Afghan Bride says Indian husband is a bigamist

FEMINISM - In recent years Indian women have been assaulted by so-called "moral police" for going to pubs. Meanwhile Sabra Ahmadzai, a 20-year-old Afghan woman, is being championed by women's groups for pursuing her rights.

Two years ago, Ahmadzai married an Indian army doctor who was assigned to a Kabul military hospital in Afghanistan. Twenty days after the marriage, he returned to India, vowing to come back for her. Six months later he phoned in July 2007 and informed Ahmadzai he had a wife and children back home and was never going to return.

"He told me I was young and beautiful and should go ahead and get married again," says Ahmadzai.

Sabra Ahmadzai decided to go to India and file a criminal complaint against him.

Her case has become a cause célèbre – featured in daily newspapers and on TV in both India and Afghanistan. She has even met with India's home affairs minister and Afghanistan's ambassador to India.

And she has thousands of supporters. A recent demonstration by her supporters blocked traffic for five hours in New Delhi.

India is a very conservative country, slow to change. Dowry, female bondage and forced prostitution are common in some parts of India, especially rural areas. But a growing middle class is rethinking traditional attitudes.

In Kabul, Ahmadzai was scorned – even though village elders and her family had approved of her marriage to the physician. "After he left, women said I was a stigma and should take poison," Ahmadzai says. "Boys said they would marry me for 20 days, too. I decided to do something about it."

So she borrowed $3,300 and boarded a plane to India to find her delinquent husband. She found her husband in the Himalayan town of Pithoragarh, a two-day trip from Delhi.

Over the past two months, her case has been keenly watched and has stoked furious debates both about women's rights and the conduct of Indian soldiers abroad.

"People say there's no more need for a women's movement, but cases like Sabra's remind us we have a raison d'être," says Kavita Krishnan, general secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association. "This is still a country where a chief minister recently stood up and criticized women who go to pubs. And it's still a place where the army protects its own against a woman like Sabra."

Ahmadzai met the 40-year-old Pant when she was helping out as a translator at the hospital where he worked. "This man three times came to my family to ask to marry me," she says.

"The first time, my father said it would not be right for me to marry outside our religion." But Pant pledged to convert to Islam and changed his name to Himmat Khan to appease Ahmadzai's father.

"My family eventually said I should do this because he had treated so many of our sick children and this was the right thing to do," Ahmadzai continues.

Essentially the man married her only so he could cheat on his wife.

But after she caught up to him in India she gave him three choices: she could move in with his family in India; his Indian family could move with them to Kabul; or he could travel to Kabul and grant her a divorce.

"He said no to all three and just wanted to give me some money," Ahmadzai says.

Days later, she filed a police complaint. Under Indian law, Pant faces as many as 10 years in prison if convicted of bigamy.

Pant now denies he ever married Ahmadzai and says the wedding photos and videos she has provided are photo-shopped fakes.

"But this will not go away. I will get justice," says Ahmadzai.

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