New Delhi’s “Little Kabul” neighborhood with his daughter, who works at a local dentist’s office, and wife. The aging man points to where the insurgents broke his bones. He struggles to stand when I depart.
The Taliban announced another annual spring offensive on April 25, though high profile attacks have shaken Kabul since the beginning of the year. Afghan civilians are fleeing in large numbers. But outside the major urban centers where insurgents stoke fear and seek to make headlines, many rural Afghans continue to leave for an underreported reason: women’s exclusion from decision-making on marriage—and in marriages. For these refugees, the type of physical insecurity that tends to dominate news from Afghanistan is the terrifying backdrop to what one young Afghan convenience store worker in Delhi calls a less visible “crisis of culture”—a crisis that he believes allows the subjugation of women to persist.
“We have enemies in Afghanistan,” says Firoz, a medical interpreter who lives a few blocks from Rasoul with her five children. She isn’t talking about the Taliban. After her husband died, she was unable to fend off brothers-in-law, who pressured her to marry off her only daughter, 16 at the time. Her own brothers couldn’t defend her from where they lived, so the family left in 2011, despite what Firoz described as a “normal” security situation. There was simply no future in the country for a single mother or her unmarried daughter.