Fouzia Durrani, center, an Afghan woman who gained political asylum, shares a meal with her attorney, Jennifer Geetter, and Morgan Weibel, attorney at the Tahirih Justice Center, right, at her home in Northern Virginia on April 17. (Nikki Kahn/THE WASHINGTON POST)

As an ambitious young woman in rural southern Afghanistan, Fouzia Durrani was headed for trouble. The region’s religious and tribal customs required her to stay home, marry a man chosen by her elders and spend her life as his cloistered servant.

But the 20-year-old student loved teaching young girls to read and write, and she rejected the man to whom she had been promised at age 3. Growing up as a doctor’s daughter in a postwar democracy, where education and rights for women were championed by the government and its Western backers, she believed she could strive for success and assert her independence.

She was wrong, and punishment came swiftly.

In 2011, her father was briefly kidnapped and threatened by resurgent Taliban forces, and her forced marriage was ordered by tribal elders. A sympathetic cousin helped her flee to Pakistan and the United States, but soon afterward he was killed in a suspicious bomb explosion.

Today, 18 months after her escape, Durrani is living with relatives in Sterling, ringing up blouses in a shopping mall and taking courses at Northern Virginia Community College. It is a free, fast-paced life that she could never have imagined back home, but she has already mastered driving with GPS, and her English is sprinkled with phrases she has learned from the evening news.

Next Thursday, Durrani, who was recently granted political asylum in the United States, will tell her story for the first time in public as the guest of honor at a Georgetown gala hosted by the nonprofit Tahirih Justice Center . But amid her relief and excitement, she also expressed guilt over the suffering of her family and the fate of the students she once urged to imagine a life outside four farmhouse walls.

“I feel such emptiness,” Durrani confided last week as she sat in her lawyer’s office in the District, nervously adjusting her head scarf. “Here I am living in a free society, but so many other girls are still back there. If I had been sent home, it would be like going into a dark cave forever.”

Oppression lingers

A decade after extremist Taliban forces were overthrown, Afghanistan now has laws protecting women’s rights and hundreds of new schools for girls. In the capital, Kabul, women sit in Parliament and work in government offices. But in rural provinces, many still live under the crushing constraints of traditional village life — illiterate, cowed and unaware that they have any individual rights.

According to international experts, incidents of violence and abuse of women in Afghanistan have skyrocketed, with more than 4,000 cases reported in the past year alone. Some have been whipped or burned with acid by Taliban moral enforcers, and others have been killed by husbands or brothers over family honor. Many victims are too fearful to go to the police, and few cases ever reach court.

The problem is especially persistent among southern Pashtun tribes, which produced the punitive Taliban militia and still adhere to an ancient code based on honor and revenge. In Durrani’s province of Kandahar, years of Western military and civilian efforts have failed to neutralize the Taliban or modernize tribal ways. Two female provincial officials have been assassinated, numerous female teachers killed and many girls’ schools forced to shut down.

“The Taliban never left,” said Durrani, whose family is Pashtun. “There are laws in Kabul, but it might as well be another country. Where I am from, the Taliban have the real power.” In her asylum petition, she wrote, “I cannot explain where Pashtun customs end and Taliban rule begins, because they operate together to control my life.”

It was not possible to confirm the details of Durrani’s story, but the asylum petition she filed last year, with help from lawyers at Tahirih and the firm of McDermott, Will and Emery, was compelling enough to convince U.S. immigration officials that she deserved permanent sanctuary.

Kerry Healey, a former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts and head of a group that promotes judicial reform in Afghanistan, wrote an expert affidavit on her behalf. Healey stated that Taliban forces are the “de facto government” in Kandahar today and that many inhabitants are afraid to defy them because they know Western troops will soon leave for good.

By daring to teach other girls and refusing an arranged marriage, Healey wrote, Durrani would be viewed by the Taliban as a dangerous infidel and by Pashtun elders as having dishonored their clan. “Her whole life is an affront to Pashtun and Taliban values,” Healey wrote. If forced to return home, she would face “certain death.”

Durrani’s father, whose identity was withheld by her lawyers, wrote in a separate affidavit that he wanted his daughter to pursue her dreams and avoid a forced marriage, but that his hopes were crushed as the Taliban reasserted power.

In 2011, a tribal council ordered Durrani to submit to the groom, and her father was briefly kidnaped by Taliban enforcers, who accused him of raising a “foreign heretic.” In despair, the young woman slit her wrists and nearly bled to death.

Her parents, determined to save her, concocted a bridal shopping trip to Kabul, where Durrani instead went to the U.S. Embassy and was soon on a flight to Washington, armed with a student visa. If the plan had failed, her father wrote, she would “spend her life behind a thick burqa, serving food to guests and suffering in absolute silence. She would disappear.”

Hopes for the future

Durrani, one of a handful of women to win U.S. asylum on the basis of gender persecution, is now finding her way between two worlds. Every morning she commutes to work and college, wearing a tight head scarf and loose tunic over jeans and sneakers. Every evening she comes home to her brother’s apartment in Sterling, cooks sweet Afghan ravioli or crepes with her sister-in-law, and teaches bits of English to her tiny niece.

“I love everything here,” she said after dinner one recent evening, balancing a teacup on her head to make the little girl laugh. “I miss teaching, but someday I’m going to have my own business. I can picture myself standing in front of a room, telling people something. And I believe they will listen.”

Durrani, who prays five times a day and makes sure her scarf completely covers her hair, passionately advocates a vision of Islam that endorses education and personal freedoms for women. She often quotes Koranic verses to prove her point and dismisses the Taliban as ignorant religious tyrants.

“They beat women. They shave boys’ heads. They hurt people when our Islam prohibits hurting even a single ant,” Durrani said angrily. “They shut down schools when our Islam says that every man and woman must be educated. That’s what they are afraid of. If people get educated, no one will listen to them.”

Despite her outward poise and determination, Durrani is still haunted by the pain of leaving her parents and the social pressure from relatives and elders that once drove her to attempt suicide.

“I felt alone, like I was the one causing all the problems,” she said, looking away and wiping her eyes. “So many girls in Afghanistan are still caught by all those forces, with no way to escape. I cannot bear to imagine their lives.”