Ten months ago I received a phone call from an Afghan-American translator working with the provincial reconstruction team in Uruzgan province, saying that the American soldiers there had a young girl on their base who needed help.
He would not tell me what her story was. After I accepted her to our shelter, I was told her husband had cut her ears and nose off. A few days later I went to Kabul airport to pick Bibi Aisha up. I don't know how to describe it. It was too much. The first thing I saw was a hole in the middle of her face. She was very quiet and trying to cover her face. It was sort of an instinct where if anyone sat in front of her she covered her nose.
When she came to the shelter she told us her story. She was given away in a "baad" transaction at the age of 12. This is a tribal tradition. If a family commits a crime, they give a girl to the victim's family so the dispute is settled. From the age of 14 onwards, she was living with her in-laws in Chora, a village in Uruzgan province. Her husband was not around and she never met him. He was with the Taliban. For more than three years the in-laws beat her, tortured her and made her sleep with the livestock.
A woman living in her neighbourhood told her that she should run away and that she would help her. The woman told Bibi Aisha she would have good fortune and a good life. Bibi Aisha could not take the beatings any more so she ran away with two women. They took her to Kandahar where, in turn, they wanted to sell her to another man. The police were called and the women were imprisoned. Bibi Aisha spent four months in prison.
One day President Hamid Karzai came and toured the prison and pardoned her. She was referred to the human rights commission in Kandahar. Her father then came looking for her and took her back to the house of her in-laws. That night her father-in-law and husband came home. It was the first time she had ever seen her husband. They said and did nothing that night. The next morning, her husband took her out in front of the community where the rest of his Taliban friends were. He said that his wife had run away and shamed his family.
Everyone agreed that she should be shamed too and her nose and ears cut off. Bibi told me her brother-in-law held her down as her husband cut one ear off. She passed out. When she came to, her other ear and nose were gone. They left her bleeding and alone in the desert. She made her way alone to her uncle's house. He told her to go away, he wanted nothing to do with her. She went to her father-in-law's home. He took her to the Americans with the provincial reconstruction team in Tirin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan.
A lot of media outlets contact me for stories about women. When they saw Aisha, everyone wanted to write about her. First it was CNN, then ABC News. Then Time contacted me. I think the Time magazine cover has been very important for our work. It opened a worldwide debate about women's rights and we are very happy about that because the American public and people in the rest of the world are losing patience with the war in Afghanistan. They want their troops to leave.
The Taliban released a statement when the Time story came out. They said the whole story was propaganda to help the American army. We think in order for Afghan women to be safe we need the US troops until the Afghan army is strong enough to defend the country. Right now, they are not. Most Afghans agree with us. If the Americans left, civil war would start next week. Bibi Aisha's case was the most extreme I have ever seen. I've seen other women who have been burned, had bones broken.
Domestic violence is a huge problem. Some form of domestic violence exists in every family. Some are just a slap in the face, others are forced marriage, the custom of "baad", there are child marriages and torture. Sometimes a girl comes to us because her father won't let her go to school or she wants to marry someone her father opposes. We need these shelters so women can have a place where they can safely stay until their problems are resolved.
We have to explain to people that we are not against men or trying to separate families. We are trying to bring harmony to family relations. First, we try to solve the problem through the family so she can live peacefully without being violated again. In 80 per cent of the cases, mediation works. If a woman comes and says, "My husband is beating me" or "I want a divorce", we tell the husband to come to one of our family guidance centres and mediate through our lawyers and case workers.
Afghanistan is a family-oriented culture. It is almost impossible for women to live by themselves. After a divorce a woman is stigmatised and not accepted by the community. The best place for her is her own immediate family. In the minority of cases, if we think it is dangerous for her to go back home or there is no way to solve the case through mediation, we have lawyers and try to dissolve the marriage in the courts. Then the woman returns to her father's house.
The root causes of the violence are not religion. The Prophet Mohammed never beat his wives, he respected them, he respected women. It is traditions and tribal law that govern Afghanistan, really. The Quran never says if a male in the family commits a crime you should exchange a girl so the crime goes away. After 30 years of war, men are traumatised and it affects the domestic sphere. Generations of men have grown up knowing only war and killing. It would have an effect on any human being. I think the whole country is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
When a woman arrives at a family guidance centre, we take her to a temporary shelter for two or three nights until we know what her story is. Afterwards we transfer her to the main shelter, which is in a secret location, protected by guards. We have to keep it a secret because we don't want husbands or fathers to go and make trouble for the women. We haven't had any problems with anyone, although we do get threats from disgruntled fathers and husbands.
It costs US$250,000 (Dh920,000) a year to run a centre and shelter. It is not very much. The women get a bed to sleep on, medical care, three meals a day. We have literacy classes, sewing classes and we pay for the mediation sessions and lawyers' fees. We get funding from the US state department and European Commission. Since 2007, we have helped 2,000 women. This year we opened a shelter in Jalalabad and another in Kunduz. Last month we got 130 women all over the country coming to us.
It is very fulfilling work and I feel like we are changing a lot of things. I was born here but grew up in the United States. I feel very fortunate to have left Afghanistan and to have been educated. In all honesty I could have been one of the women tortured under the Taliban. I always wanted to help but what can one person do? I didn't get involved for years, then, in 2002, I joined Women For Afghan Women which was just established in New York.
The next year, I visited Kandahar, a women's prison there. Most of the women were not there for any kind of real crimes but for running away from abusive relationships. I had to do something about this. I really wanted to come back. So, in 2006, I moved to Kabul. Whether the situation gets better for women depends on the political situation. If there are negotiations with the Taliban it will get worse. Schools are going to close, women are going to be forced to stay at home. Whatever happened under the Taliban will happen again.
There was a stoning in Kunduz recently, and the stoning and shooting of a pregnant woman. These things will happen even more if the Taliban are back in the government. This weekend I returned from the US. I took Bibi Aisha to Los Angeles. She is being treated by the Grossman Burn Foundation which helps burns victims in developing countries. She is staying with a host Afghan family there. If all goes well, she will be in the US for eight months. She needs multiple operations. Until she has the real surgery she is going to have probably a prosthetic nose. The doctors will take parts from the rest of her body, bone, cartilage, and build her a new nose.
She has to be ready mentally and physically for the surgery and we don't think she is at the moment. She had a breakdown. She is very upset. It is too early to decide if she will return to Afghanistan or not. It'll be her decision after the surgery. She has a younger sister back in Uruzgan who was also given away in the "baad" custom. We don't know what has happened to her. Maybe the in-laws are taking out their anger on her. It is not really a happy ending.
* The National Manizha Naderi, 34 and the mother of two young daughters, is executive director of Women for Afghan Women, a rights group based in New York. Born in Afghanistan, she runs five women's shelters across the country which help victims of domestic violence. She told her story to Hamida Ghafour.