When Bibi Aisha’s Taliban-connected in-laws cut off her nose and ears in a barbaric act of retribution for the “crime” of fleeing years of abuse, her story seized international attention and captured headlines worldwide. A visa for the U.S., appearances at glittery celebrity galas, and a series of host families soon followed. So did emotional outbursts for Aisha, and a fight to find a place she felt comfortable in a strange country where even the poorest people have access to things she had never known: power, water, and, most important, education.
In 2009 The Daily Beast first told the story of Bibi Aisha, a young woman given to her husband’s family while she was still a child as “payment” to settle a family crime, a practice known as baad. After her maiming at the hands of her husband’s family following her attempted escape, Aisha fled to her own relatives. Her father brought her to a U.S. military forward operating base not far from her home in southern Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province. From there, the military evacuated her to a shelter in Kabul. Several months later her face appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
Three years later the young woman is rebuilding her life, and her face, in a new country and with a new family that is helping her along a path beset by setbacks, but also filled with love and some hope for the future. She spends her days on the Internet, watching Bollywood movies, listening to Afghan songs, and reading stories that haunt her. One of them: a piece she found on the Internet about Malala Yousafzai, the courageous 15-year-old campaigner for girls’ education shot by the Taliban last month while sitting in her school van.
Last November Aisha left New York City without telling her hosts at the charity Women for Afghan Women, which ran the shelter where she’d lived in Kabul before coming to America. She found a home in suburban Maryland with Mati Arsala and his wife, Jamila, Afghans by birth who welcomed the young woman and warmly embraced her as part of their family. She enrolled in English courses and began the surgeries that had been delayed since her arrival in the United States because of concerns about her mental health and her ability to withstand the long and painful series of operations.
“I think finally she is in the right place with the right people around her, and they are honestly doing it for the right reasons,” says Rebecca Grossman of the Grossman Burn Foundation, which helped sponsor Aisha’s travel to the U.S. in 2010.
Doctors operating at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center already have performed three of the seven reconstructive surgeries Aisha requires to rebuild her nose. In December comes her next procedure, expected to be the most extensive on her nose using skin doctors are now growing on her forehead. Operations on her ears will begin after that.
“She had a psychiatrist and we made her prepare for the surgery and she accepted all of it,” says Mati Arsala, who praises the team at Walter Reed. “Right now she sees a lot of things are changing and the nose is almost formed.”
Right now, Aisha is not in school, though she continues to learn English using software Mati and Jamila, a medical doctor, found for her. As Jamila describes it, the surgery has temporarily deconstructed the young woman’s face as doctors try to grow new skin around her forehead; so Aisha is reluctant to go out in public. Exposure to the dust and wind also is not good for her face.
This means Aisha has even more time to go online and read the horror stories happening to women in between watching far happier Indian films and YouTube music videos. Rasouli Arsala says she tries to keep reporting about such cases of violence against women from Aisha, but the intrepid web surfer usually finds them.
“She feels at home, but she has very deep wounds in her heart about what happened to her and she is struggling with all these things.”
“She heard about it on the Internet,” Rasouli Arsala says of the shooting of Malala Yousafzai. "We talked about it and she was very sad, and then I didn’t want to talk more.” She continues, “We try to avoid these kinds of story to tell Aisha because it makes her very upset. And she cannot digest this kind of story.”
Rasouli Arsala, who has come to see the young woman as another of her children, says she works to give Aisha the support she deserves.
"We all the time talk about her courage and how she did this—how she did great things in her life and God helped her in this way and of course a lot of good people helped her,” Rasouli Arsala says. “She feels at home, but she has very deep wounds in her heart about what happened to her and she is struggling with all these things. We try to help but we cannot heal her heart wounds.”
Those who hosted Aisha earlier in her stay in America say that they, too, saw the young woman’s wounds and, like Mati and Jamila, they also see her enormous potential.
"At first, we felt the situation was kind of hopeless because [Aisha] was so unstable, but when she started making progress, started going to classes, we really became optimistic about her,” says Esther Hyneman, founder of Women for Afghan Women. “She definitely advanced. She has so much potential because she is extremely intelligent, so it was very hard when she left.”
Hyneman’s organization now runs eight shelters for women across the country, and has served more than 6,000 women across Afghanistan. She says she fears what will happen come 2014 and the U.S. troop withdrawal from the country.
“The main purpose of putting her on the cover of Time has not borne the fruit that we hoped it would bear. Even though Hillary Clinton says we are not going to abandon the women of Afghanistan, we don’t know how the women of Afghanistan are going to be protected once the troops leave. We don’t know how organizations like ours with all our shelters will be able to continue.”
Hyneman does, however, see something good in all the coverage coming out of Afghanistan about atrocities against women. She says she doesn’t necessarily think violence against women is increasing, but awareness is.
"Attacks on women are getting publicized, and the fact that they are being publicized is a good sign, the fact that women are trying to get away is a good sign; the fact that they get to hospitals and get help is also a good sign,” she says. "We have no idea how many women have been killed and quietly buried in Afghanistan.”
Aisha herself talks about visiting Afghanistan one day, once the surgeries are finished. She wants to see her family. But those closest to her in the U.S. worry about her safety should she ever go back. Even if the rest of the world forgets what happened to her, those involved will not.
For his part Arsala says that as more cases of crimes such as those committed against Aisha surface, it is important that people remember her story.
“I don’t want the world to forget what she has been through,” Arsala says. “She should be very productive and she should have something for herself. She has a lot of desires for her life—right now everything has stopped for her. When she is done with her nose, she will be a totally different person. We should all do for her, because she has a very long life and she needs a lot.”
His wife agrees that it is important for people to remember Aisha’s struggle. With one exception.
"One time I was talking to her and I said, ‘What can I do to make you very, very happy?’ She said, ‘If you give me all the world I will smile but my heart will not smile,’” Rasouli Arsala says. “If she forgets her story I would be so happy.”