Three videos circulating on social networks in Afghanistan claim to show a "prayer-writing" mullah sexually assaulting three separate women. The videos were reportedly made three years ago in the north-central Faryab province, but appeared online the week of September 10. Local officials have identified the mullah and accused him of rape. If the charges are correct, these videos would be rare documentation of an often-alleged practice: rape committed by mullahs claiming to offer prayer-inspired healing to women.
They are known as "taweez nevis" in Afghanistan: self-appointed mullahs who in return for money write prayers on paper that are supposed to serve as “charms” (taweez). Afghan families often send women to see them in case of marital problems such as infertility. The sessions often lead to abuse.
The three videos sent to the Observers by multiple sources in Afghanistan appear to show such abuse. They show the same man, with a long beard and white robes, alone with three different women, in each case lying on a mattress on the floor.
Screengrab from a video circulating on social media in Afghanistan. Later in the video the man, identified on social media as a "taweez nevis" mullah, removes the woman's clothes and has intercourse with her.
In the first video, which lasts 3:43, the man and the woman remain clothed as he kneels between the woman’s legs and rubs himself against her. In the second, with a duration of 2:33, both are clothed and he appears to hold an object between her legs; then both stand up, he touches her genital area, then raises her shirt and kisses her midriff. In the third video, duration 2:14, he removes the woman’s trousers and his own and they have intercourse.
Observers in Afghanistan who have seen the videos say the man's appearance and behaviour suggest that he is a "taweez nevis." They note that he is heard reciting Islamic prayers as he touches the women. While most of his words are inaudible, the phrase in Arabic "There is no God but God" can be clearly heard.
Local officials identify mullah seen in videos
Local officials have identified the man in the video as a mullah who is wanted by the authorities. Naqibollah Faeq, governor of Faryab province, told France 24 he had already seen the videos:
They were filmed three years ago, in a village in the province, by a mullah called Rasoul Landi. He forced women to have sex with him, and threatened to publish the videos if they denounced him. Someone got ahold of his telephone two years ago and blackmailed him for months, extorting a lot of money. Landi eventually fled to Turkey about 18 months ago. That was then the videos started circulating, from phone to phone.
The videos showed up online a few days ago, along with rumours that Landi is back in Afghanistan. We are trying to track him down. The problem is, no one has filed a complaint against him. We are extremely worried for the safety of the women in the videos – their faces are clearly visible. If someone identifies them, they are dead.
Instead of condemning 'taweez nevis' mullahs, and revoking their religious status, clerics in Afghanistan often tolerate this kind of practice.
Women scared to come forward in rape cases
The mullah was apparently counting on the women’s silence because in Afghanistan if a woman is a victim of rape she is often considered responsible – and may even be killed by a member of her own family in a so-called honour killing.
Reports by at least two Afghan media outlets, Afghan Irca and Pahjwok, on Sept. 14 said the incidents had taken place in the village of Jamshidi. Gholam Nabi Gaffari, a mullah who serves on the provincial council of ulemas, gave the same account as the governor. Pahjwok cited local warlord Mahammad Azim as saying he knew Landi: "He worked for my father and fought against the Taliban. My men have been trying to arrest him since yesterday [Thursday Sept. 13]. He’s on the run; but we’ll find him."
There have been prior reports of similar crimes committed by "taweez nevis" mullahs. In January 2017, Afghan media reported the rape of a 17-year-old girl identified as “Palwasha” by a “taweez nevis” mullah. In 2016, there were reports of a 15-year-old in the province of Jowzjan who was raped multiple times under similar circumstances.
"There’s a strong taboo around women’s bodies"
Our Observer Homeria Sagheb, a women’s rights activist based in Kabul, says the tradition of "taweez nevis" continues because women’s bodies and health issues remain taboo:
It’s mostly poor families with little education who turn to the "taweez nevis" mullahs. Women generally go to them for two reasons.
First, in case of marital problems such as domestic violence or when their husband takes a second wife. Because it would damage the family “honour” to go to the police, women will instead go see a taweez nevis mullah in the hope he can make their husband fall in love with them again. The other reason is for health – for infertility for example. They’ll consult a taweez nevis because they can’t go see a doctor.
In Afghanistan, there’s a very strong taboo around women’s bodies. Some women won’t go to a regular clinic because they’re afraid they’ll be seen by a male doctor. There are also women who are disappointed by the treatments prescribed by doctors and think a mullah can do better.
"Women think they can trust them because of their religious status"
In cases of infertility, the problem is often on the man’s side of course. But in our country, men never go see doctors about infertility because they believe it’s the woman’s fault.
Of course, women don’t go see mullahs to be raped. They think they can trust them, because of their religious status. Some mullahs abuse this trust to sexually harass their patients. That’s why women generally go see them with another woman they trust.
Our Observers says that taweez mullahs sometimes tell women that the "ritual "they propose is the only remedy that can help them. She says there’s been no action by the government despite a promise made after the murder of Farkhunda Malikzada, an Afghan woman beaten to death by a mob in 2015 after a taweez nevis mullah falsely accused her of burning a Koran:
One of the promises by the government after the horrible killing of Farkhunda was to put an end to the taweez nevis mullahs. But nothing has been done. There’s no plan of action to restrict their activity. They’re just as powerful as ever.
"Taweez nevis" status is often passed on from father to son, in families that have little education and are often illiterate.