‘We’re All Handcuffed in This Country.’ Why Afghanistan Is Still the Worst Place in the World to Be a Woman
[Note: To see the accompanying video, please visit Time.]
It was a sunny morning in early December last year when 23-year-old Khadija set herself on fire. She kissed her three-month old son Mohammed goodbye and said a short prayer.
“Please God, stop this suffering,” she pleaded in the sun-soaked courtyard of her home in Herat, Afghanistan as she poured kerosene from a copper lamp over her small frame. She then struck a match. The last thing she heard were birds chirping.
The next morning, she realized her prayer had gone unanswered. Khadija, who asked TIME not to publish her last name or her family’s, woke up at Herat Hospital in Afghanistan’s only burn unit, her body blanketed in third-degree burns and bandages.
“I am not alive, but I am not dead,” Khadija told me later that week, crying and gripping the hands of her sister, Aisha. “I tried running away and I failed.” Like the majority of Afghan women, Khadija was a victim of domestic abuse. For four years, she said, her husband beat her and told her that she’s ugly and dumb – “a nobody.”
“Women never have any choices,” Khadija said last December in the hospital, as tears streamed down her face, a barely recognizable charred patchwork of fresh scars. “If I did, I wouldn’t have married him. We’re all handcuffed in this country.”
Khadija’s decision to set herself on fire prompted her husband to be arrested on charges of domestic violence, an unusual situation in a country where abuse against women is rarely criminalized. But even while he was serving his prison sentence, Khadija felt more trapped than when she tried to take her own life. Her husband’s parents, who were looking after her son, issued Khadija an ultimatum: If she would tell the police that she lied—that her husband didn’t actually abuse her—and if she returned home, then she could see her son. If she refused, she would never see him again.
In a country racked by decades of war and a dearth of resources, Khadija’s story shows how women in Afghanistan are struggling to live with dignity. It also highlights how, in the face of little governmental support and dwindling international aid, women are stepping in to help one another.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Afghanistan, the country of 35 million people where America has waged its longest war. The war was billed, in part, as “a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” The Taliban ruled in Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, a period in which women were essentially invisible in public life, barred from going to school or working. In a 2001 radio address to the nation, First Lady Laura Bush urged Americans to “join our family in working to ensure that dignity and opportunity will be secured for all the women and children of Afghanistan.” In 2004, President George W. Bush declared victory in the country.