Zarmina, 36, lives in Herat city with her husband Juma Gul, a driver, and his second wife.
“I got married to Juma Gul 17 years ago, but after six years he married another girl,” she said.
Ever since then, her husband has refused to have sex with her.
“It’s so hard to feel like a widow even though your husband is still alive,” she said. “It’s so hard for me to express how I feel.”
For more than a decade, Zarmina said that she had felt unloved and sexually frustrated.
“Whenever I wanted to be intimate with my husband and approached him only to be rejected, I would go and kiss the holy Koran and ask Allah for patience and forgiveness, because there was no way I could leave my house and satisfy my desires by having sex with another man.”
To make matters worse, she shares a small house with Juma Gul and his second wife, and their rooms are directly opposite each other.
In Islam, it is obligatory to wash one’s entire body after having intercourse, and Zarmina said that it was obvious her husband and his second wife enjoyed an active sex life.
“The worst part of my life that I’ve suffered over the last 11 years is to wake up in the morning and see my husband’s second wife taking a bath after having had sex the previous night with my husband.”
Under Islamic law, a man can take up to four wives but is supposed to treat them all equally. In practice, the first wife is often rejected when her husband remarries.
Although openly discussing such intimate matters is taboo in Afghanistan’s conservative society, IWPR spoke to a number of women in the western city of Herat who said that their husband’s second marriage had ruined their lives. As well as bitterly resenting years of being refused physical intimacy with their husband, some said that they had been denied the chance to have more children.
Most Islamic scholars agree that it is forbidden for husbands to forgo sex for more than four months, and Sharia law allows a wife to seek a divorce if her husband is unable to satisfy her physical needs.
“Satisfying sexual desire is one of the two main purposes of marriage in Islam,” said Abdul Wahid Asimi, the director of Herat’s department of haj and religious affairs. “When a man deprives his wife of sexual intercourse, he will have to answer to Allah for his actions.”
He added, “If a woman complains that her husband has refused to have sex with her, the court has the right to order their separation.”
But social pressure and the fear of public disgrace mean that few women pursue this course of action.
Nafisa, 40, lives in Herat city and has been married to Abdul Qayum for 25 years.
“I got married when I was 15, but after the birth of my third baby my husband married again. He has not had sex with me for the last 19 years,” she said.
“Some nights when I wanted to be close to my husband, I prepared his bed in my room, but he was with his second wife. I would call to him from my room to spend the night with me, but he would just insult me.”
Nafisa said that her husband began mistreating her and even beat her. After five years of this, he sent her to live in her brother’s house in the Safi Abad area of Herat.
“During these 15 years, Abdul Qayum never visited my brother’s house to see me and he never tried to be intimate with me,” she continued, adding that he had also refused to support her financially.
Nafisa now washes clothes, takes in sewing and does shifts at a pistachio processing factory to earn enough to feed and clothe her children.
Asked why she remained married, Nafisa replied, “I didn’t divorce my husband because I am a Muslim woman and the separation of a wife from her husband is considered a great disgrace and shame.”
Mahbooba Jamshedi, director of Herat’s department of women’s affairs, said that men refusing to sleep with their wives was a widespread complaint.
“Women come to my office and ask me, ‘how are we supposed to satisfy our desires if our husbands will not have sexual intercourse with us?’”
Maari Maihandyar, a prosecutor dealing with gender violence in Herat’s attorney general’s Office, agreed that it was a problem, albeit one that women found it hard to talk about.
“Due to the fact that our society is dominated by conservative traditions, it’s shameful for women to complain that they have been deprived of sexual intercourse,” she said.
“Women register their cases as violence,” Maihanyaar continued, “When we investigate, we sometimes find out that the real reason is that their husbands refuse to have sex with them.”
Abdul Qadir Rahimi, head of the regional office of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), said, “It’s so sad that so many women don’t understand Islamic law and so think that their husbands have the right to deprive them of sex.
“Many women in Herat have the misconception that since Islam has permitted men to have many wives, men therefore also have the right to deprive their first and second wives of sexual intercourse after their third and fourth marriages.”
Second or third wives often put pressure on their husbands to reject their first wife.
“There is a famous saying in Herat which says that a young wife is always envious; therefore, I don’t want my husband to have sex with his first wife,” said Somaya, 30, who married Dawood when she was just 12 years old.
Somaya said that she was indeed intensely jealous of her husband’s first wife, adding that it was common amongst her community for men to have three or four wives.
“It has been 18 years since I married Dawood, but I don’t think that I have ever permitted my husband to have intercourse with Noor Bibi, his first wife.”
Abdul Bari, head of criminal investigations at Herat police headquarters, said that the problem was widespread.
“Many men who have multiple wives violate their rights by refusing to sleep with them,” he said, noting that it was impossible to get a clear understanding of the issue as so few women made formal complaints to the police.
“Herat is a province which is dominated by deep-rooted customs and cultures, so people rarely come to the police with such cases,” he said, adding that when such complaints were made they were passed on to community councils for arbitration.
“The police respect local tribal customs, so we don’t order the judicial authorities to intervene in such cases.”
However, IWPR spoke to one woman who decided to take legal action in an attempt to put pressure on her husband to be intimate with her.
Speaking to IWPR after she had filed her complaint in the police station, the 30-year-old woman, a resident of the Bakar Abad area of Herat city, asked to remain anonymous.
“Ten years ago I got married to my husband, a police officer,” she said. “Two years ago my husband got married for the second time and since the time of that marriage he has not had sex with me.
“In my letter of complaint, I wrote that for two years I had asked my husband to have sexual intercourse with me, but he that not only rejected my request but also beat me.”
She said that although Islam gave her the option of ending her marriage, she feared that might only make her life worse.
“Due to fact that my parents don’t want me to, I cannot divorce my husband.”
Immediately after this interview, the IWPR reporter witnessed the woman’s husband confronting her and threatening to shoot her dead if she returned to his house.
“You have insulted and embarrassed me in front of my colleagues by complaining that I have deprived you of sex,” he shouted.
But most women simply suffer in silence, feeling powerless to change their situation.
Herat resident Syed Bibi married her husband Ahmad when she was 18 years old.
Now 44, she said that her husband had little interest in a woman of her age.
“Ahmad went to Iran 14 years ago and got married for a second time to an Iranian girl,” she said. “After this second marriage, he used to come to Herat just for 10 or 12 days each summer. When Ahmad stayed in Herat, he had sex with me just once or twice.”
Syed Bibi continued, “Every year I asked him to come to Herat at least once every two months so we could be intimate; however, it never happened.”
Last year, Ahmed divorced his Iranian wife and treated Syed Bibi more kindly during his annual summer visit.
“But after a few days after he got to Herat, he made a third marriage, to a 24-year old girl who was one of our neighbours,” she said, adding that her life had become even worse since this latest union.
The three of them shared a house, with Syed Bibi’s room just opposite that of her husband and his third wife. She said that she could hear all their romantic talk and that it was unbearably humiliating when it was clear the two were having sex with each other.
“Since my husband’s third marriage, he has not had sex with me even once,” Syed Bibi said. “My husband blames me because I am too old and he has made it clear that he wants to live with his 24-year old wife.”
Syed Bibi said that she was too ashamed to file for divorce, afraid of bringing disgrace upon herself and her family.
She added, “I will never forgive my husband for not fulfilling his responsibilities as my husband for so many years.”