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12.06.10

Bibi Aisha's Tormentor Captured

A year after the relatives of a teenage girl cut off her nose and ears while her husband tied her down, Afghan police have arrested one of those allegedly responsible.

Bibi Aisha is one step closer to justice.

According to Daily Beast sources, Afghan police in the Chora district of Uruzgan province recently arrested the young woman’s father-in-law, Sulaiman, on charges stemming from his involvement in Aisha’s maiming last summer. Police are continuing to look for her husband and his brother, who are reportedly on the run. Both men face charges for their role in cutting off the teenager’s nose and ears as punishment for her decision to run away from her abusive husband and his family. Those who have worked on Aisha’s case from the start hope Sulaiman’s capture is only the beginning in bringing the heinous crimes committed against Aisha to the country’s attention.

“We are so happy about this arrest,” said Manizha Naderi, the executive director of Women for Afghan Women. “We congratulate the district chief of Chora for having the courage to bring him to justice.”

Naderi says this is not only a victory for Aisha, but for so many others in a nation where increasing numbers of domestic-violence victims are killing themselves, unable to escape their brutal lives. According to a 2008 report by the human-rights group Global Rights, as many as 87 percent of Afghan women experienced at least one form of physical, sexual or psychological violence or forced marriage; of those, 62 percent experienced multiple forms of violence.

“This arrest gives hope to all Afghan women that their perpetrators will be brought to justice—that sooner or later criminals will be punished,” said Naderi. “Violations against women will not be tolerated by anyone.”

Aisha's 60-year-old father, Mohammadzai, is himself hiding with relatives, fearful that other Afghans will hold it against him that his daughter has left for the U.S. Speaking to The Daily Beast by phone, Mohammadzai said he fled his village after people stopped speaking to him, and refused him work to support his family. What he wants, he said, is for Aisha to return to Afghanistan, and for her tormentors to be punished, although he is doubtful that those who maimed his daughter will be brought to justice.

“I would like to live with my daughter in Kabul and will work to feed my family members there," he said. “I'm afraid no one will be willing to marry my remaining three daughters, if the culprits who hurt my daughter are not punished.”

“This arrest gives hope to all Afghan women that their perpetrators will be brought to justice—that sooner or later criminals will be punished.”

Last year, Aisha’s husband’s uncle cut off her nose and ears while her husband tied her down. Her crime in their eyes? She had brought shame on them, when she ran away after enduring severe beatings at the hands of her husband and his family. Her mother died when Aisha was only a child, and to settle a family dispute (a murder committed by her father’s cousin), she was married away around the age of 13. Police in Chora said Sulaiman is being held at a prison in the provincial capital Tirin Kot, awaiting trial for the “shameless” crime he committed. Officials said he went underground after Aisha’s maiming, and that his son, Qudratullah—Aisha’s husband, fled to Pakistan. Her husband’s family reportedly had connections to local Taliban groups but a senior Afghan police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he didn't believe the Taliban had been involved in Aisha’s maiming. “It’s purely a family dispute,” he said. The official also said the case stands little chance of making it through the courts. “One needs money and influence to win cases in the courts,” he said, adding: “The father of the girl is lacking both.”

Women for Afghan Women lawyers are working to convince the attorney general to try the case against Aisha’s father-in-law in the Afghan capital of Kabul, where they think they will have the best chance of a fair trial.

A U.N. report last year said the country suffers from “a deeply entrenched culture of impunity” in which perpetrators of violence seldom face punishment and victims “risk further violence in the course of seeking justice.” (Uruzgan, a central Afghan province that borders on the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, has been the site of heavy fighting against an increasingly emboldened Taliban insurgency.)

First reported by The Daily Beast, Aisha’s case gained worldwide attention during the past year. Aisha appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and her story was featured on ABC's World News With Diane Sawyer, which documented her trip to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery. By and large, the media portrayed her story as tragedy overcome—suggesting that Aisha was on the cusp of a fresh start and a new life. But the story turns out to be much more complicated. One year later, Aisha is still so emotionally scarred by her abuse that doctors have recommended against doing any kind of reconstructive surgery just yet. Instead, she occasionally wears a meticulously crafted prosthetic nose, applying it with a glue-tipped Q-Tip. (At an October gala for the foundation, she faced a throng of photographers on the red carpet before meeting former First Lady Laura Bush and California First Lady Maria Shriver.)

While Aisha has made tremendous strides—teaching herself English and taking to the Internet, cellphones, and texting—she is still not stable enough to go through a series of operations that could take many months and exact an emotional toll. She still suffers seizure-like episodes, pulling her hair or retreating into herself.

Before coming to the U.S. this August, Aisha spent nine months in a women’s shelter in Kabul run by Women for Afghan Women, which resisted pressure to send her to America straight away. She is now on the East Coast under the care of Women for Afghan Women, which is seeking therapy and skills training for the young woman. She has been living with various host families and has kept close contact with staff and volunteers from the Grossman Burn Foundation, which sponsored her trip to the U.S.

Although Aisha hasn’t yet recovered from the years of abuse, her spirit is unbroken. As Rebecca Grossman, of the Grossman Burn Foundation, told me last month, “She has been treated so badly and been so abused, and that is why it is amazing that she is as playful and joyful as she is.”

Correction: In an earlier version of this article, the photo caption incorrectly stated that Aisha had undergone reconstructive surgery; in fact, she is wearing a prosthetic nose in the October 2010 image.

Mushtaq Yusufzai contributed to this report

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She has spent the last five years reporting on women entrepreneurs in conflict and post-conflict regions, including Afghanistan, Rwanda and Bosnia. Her upcoming book, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana , tells the story of a young Afghan entrepreneur whose business created jobs and hope for women in her neighborhood during the Taliban years. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana will be published by HarperCollins in March.