An Afghan woman facing a forced marriage defies her family and marries the man of her choice, but violence continues to trail her.
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Change will not come easily to Afghanistan, and if it does, it may not be due to drone attacks or night raids, but to courageous women standing up for themselves one struggle at a time. This is the ongoing story of an Afghan woman attempting to define her own destiny and paying a price for her courage.
I met her through the Afghan Women's Writing Project, which I founded in 2009 with the goal of giving Afghan women their own voice in the world, pairing them with published authors and then circulating their work online at www.awwproject.org. A strong and evocative writer, she cannot tell this particular story using her own name because of security concerns. But seven months ago, we shared the details of her efforts to escape a forced marriage that would have relocated her to a Taliban-held province and meant an end to her education and relative freedom.
Our writer's family decided to marry her to her cousin, aged about 40, against her will, in exchange for $20,000 in bride money that her uncle would pay to her mother and brothers — a common and accepted practice in Afghanistan. She said this union was so unbearable that she would consider suicide as the only honorable solution.
After her story ran in the Los Angeles Times, people reached out from around the world with comments of support and with money. With their help, our writer raised the funds to buy her own freedom. She gave her family the money, found the courage to defy her culture and married the man of her choice, a man who supported her ambitions to further her own education and eventually, she hopes, become a published poet.
"After I bought my freedom, I thought it was the end of violence against me, the end of torment in my life, the end of tears," our writer said. "Among millions of Afghan women, I stood up to our crazy culture and its violence against females."
This story has no Cinderella ending, though. Not yet, anyway.
Our writer's uncle did not simply accept her decision to marry whom she chose, and she knew he wouldn't. She moved with her new husband to a secret location, and her mother also moved to a new home. "Our disappearance was a question for him," she says. "I was a wanted person…I had broken his pride and power; I stood in front of his money and wealth. Because of this, Uncle sought one thing: revenge. He no longer wanted to buy me as a wife for his son. Now, he wanted to buy me as a slave."
Frustrated in his efforts to locate the niece he intended to make his son's bride, her uncle instead kidnapped one of her brothers, taking him to a southern province. "Uncle sent word that if I didn't appear before him and answer his questions in front of a jirga (a tribal assembly of elders which makes decision by consensus) he would cut off my brother's fingers. I didn't know what to do, but I told myself it was my right to buy myself, to buy my freedom."
Our writer lived in limbo for several more weeks, on edge, seeing her mother rarely and only in private locations. Then she learned that her uncle had in fact cut off three of her brother's fingers in revenge for her rebellion. "I can't tell you the pain I felt. I didn't think I had my own fingers. It was my fault because I know my country; I know my family."
"Now Uncle knows I am married to another, and he can't tolerate it, that a woman broke his pride and power." Her uncle sent a message through her mother, demanding that her new husband hand over one of his sisters as a slave, a practice known as baad in which women are given to a "wronged" family. Her uncle, she said, "wants not only me, but my children and all my family to pay the price for my decision."
Though she tries to stay strong, she can't help but suffer from doubt. "I can't forgive myself if all my family members are sad, disturbed, and disabled for me. Did I deserve the freedom that another young girl must now give up? Did I deserve the freedom that cost my brother part of his body?"
She keeps her story private from acquaintances. Many who know do not approve of the steps she has taken. After all, according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, up to 80% of all women in the country face forced marriages — the practice is widely accepted. And Afghanistan is in the midst of growing more conservative, not less.
"Only my pen," she says, "tolerates my choices." She and her husband live as newlyweds, with all the moments of joy that brings, but they also live with sorrow and fear, waiting to hear what her uncle will do next. "Violence still follows me," she says, "and I can't escape, and I still wish I was not a woman."
What can we do to help this writer and other Afghan women struggling for self-determination in a society growing ever more conservative? We can speak out, sending them words of support, and we can try to make sure they are not forgotten as efforts continue to reach a military and political settlement in Afghanistan. It is not a lot, but it is something.