Afghan women clad in burkas wait for transportation on a road in Kabul on… (ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS )
KABUL — Just before she leapt from her roof into the streets of Kabul, Farima thought of the wedding that would never happen and the man she would never marry. Her fiance would be pleased to see her die, she later recalled thinking. It would offer relief to them both.
Farima, 17, had resisted her engagement to Zabiullah since it was ordained by her grandfather when she was 9. In post-Taliban Kabul, where she walked to school and dreamed of becoming a doctor, she still clawed against a fate dictated by ritual.
After 11 years of Western intervention in Afghanistan, a woman’s right to study and work had long since been codified by the U.S.-backed government. Modernity had crept into Afghanistan’s capital, Farima thought, but not far enough to save her from a forced marriage to a man she despised.
Farima’s father, Mohammed, was eating breakfast when he heard her body hit the dirt like a tiny explosion. He ran outside. His daughter’s torso was contorted. Her back was broken, but she was still alive.
In a quick burst of consciousness, Farima recognized that she had survived. It was God’s providence, she thought. It was a miracle she hadn’t prayed for. But it left her without an escape. Suddenly, she was a mangled version of herself, still desperate to avoid the marriage her family had ordered.
She didn’t know it yet, but her survival meant that she would become a test case in one of her country’s newest and most troubled experiments in modernity: a divorce court guided by Afghanistan’s version of Islamic sharia law. Could a disabled teenager navigate a legal system still stacked against women?
“We still must get married,” Zabiullah told his brother when he heard about Farima’s suicide attempt. “The engagement must remain.”
Her father agreed that Farima’s pursuit of a formal separation was unwise.
“We are not a liberal family,” Mohammed said. “This is not how we handle our problems.”
Like many teenage girls in Kabul, Farima had been afforded opportunities her mother couldn’t imagine. In 2001, the international coalition brought with it dozens of girls schools and nongovernmental organizations that reserved jobs for Afghan women. Farima heard about female physicians who were trained to perform lifesaving surgery. She was first in her class; medical school wasn’t an unrealistic aspiration.
Farima’s mother had never gone to school. She dressed in sky-blue burqas that hid her face. Farima wore only a head scarf, applying lipstick and eyeliner for the world to see.
When her marriage was fixed, a 9-year-old Farima crawled into her mother’s lap, confused about what it meant to be engaged. Even as Kabul grew more modern, that traditional engagement was unbreakable, her parents told her. The man she was destined to spend her life with was a distant cousin. If the marriage didn’t happen, the family could splinter.
But when Farima got to know Zabiullah, she couldn’t stand him. They talked on the phone, and he chastised her for venturing outside her home. He demanded that she stop speaking even with members of her family.
“She was too close with her relatives, getting ice cream and going to the market with her father’s cousin,” he said.
“If he was like that when we were engaged, what would marriage have been like?” Farima said. “I couldn’t bear it.”
It became clear to Zabiullah that Farima was resisting his demands. He attributed her stubbornness to values he demonized — values associated with a city of new high-rises and shopping centers and girls schools.
“She’s too liberal, too modern,” he said.
Death or prison
Less than a minute after Farima hit the ground, Mohammed scooped up his daughter. He hailed a taxi, and they sped to Ali Ahmed Hospital, where Taher Jan Khalili performed surgery for three hours. The family was ashamed to tell Khalili the truth. Her father said Farima had fallen from the roof by accident.
“I wasn’t sure if she would survive. Her back was badly broken,” Khalili said. In the past year, he has handled nearly a dozen attempted female suicides. “This is the situation in Afghanistan,” he said.
Farima spent nine days in the hospital, flickering in and out of consciousness. When she reentered the world in late September, bandaged and carried on a stretcher, her relatives cried and thanked God that she had survived.
“But if not death, then what?” Farima thought.
Zabiullah, a plumber, was insistent that the wedding date remain unchanged. He had spent $30,000 on gifts for his fiancee, he said. He had paid for a big engagement party, during which Farima had sat sullen for hours, while relatives sang and danced and ate kebab.
“Everyone was having a great night, but she did not,” Mohammed said.