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.