Afghan woman battles domestic violence, patriarchal culture
Basira Haidari arrived in Sacramento three years ago from Afghanistan and vowed to stand up to her husband if he abused her. That pledge broke her family apart.
Basira had watched women in Kabul beaten or even killed for speaking their minds or marrying the person they chose. She wanted to take advantage of her new freedoms in the U.S. but was unfamiliar with the rules here.
She and her husband Omid moved to a Skyview Villa apartment in Arden Arcade with their daughter Raheel. She gave birth to her son Subhan about two years later. As she had feared, arguments with Omid turned physical, and he recalled they often argued about little things. On Jan. 22, he said, his wife took $300 from his wallet without asking him. He confronted her and slapped her in the face, he said. She hit him back.
“She was trying to make me stop and I was trying to make her stop shouting,” he said. “Because we are humans, we all make mistakes. Everybody has anger.”
The fighting escalated. The next day, she called 911 for help. She didn’t know how to get a restraining order against her husband. She didn’t know her case would be turned over to Sacramento County Child Protective Services.
She didn’t know she would lose the custody of her children.
Her struggle to regain that custody has called attention to what has long been unspoken – culturally sanctioned domestic violence in the homes of Afghan refugees living in Northern California.
Sacramento County is among the most popular destinations for Afghan refugees in the U.S., especially for those who worked with U.S. forces. A gaping cultural disconnect has emerged between their understanding of what is permitted between husbands and wives in Afghanistan and what U.S. laws allow, said marriage and family therapist Homeyra Ghaffari.
Ghaffari is an Iranian immigrant who speaks Basira’s native Dari dialect and has become a lifeline for more than 30 Afghan refugees in the Sacramento area coping with emotional challenges ranging from domestic strife to post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by decades of war. She said she often bounces from one crisis to another trying to resolve family disputes and explain American laws.
“(The wife’s) assumption was as long as he’s not touching their kids, they’re safe,” Ghaffari said. “They’re coming from a culture that has always taught men to dominate women, and Omid’s a victim as much as Basira.”
Omid, 25, and Basira, 23, are now living apart because of a temporary restraining order she won against her husband. She has resisted being a victim. Basira became a symbol of resolve for her neighbors in Skyview Villa, where about 50 other Afghan families have settled. She urged other Afghan women in the area to report domestic violence to the police.
Her Facebook name is “Moon Brave.”
“I know some families that beat their kids and lock their wives in the house,” said Basira. “Their husbands tell their wives, ‘Don’t go to Basira,’ or maybe they’ll lose their kids too.
Basira’s longtime next door neighbor in Skyview Villa, Faisal Razmal, was aware of the fights between Basira and Omid and the friction they caused elsewhere.
“I told my wife not to call Basira anymore because she’s a troublemaker,” Razmal said. “Everywhere, people are talking about Basira.”
A history of violence
Basira first witnessed family violence against women as a girl.
She was Basira Alam then, and said when she was 4, her 13-year-old sister Rahima was forced to marry a distant relative, a member of a militant Taliban group. He moved her sister to the mountains of northern Afghanistan where they had three children together. One of them was committed to marry another member of the Taliban in exchange for money when she was only 10 days old, Basira said.
Rahima returned home seeking a divorce, and her husband followed, looking for her. Unable to find his wife, he attacked her mother.
“He nearly stomped her to death and cut her stomach open from her belly button to her chest,” Basira said. She displayed a picture of her battered mother on her cellphone.
“There was blood everywhere,” she said. “She was in a coma.”
Her sister’s husband was imprisoned, but his family didn’t relent. His father threatened to blow up Basira’s house and kill their family, she said.
Basira vowed to never let that same fate befall her.
She learned English to help find a better job in Afghanistan or overseas, and studied taekwondo.
At 18, Basira accepted an arranged marriage to Omid Haidari a translator for U.S. military forces. As far as arranged marriages went, it was a progressive union. Basira’s family didn’t ask for any dowry.
“I only saw him twice before our wedding day but liked him because he was educated,” she said. “When he saw me, he said, ‘I can’t believe how beautiful my wife is.’ ”
A thousand people attended their wedding. Omid, the son of a mechanic and a school teacher, was Basira’s ticket out of Afghanistan.
About a year later, he was granted a Special Immigrant Visa for interpreters, guides and others who had aided the U.S. military. On Feb. 19, 2014, the couple moved to their new home in Sacramento County, the destination of roughly 3,800 Iraqis and Afghans with SIVs since 2008, by far the highest number of any county in California and more than the total in 47 states.
Most of those men supported U.S. forces in some of the war’s most dangerous battles. They are also products of a culture that often considers women the property of their husbands and, in some cases, justifies so-called honor killings of women for disobeying their husbands or families.
In February, police in the Taliban-controlled far eastern Afghan province of Nuristan arrested an 18-year-old married woman after she was caught running away with her lover. According to news accounts, a mob of 300 demanded the police hand over the couple. The woman’s brothers killed her, and her husband executed her lover.
Basira recalled that when she asked her dad why he didn’t intervene in her sister’s troubled marriage, he answered, “If I don’t marry her (off), the Taliban is going to come to my home and kill us.”
New country, new expectations
In Afghanistan, Omid studied computer science in college and took a job as an interpreter with the U.S. Marines for $600 a month, more than 30 times the average monthly salary in Afghanistan. He now works as a Lyft driver and has other odd jobs.
Jaffar Samadi, 42, came to Sacramento two years ago from Afghanistan, and he, too, learned that his experiences had not prepared him for his new country. Samadi had worked with U.S. forces as an interpreter for seven years and won a Special Immigrant Visa. But in California, he could not feed his family.
“We didn’t know where to get our food or how to cross the streets,” he said. “I had a lot of problems.”
Many Afghan men who were doctors or engineers now must work as security guards or clerks. Feelings of inadequacy are common, as are bursts of frustration.
In a fit of anger, Samadi said, he wrote an email to the resettlement agency threatening to kill himself and his family if he didn’t get help. Samadi and his wife, Batool Moshref, 42, were referred to Ghaffari. She now meets with each of them individually for weekly counseling.
“We come from a country where there is no law written down, and if it is, it’s never applied,” Samadi said. “The only way you can survive is through power and aggression. Our ways have no application here.”
In Afghanistan, after a man asks for a woman to marry him, he is expected to pay a huge dowry, including the cost of the wedding. “By the time they’re married, the man has paid so much he thinks he owns her,” Samadi said. “I had a core belief that my wife is my property and she does what I say.”
The financial pressure took a toll on Basira and Omid. Omid came home from working the graveyard shift as a contractor at the Apple plant in south Sacramento, and fought with Basira because she asked him to watch their two young children so that she could do the shopping or attend English classes. She needed to take the classes to meet public aid requirements.
Omid’s mother in Afghanistan urged her son to take a harder stand with his wife.
She called frequently, Basira said. “ ‘Don’t let her go out, don’t let her drive, she’s very smart, she won’t care about you,’ ” she recalled her telling him. “And he listened to her. I don’t like this kind of control.”
Dr. Malika Popal runs Rihla, a Sacramento area nonprofit agency that has supported Basira and other Afghan refugees. She said Afghan women’s expectations of more freedom in the U.S. can add to their husbands’ disorientation about their place in the home.
“The culture is the main issue,” Popal said. “Women want to be more modern and the husbands don’t like it, and they start fighting every day.”
On Jan. 23, the day after Omid slapped his wife for taking money from his wallet, they fought again in their car as they were driving in Sacramento. Omid pulled his wife’s hair and punched and slapped her, with their kids in the back seat, according to Basira’s account in court records.
Omid told authorities that Basira had started the fight by threatening to jump out of the car while he was driving. Basira called the police, and Sacramento sheriff’s deputies arrested Omid the next day – his second arrest for domestic violence since coming to the U.S. Through an interpreter, they also told Basira to get a temporary restraining order against her husband if she didn’t want to risk losing her children to Child Protective Services.
On Jan. 26, county officials said a neighbor using Basira’s phone called to warn that Omid was coming home and would pose a risk to Basira and her children. According to court records, the neighbor also said “the people in the apartment complex are against the mother and harass her when she goes against the father because of their culture.”
Sheriff’s deputies and Child Protective Services workers arrived at her apartment later that day, two hours before Omid was scheduled to be released. They learned that Basira – who had called 911 to report her husband at least five times – still didn’t have a restraining order against her husband. The county placed her children in foster care.
According to court records, Child Protective Services felt that “given the ongoing domestic violence in the home and the mother’s failure to protect the children,” along with the family’s reluctance to enroll in domestic violence classes, the children needed to be removed for their safety.
In March, Basira was still trying to bring home her 3-year-old daughter Raheel and six-month-old son Subhan.
“One social worker told me it might be a year before I’d get them back,” Basira said. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I had a misunderstanding with the interpreter. I try to follow all the rules here, but they don’t tell us what the rules are.”
Her husband is drifting on friends’ couches in Sacramento, sometimes sleeping in a spare bed. He attends classes for domestic violence, parenting and anger management, hoping to rejoin his wife and children, he said.
Both Omid and Basira said the resettlement agency did not inform them about U.S. laws against domestic violence.
“I had an argument with my wife,” Omid said. “We know we are human and it’s not good to hit somebody, but we come from a different country where it happens once in a while. In Afghanistan we don’t have any CPS, we don’t have any traffic lights and police are never going to come to your house unless somebody really hurts somebody.
“They should give the new people coming here classes. It’s too late for me.”
Starting over alone
On March 20, Basira went to court to get her children back and restart her life.
With Popal’s help and loans from friends and family, Basira had bought a used Toyota Matrix and secured a two-bedroom apartment in West Sacramento for $744 a month. She passed her driver’s test on the second try.
A new bed with a pillow depicting her daughter’s favorite character – Elsa from “Frozen” – awaited. A crib was set up for Subhan.
Basira saw them twice a week during hourlong supervised visits. On Fridays, Basira rushed across town from her court-mandated domestic violence class in Arden Arcade to intercept her children in the parking lot, off Power Inn Road, of the family court building. The children fell into her arms, whimpering with joy. They went inside together.
In court, a social worker told the judge she couldn’t guarantee Omid wouldn’t come back once the kids were home or that they would be safe.
The judge, however, ruled in favor of Basira.
“The judge said, ‘This mom is very active, she has a new home, a car, she’s looking for a job, she’s going to classes,’ ” Basira recounted. She waited for hours outside until she finally got her children back that night.
Hours later, the new apartment was filled with laughter and tears. Every time she picked up one child, the other demanded to be held too. She reassured them that they wouldn’t be taken away again.
She also said she hoped Omid was completing his classes so they can start over.
“If he stops domestic violence, I will give him a chance,” Basira said. “I don’t want our kids to lose their father.”