Dec. 11, 2004 — They had fled the Taliban, returned home to a "new Afghanistan," and were looking forward to continuing their education when Khusboo and Heena heard the calamitous news.
School, the two Afghan sisters were told, was a luxury the family could not afford. Instead, the girls — who were 14 and 15 years old at the time — would be married off to older men in exchange for money, or the customary "bride price" paid by Afghan grooms to the bride's family.
For Khusboo and Heena, whose last names are being withheld to protect their identity, the news was devastating. Raised by their grandmother in Kabul, the family fled to Pakistan after the Taliban swept into power in 1996. And though life as refugees in Pakistan was extremely hard, they did manage to go school.
So when the U.S. invasion ousted the Taliban and the sisters returned home to the Afghan capital, they had every reason to believe they would join the army of girls across the city trooping to schools, enjoying a freedom they were denied under the repressive regime.
But that, their grandmother told them, was not to be. "I was so sad because I didn't want to get married," said Heena, speaking through a translator. "I wanted to go to school."
Rather than be sold into marriage, the two girls decided to run away — an extremely audacious and risky act in conservative Afghan society.
'Afghanistan Has Been Transformed'
After decades of civil war, peace and stability — of sorts — are finally returning to Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, Hamid Karzai was sworn in as Afghanistan's first democratically elected leader. Speaking at Camp Pendleton, Calif., as Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld attended the inauguration in Kabul, President Bush hailed the historic milestone in Afghanistan's history.
"Afghanistan has been transformed from a haven for terrorists to a steadfast ally in the war on terror," Bush told a gathering of Marines. "And the American people are safer because of your courage."
But even as Afghan females are finally enjoying basic human rights, such as the right to an education, to work and to vote, Afghanistan remains a profoundly conservative Muslim nation.
Cultural traditions — including age-old, honor-bound codes of conduct — still shackle and oppress several women, especially those living outside Kabul.
Escaping Forced Marriages by Suicide
In the past few years, there have been an increasing number of news reports about suicides by self-immolation among Afghan women. Although nationwide statistics are hard to come by, hospitals and aid agencies in cities like Kabul and Herat in western Afghanistan have recorded a number of female burn cases.
Forced into marriages — often with older, richer men — and faced with a life of endless exploitation and drudgery, an untold number of Afghan females are dousing themselves with kerosene used in cooking stoves and setting themselves on fire.
"There is an absolute level of despair, that you will never be able to make a choice about your life and that really there is no way out, and knowing that you will have to live with a man you have not chosen, who is probably older than you are, who is not going to allow you to work, to go out of the house," explained Rachel Wareham of L'Association Médicale Mondiale, or World Medical Association, an international physicians group.
Self-immolation is a horrific act that often results in a slow, torturous death in hospital burn wards even as medical officials desperately struggle to save lives.
Medical officials and journalists such as Stephanie Sinclair — who spent weeks photographing patients in a hospital burn ward in Herat — say there is a marked difference between patients of accidental burns and those who have attempted self-immolation.
"In the burn ward, you can tell the self-immolation cases from the regular burn cases," said Sinclair, who was on assignment in western Afghanistan for Marie Claire magazine.
A Life of Unending Drudgery
One such case was Shakila Azizi, a 27-year-old woman who returned to her native Herat from Iran, where her family had gone to escape the Taliban.
But when Azizi arrived in Herat, she had to live with her in-laws, Sinclair said. She found herself at the bottom of the family pecking order, forced to do all the cooking and cleaning for the family.
One morning, Azizi apparently complained to her in-laws about the way they were treating her, but she said they would not listen. In desperation, she went into the kitchen, doused herself in kerosene and set herself on fire, Sinclair said. Doctors tried in vain to save her life, and the young woman suffered a torturous death. She leaves behind two small children.
Making a Fatal Pact
Khusboo and Heena said they had made a pact that if they could not escape the forced marriages, they would kill themselves.
Luckily for the sisters, they heard of a women's shelter in Kabul and they decided to run away from home. Founded by Afghan women's rights activist Mary Akrami after the fall of the Taliban, the women's shelter is the only one of its kind in Kabul. Its location is a secret, since Akrami says angry family members sometimes want to harm her or the women fleeing social and familial persecution.
A Kabul native who fled the Taliban for Pakistan, Akrami returned to her homeland after performing years of social work in the destitute refugee camps of Pakistan. But although the situation for women in Afghanistan has improved since the ouster of the Taliban, Akrami says there's still a long way to go.
"Government and the [Afghan] constitution say that women have rights, but still I am not happy with this much rights we have for women," she said.
Indeed, while the constitution, passed in 2003, recognizes basic women's rights, international rights groups such as Amnesty International have warned that it fails to protect the rights of women. What's more, experts say there is a huge gap between the law and its enforcement is huge.
But while Afghanistan is still trying to build its tattered judicial system, Khusboo and Heena's ability to escape forced marriages is testament to a nascent hope in a country that once had one of the world's worst records on women's rights.