“I paid your father the bride price for you, so you have to sleep with me whenever I want,” my husband, Karim, who was several decades older than me, told me when I refused to have sex with him. Perhaps it was the dismissive laughter that followed that was the trigger, or perhaps it was an idea I had considered before, subconsciously. No matter which way I look at it today, I can’t recall the exact moment that I decided to end my life by setting fire to my body to escape the physical and mental violence I had endured for six years.
It just happened.
I was on my way to the hamam (public bath), since we didn’t have a bathroom in our small house outside the city of Herat in Afghanistan. I saved money to be able to afford the luxury of bathing once a week at the public baths. As I was about to leave our tiny one-room apartment, Karim stopped me. He was of a much larger build and girth than I was, and a seasoned albeit unemployed martial arts teacher, and he was able to easily overpower me. And he often did, when he needed to satisfy his urges. He used to call it sex, but to me it was an extremely painful and horrifying violation of my body. Over the years, I had learned to block the trauma out, and eventually I even started to refuse him, at the risk of being severely beaten. On this day, he was angry at me from the night before when I had refused him sex. “I can’t sleep with you anymore, brother,” I told him. I hoped calling him “brother” would disgust him and discourage his advances.
“I do not consider you my husband, and I am not your wife. There is no relationship between us,” I said, which just made him angrier and more violent. I had been beaten and abused every day that I was married to Karim, whose name I’ve changed here for my safety.
He started calling me names and accused me of being unfaithful. “Why do you need to go to the hamam? Did you have sex with another man? Are you going to meet another man, sleep with him?” He shouted expletives loud enough for the neighbors to hear. He was trying to taint my character in the community. An Afghan woman’s reputation is everything, and without it she is vulnerable to all of the evils of the society. Women in Afghanistan have been stoned to death for much less, especially in the more remote and conservative parts of the country where the local tribal laws take precedence over women’s rights. Even within more developed urban parts of the country, the justice system does not favor women, and many women have been sent to prison on charges of moral crimes.
The accusation of being unfaithful and having to prove my innocence after everything I had been through was the final straw. The rage I felt, I hadn’t felt before and haven’t felt since. “You are not a man, you are not a woman, you are an animal,” I screamed at him, and he just laughed at me.
I grabbed the canister of cooking fuel from the kitchen and poured it on myself. He realized what I was about to do and grabbed the matches. The neighbors, who had so far been eavesdropping from a polite distance, barged in to our house. They tried to calm me, but I was wailing as they told me, “Don’t break your home.”
I was still crying when they left. Not speaking a word to Karim, I once again gathered my chador to go wash the fuel off of me. Once again, he pulled me back. I was shaking with anger and still covered in kerosene, and I didn’t think twice about picking up the box of matches from where he’d left it — and lighting one.
I must have caught fire quickly because the hot anger I had felt moments ago soon translated into hot searing pain that took over every particle of my being. I don’t remember much after that.
* * *
I don’t remember much of my wedding day, but I remember being excited in the week before it. I was only a kid, 13 years old, and the idea of wearing lipstick, something that was otherwise forbidden in my house, was all that mattered. I didn’t fully understand the concept of marriage, but the idea of a wedding was thrilling to me. I never once thought of objecting to it. It was only when my husband’s family took me to their house that I understood what all of this meant. I couldn’t stop crying, and I pleaded to my mother, “I wanted to come back home. I don’t want to live here, please.” But it was done, and it couldn’t be undone.
Karim used to be a martial arts teacher in Herat, but now he couldn’t find any work. He was full of hate and anger, which I found out the first night after our wedding. When I was younger, I was told never to let a man touch me; if I did, I would have committed a sin. So on the first night, I cried a lot when he touched my body. I was sent back home the next day, and I complained about him to my mother, because I thought she could save me from him. Instead, she told me that he would touch me again, and that I should let him. On the third night, when I was back with Karim, he tried again. When I resisted and tried to scream, he pinned me down with his body, caught my hands with one of his hands and held my mouth shut with the other. He inflicted me with so much pain that I passed out. I was so sick for the next few days, I had to be taken to the hospital. But as soon as I got better, it happened again. And again.
I begged my father to take me back home — to get me divorced. A woman in Afghanistan cannot initiate a divorce. If a woman even mentions the word divorce, the whole society will come together to convince her to stay with her husband. “Don’t break your house,” people will tell you. They didn’t know that the “house” was killing me.
When I got pregnant the first time, I was still a child and didn’t know that I was carrying a child. Karim beat me for being sick. Then one day we were at his sister’s house and he complained about how lazy I had become, that I was lethargic and had been vomiting. That’s when his sister recognized the symptoms of pregnancy. But if I thought I could expect some compassion from his sister and mother, I was wrong. The women of his family locked me in the shed and took turns beating me for hours to “toughen me up” for motherhood.
Later, in the moment right after I set myself on fire, I remember the neighborhood women who came to my rescue telling me, “Don’t destroy your house with your own hands.”
To everyone, I was destroying a home, not escaping a prison.
* * *
When I woke up in the hospital, covered in burns and writhing in pain, Karim was sitting next to my bed, with my youngest child in his arms. I screamed at the sight of him. “He did this to me! Take him away from me,” I yelled with what strength I could muster. He quietly whispered into my ear that he had told the doctors I was injured in a kitchen accident. But I told them the truth, and the hospital staff helped me contact my parents, who had not been informed of my condition.
I had suffered burns to 70 percent of my torso, hands and legs. I couldn’t walk, and the doctors were certain I would be immobile for the rest of my life. The doctors were kind and treated me even though I had no money. I later found out that the degree of burns I suffered had made my chances of survival very low.
I was broken. I couldn’t picture a future, good or bad. I might have been saved from the fire, but I wasn’t alive. I was between death and life. Setting myself on fire was a defiance, a way for me to take control of my life by ending it. But it seemed to me that I had lost even that battle.
Over the course of many months, the burns started to heal. I went through intensive treatments, and doctors from the U.S. worked on my burns. My bandages were changed several times a day, and I was given an assortment of medications to avoid infections. I couldn’t move much and needed assistance for every small task. It was months before I was even able to sit up straight on my own. Eventually, with the help of physiotherapy and the nurses, I was able to stand up and take my first steps in a year. But as I healed and learned to walk again, I had very few options, and for the sake of my three children, I decided to go back home with Karim. My father offered to fight to get me a divorce, but I couldn’t go through with it because I knew I would lose my children. I had wanted a divorce when I was first sent to live with him, but it was too late now. A divorced woman in Afghanistan has no rights over her children.
Once again, I was at the mercy of the man who had inflicted the most pain on me. If there had been any amount of cordiality between us before, it was all gone now. We lived under the same roof but didn’t talk at all.
A few months later, while I was still recovering, barely able to walk and still in need of medications, Karim took the children and me to India, with the hope of seeking refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, he made it clear that he would not support me or our three children, the oldest of whom was only 7. He would rather we beg outside of mosques to survive.
I spent the first few days in Delhi walking slowly, with great pain and difficulty, around the city looking for work. I was unsuccessful, mostly because I didn’t fully speak the language. We were living on charity; we ate only when someone took pity on us and gave us food. I had no medicine to help with my burns or the pain, and my children barely had a roof over their heads.
While I was out looking for work, Karim made my sons sit outside the mosques and beg for money. He would dress the oldest son in old clothes and make him carry the toddler wrapped in rags to attract compassion from the pious. I was furious when I found out and screamed at him for exploiting our children like that. He beat me in response, but he also never took the children back to the mosque.
He did, however, tell them awful things about me. It was painful to watch him pull my children away from me. He would make sure they didn’t spend time with me, and while I was away working, he would tell them vile things about me — like that I was doing wrong, immoral things when I went to work.
But then, with the help of a few neighbors, I started to learn Hindi, the local language. I already knew a little bit from watching movies while growing up. But as my skills improved, I figured out a way to make some money. A lot of Afghans travel to the Indian capital to seek medical attention, and the majority of them speak no Hindi or English. With my nascent language skills, and having already learned how to navigate Delhi, I was in a position to help them with logistics and translations, for a fee. I reached out to the Afghan community and would assist Afghans visiting Delhi with their needs, such as booking hotels, making doctor appointments, buying medicines, helping them commute using public transport, and even taking them sightseeing and shopping.
It is surprising how you can find strength when you least expect it. When you think you are at your weakest point, you find you can be the strongest you have ever been. There is something spiritual about that experience.
Within a couple of months, I was making up to 2,000 rupees ($30) a day. As my skills improved, my reputation as an Afghan guide spread. I would also take any additional work I could find, like laundry service and providing Afghan meals. Within six months, I was making close to one lakh Indian rupees every month ($1,500). I even bought a small scooter to help me commute around the city so I could save some money.
I was making more than Karim ever had in his life, and I paid for it with daily abuse. But I was determined to make a better life for my children. He would take most of my money away and beat me at the slightest provocation, but being the breadwinner for my family was an empowering feeling. It gave me strength to do what I couldn’t have imagined before.
An argument we had about the money I had been saving, unknown to Karim, quickly escalated into violence. He kicked me in my stomach and tried to strangle me with my own scarf; this time though, I fought back. I screamed for help, and someone called the police. I filed a complaint against him, and the Afghan embassy in Delhi got involved. When the embassy officials came, I told them I wanted to divorce him. They discouraged me from doing so, and once again I was told, “Try to make things work. Why do you want to break your house?”
However, the UNHCR was now aware of my case. They rejected Karim’s appeal for refugee status and registered my case independently. Not long after this incident, my children and I were granted asylum. Karim was furious when he found out, and he went on a rampage at the U.N. office, breaking their windows. The U.N. case workers called me to tell me not to come to the office that day because they feared for my life. This was enough to have him deported.
The final battle with Karim was the hardest. He wanted to take my children with him back to Afghanistan, and within the Afghan law there was nothing to stop him.
I offered him five lakh afghani ($6,600) — all that I had saved and borrowed — in exchange for my children; he asked for 10 lakh afghani. “I spent money on you! I own all of the kids,” he said, trying to argue with me at the embassy. I told them what he had put me through. “The torture, the scars from the burns on my body, and the years of sexual abuse — you should be paying me for that,” I said. I know that the embassy staff, unaccustomed to seeing an Afghan woman talk like that, were shocked. But no one stood up for me.
“Five lakhs for two of them,” I offered. He refused. In the end, with the best efforts of the UNHCR, which provided me with legal counsel to help negotiate with Karim, I only got to keep my youngest son, at a price of four lakhs. I lost two of my children that day, and I haven’t seen them since.
The authorities held Karim in custody long enough for me to escape. Once I left India, he was sent back to Afghanistan. Since then, he has harassed my family every day. He threatened to kidnap my younger sister when my parents refused his proposal of marriage. He has also defamed me to the extent that even if he were to die, I could never go back to Afghanistan without fear of losing my life.
But finally, at the age of 21, I was divorced and free of him.
* * *
That was eight years ago. I have built a new life in a whole new place with my son.
I took up a job as a translator with a refugee center in the country I now call home, my location unknown to Karim and his family. I was able to rent us a small apartment and start our life fresh. I enrolled my son in preschool, and also signed up for evening classes myself, studying English and other subjects. Eventually, I took up two more jobs, one at a laundry service and another as a waitress. I want to earn enough to give my son the life I never had in Afghanistan.
I also learned to drive a car and recently purchased a new Toyota Corolla to drive myself to work and school. As a young girl in Afghanistan, I would fantasize about driving a car, and it seemed like an impossible dream. But now, I drive everywhere I go, and I don’t have a single traffic ticket.
Today, I live in a country where women have so many rights. It has been many years now, but the freedoms I have here still surprise me. I am empowered and more confident than I have ever been. But all the freedom in the world can’t take away the pain of losing my two sons.
I yearn for them every day. The oldest is 13 and his little brother is 9. I am waiting for Karim to die so I can be reunited with my children again. But I imagine he has told them many terrible things about me. They probably think I abandoned them and ran away with the youngest son. I think about the conversation we will have when we meet again. I think of things I will say to convince them that it was never my idea to leave them behind.
Most of the scars on my body have healed nicely. There are hardly any my marks on my face, and the ones on my hands and torso have grown faint. The emotional scars remain, but they remind me that I am stronger. My scars remind me of my loss, my sons who aren’t with me today. They also remind me of the many women who couldn’t escape their tormentors like I did, or those whose only escape was succumbing to the same fire I burned in.