Dressed in a glittering headscarf and a vibrant pink tunic, Bibi Aisha stepped off an airplane in Los Angeles Friday night, beginning what she hopes will be a happier chapter in her turbulent young life.
Her arrival here is a stunning turnabout in the story of an impoverished Afghan teenager who, just over a year ago, was left lying unconscious in a puddle of blood after a brutal attack by her Taliban in-laws. For Bibi—one of thousands of Afghan girls traded into abusive marriages each year to settle family debts—the assault followed an attempted escape from her violent husband she was married off to at around age 13. As punishment for running away, her in-laws pinned her to the ground, pulled out a knife, and sliced off her nose and ears.
Much the way images of Neda, the young Iranian woman whose bloody death was captured in a YouTube video, galvanized Westerners during last year’s election protests, the image of Bibi’s disfigured face has ricocheted around the globe in a gathering storm of media reports that began nine months ago on The Daily Beast.
Bibi, meanwhile, is staying with a Pashto-speaking family in Southern California and awaiting plastic surgery with some of the world’s top doctors, who will reconstruct her nose.
Since we first broke the story of Bibi’s ordeal as part of our Women In The World: Stories and Solutions coverage last fall, her story has been heard by millions and become a symbolic flashpoint in the debate over America’s involvement in Afghanistan. While some have called the gruesome images of her face exploitative military propaganda and “ war porn,” the coverage has ignited fresh debate about the plight of 15 million Afghan women if a U.S. drawdown or peace talks with insurgents were to result in a return to Taliban control. An estimated 87 percent of women in Afghanistan face some form of domestic abuse, according to the United Nations Development Fund for Women, making it one of the most dangerous places on the planet to be a woman.
In March, Diane Sawyer, a participant in our Women in the World Summit, traveled to Afghanistan and interviewed Bibi for ABC World News. CNN also jumped on the story. And last month, just as Hillary Clinton was in Kabul reiterating the administration’s plan to begin troop withdrawal by the end of next summer, Time magazine featured a graphic image of Bibi on its cover—and she became the very face of angst over America’s role in the region. On ABC’s This Week, Christiane Amanpour flashed Bibi’s image at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and asked, "Is America going to abandon the women of Afghanistan?"
“She is a reminder to everybody of the severity of the consequences if there is no one to help Afghan women,” says Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, The Daily Beast’s Kabul correspondent, who has been covering Bibi’s recovery since last year. “We treat animals better than this in much of the world because they are seen as having more value.”
Bibi Aisha Unveils New Nose
Gayle first met Bibi last November at a shelter in Kabul run by the NGO Women for Afghan Women. She was a frightened young woman for whom human contact seemed terrifying. Shelter workers struggled to help her through her frequent emotional outbursts.
Gayle determined Bibi was too emotionally fragile to be interviewed at length, and instead pieced together Bibi’s story by talking to the American military medics who had cared for her and won her trust in the months after the attack.
Bibi told them she had been forced to marry her husband, a local Talib, when she was about 13, in order to settle a dispute between his family and her uncle’s. Her in-laws forced her to sleep in the stable with the animals, treated her like a slave, and beat her. When she could bear it no longer, she ran away. But neighbors turned her into the police, and she ended up in prison in Kandahar. Her father picked her up from jail and returned her to her in-laws after they assured him they would treat her better. Only days later, however, they maimed her in retribution for her disobedience.
In July, nine months after their first encounter, Gayle met Bibi again, to break the news on The Daily Beast that Bibi would be traveling to California for reconstructive surgery arranged with the help of the shelter and the Grossman Burn Foundation. In the months since their first meeting, she had emerged from her trauma. Talkative, lively and charming, she expressed excitement about her trip to California, which is being documented by ABC World News.
Some war critics, who oppose the presence of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, have argued that Bibi is being exploited to justify military involvement. (The coverline on Time magazine read “What happens if we leave Afghanistan.”)
Malalai Joya, an Aghan women's rights’ activist and politican who called the cover “a false slogan,” says crimes against women have actually increased since U.S. military involvement began—and many point out that Bibi’s horrific abuse took place not under Taliban rule, but just last year, eight years after the U.S. and NATO forces entered Afghanistan in 2001.
“The U.S. used the plight of Afghan women as an excuse to occupy Afghanistan in 2001 by filling television screens, Internet pages and newspapers with pictures of women being shot down or beaten up in public,” Joya told France24 in an interview. “Once again, it is molding the oppression on women into a propaganda tool to gain support and staining their hands with ever-deepening treason against Afghan women.”
While Joya strongly opposes the Taliban, she has railed against the civilian deaths caused by international forces.
Esther Hyneman, a board member at Women for Afghan Women, the organization running the shelter that took in Bibi, has no qualms about sharing her story with media. “We wanted to inject the crucially important topic of women’s human rights into the public debate about our role in Afghanistan," says Hyneman, whose group has been openly supportive of a U.S. military presence and a troop surge, which they believe are necessary to protect women.
"Bibi’s experience, plus the recent alarming rise of threats against and murders of local women’s rights workers, show what will happen if women are abandoned to the Taliban,” Hyneman adds. “These topics have not been part of the national or global debate and it’s a serious omission.”
“She is a reminder to everybody of the severity of the consequences if there is no one to help Afghan women,” says Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, the Daily Beast’s Kabul correspondent.
For Bibi, a young woman with no education and long history of abuse, her first few days in the U.S. have been difficult and disorienting. One of her first questions after landing was: “Is Karzai king of California?”
Though she was overjoyed to be reunited Friday with one of the American medics who took care of her after the attack, she’s been suffering mood swings, and having emotional outbursts with her host family.
She is slated to meet with doctors who will repair her nose later this week.
Jane Spencer is managing editor of The Daily Beast. Previously, she was a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong and New York. She was part of a team of reporters that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for coverage of China's “naked capitalism” and the adverse social and environmental consequences of the nation’s economic boom.