For some Afghan brides, failing the first test of marriage can mean a life of abuse, prison, or even death. (file photo)
Long-standing tradition holds that being a virgin is required for brides in Afghanistan, and they are expected to prove it.
One Afghan woman, speaking with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on condition of anonymity, says it is still customary in some areas of the country for in-laws to check for blood stains the morning after a wedding as proof of the bride's virginity.
Even being accused of having sex outside marriage can have dire consequences. Disgraced families have been known to demand that their "damaged" daughter-in-law be exchanged for her sister. Nonvirgins can be imprisoned in Afghanistan for adultery. And there are horrific tales of abuse, or worse.
"In some cases, a bride's ears and nose are cut off," says the Afghan woman. "They are forced into dirty clothes and taken back to her parent’s home. Their heads are shaved. The bride's family is told that she is not a virgin. Other times, a bride is simply killed and her body is returned to her parents."
It's a discussion that is usually taboo in Afghanistan, but a recent spate of chilling public punishments of Afghan women accused of having premarital sex has brought the issue into the open.
In late November, a 26-year-old Afghan woman died of her injuries after being publicly lashed in the central province of Ghor. She had been accused of running away from home.
In October, 19-year-old Rokhsana was stoned to death by Taliban militants in the same province after having been accused of having premarital sex.
And in August, also in Ghor Province, a young man and woman found guilty of having sex outside marriage were lashed publicly.
The woman's own family is often behind the punishment, in some cases shunning the woman or handing her over to authorities for prosecution. But in the worst cases, her own kin can carry out honor killings.
"The existing culture among some families is that a ruined girl is given back to her family," Mariam Zurmati, a commissioner at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan recently.
"In order to escape dishonor, that family will offer another of their daughters for marriage," she adds. "In some regions, women are simply killed. In some cases, even after years of marriage, a husband will abuse his wife.”
Marzia, who only goes by one name, says her sister has endured years of abuse at the hands of her husband due to lingering suspicions that she was not a virgin when they married.
"I have a sister who didn’t bleed when she got married,” says Marzia, who is from Parwan Province. "Her husband beats her and she has bruises everywhere. Even after years of living together, he still abuses her and tells her she has been tarnished."
Even before the wedding, Afghan brides-to-be can be forcefully subjected to "virginity tests," in which doctors at government clinics test whether a woman's hymen is intact.
International human rights groups claim such tests contravene international law and are inconclusive in determining a women’s sexual history.
Terena Yadgaari, a doctor in Kabul, agrees that virginity tests have no "medical validity," but notes that dozens of the examinations are carried out in government clinics in the capital every year.
So-called moral offenses, including adultery or even running away from home, are not considered crimes according to the Afghan Criminal Code. But hundreds of women and girls have nevertheless been imprisoned after being convicted of "immorality" by courts dominated by religious conservatives.
The Afghan Constitution prescribes that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam," but such rulings are at odds with more secular-minded passages in the constitution.
But in some rural areas, where Taliban militants exert considerable influence, residents often view government bodies as corrupt or unreliable and turn to Taliban courts to settle disputes.
The Taliban courts employ strict interpretations of Shari'a law, which prescribes death, or in other cases publicly flogging, for men or women found guilty of having a relationship outside marriage.