Skip to main content

Saving Face: The struggle and survival of Afghan women

By Sara Sidner and Mitra Mobasherat, CNN
updated 11:08 AM EDT, Mon July 9, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 18-year-old Mumtaz bears the scars of an acid attack after she refused marriage
  • Two armed men pulled her head back and poured acid all over her face
  • Mumtaz now lives in a shelter for abused women in Kabul, Afghanistan
  • A 2008 Global Rights study said 87% of Afghan women reported suffering from domestic abuse

Kabul (CNN) -- When 18-year-old Mumtaz walks into a room, the first thing you notice about her is the patchwork of painful puffy red scars that stretch across her face.

"I feel so bad, I do not look at myself in the mirror anymore," Mumtaz said.

She is the victim of a scorned man who decided that if he couldn't marry her, he'd make sure no one else would want to. The man had asked for her hand in marriage, but Mumtaz's family declined the offer. One night, she says, several men showed up at their home.

They beat up her family, and finally two armed men held her, pulled her head back and let the man who had wanted to marry her pour acid all over her face.

Manhunt under way for Taliban who shot woman in public execution

Tortured Afghan girl tells her story

"I was in the hospital for 10 days in Kunduz, and later they brought me to Kabul," Mumtaz said. "Most of my body was burned. When the doctor gave me medicine, I felt like I was being thrown into a fire."

Billions in cash leaving Afghanistan

A few of the men involved have been arrested but not the one responsible for changing Mumtaz's face forever. This was the first time she had agreed to show her face and tell her story on television, partly because she fears for her life.

America rushing to leave Afghanistan?

Mumtaz has been through hell, which makes the second thing you notice about her all the more remarkable. She smiles every chance she gets.

Most of my body was burned. When the doctor gave me medicine I felt like I was being thrown into a fire
Mumtaz

"I guess it is just my nature," she said.

The shelter where Mumtaz now lives is a haven for women who have been abused. Right now, there are 16 women there, some with young children. Many have been there for years because they simply have nowhere else to go.

"This shelter has helped us a lot. If they were not here to help me, I would have been dead by now. My life was in a great danger, " Mumtaz said.

Mumtaz is learning to read and write and is hoping to receive treatment for her scars in India.

Just across the hall, there is another girl with a soul-destroying story of abuse.

Sahar Gul had been beaten, burned, scalded with water and had her fingernails ripped out after being married off to a man more than twice her age when she was just 13 years old.

Tortured girl: The same should be done to them

"Sahar Gul's brother married her to this person in return of 200,000 Afghanis (about $4,000 dollars). Sahar had about 15 to 20 'good days' with her husband, but then problems started to arise; (the family started telling her) you are a child and cannot give birth and that you do not understand how to be a wife," said Gul's attorney, Shukria Khaliqi.

In Afghanistan, it is an accepted tradition that the husband-to-be's family pay a dowry, also known as the bride price, to get a bride. But her new family had expectations that Gul could not meet.

Gul said that when she didn't conceive a child, her husband and his family started complaining she was eating too much. They called her useless, stopped feeding her, locked her in a basement and began torturing her. She said they also told her to sell herself to other men, which she refused.

"They used to bring boys into the house. They used to say that they want to make money and wanted to buy a car," Gul said.

Gul's mother-in-law, sister-in-law and father-in-law were convicted and sentenced to 10 years in jail for the torture but are appealing the ruling. Gul's husband is still on the run.

Mumtaz's and Gul's stories illustrate the fragile state of women in Afghanistan. Human rights groups say overall conditions for women in the country have improved since the U.S.-led war, but there are still too many cases where women are treated as subhuman.

"Since 2001, there has been some really important progress. Literacy has improved. There are about 2 million more girls in school than there were at the time when the Taliban fell. Infant mortality has fallen, and life expectancy has increased. But I still think the overall picture is less than people really hoped for," Heather Barr of Human Right's Watch in Afghanistan said.

A 2008 study by Global Rights revealed that 87% of Afghan women reported suffering from domestic abuse.

"(Domestic violence) is a silent tsunami because nobody sees it, but it's taking the life of women. And many women turn to self-immolation or commit suicide or throw themselves in the rivers to escape the situation. It's something we do not see, because it's happening within the families," Afghanistan Member of Parliament Fawzia Kofi said.

Kofi has been fighting to get the government to pay more attention to issues facing women.

Recognizing the problem, President Hamid Karzai signed legislation aimed at eliminating violence against women in Afghanistan. Women's rights advocates say the law is good, but enforcement of the law is lax.

Kofi, along with human rights advocates, worries about what will happen to women if international aid for services halts along with the pullout of NATO troops and the threat of the Taliban in government.

"I think the biggest fear and concern all of us have is that we go back to the dark period from where we had to look at the whole world from a small window," Kofi said.

UN chief warns against holding Afghan aid hostage with reform demands

Roadside bombs kill dozens in Afghanistan

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:26 AM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
Advocates say the exam includes unnecessarily invasive and irrelevant procedures -- like a so-called "two finger" test.
updated 7:09 PM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Supplies of food, clothing and fuel are running short in Damascus and people are going hungry as the civil war drags on.
updated 1:01 PM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
Supporters of Richard III want a reconstruction of his head to bring a human aspect to a leader portrayed as a murderous villain.
updated 10:48 AM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Robert Fowler spent 130 days held hostage by the same al Qaeda group that was behind the Algeria massacre. He shares his experience.
updated 12:07 AM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
As "We are the World" plays, a video shows what looks like a nuclear attack on the U.S. Jim Clancy reports on a bizarre video from North Korea.
The relationship is, once again, cold enough to make Obama's much-trumpeted "reset" in Russian-U.S. relations seem thoroughly off the rails.
Ten years on, what do you think the Iraq war has changed in you, and in your country? Send us your thoughts and experiences.
updated 7:15 AM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Musician Daniela Mercury has sold more than 12 million albums worldwide over a career span of nearly 30 years.
Photojournalist Alison Wright travelled the world to capture its many faces in her latest book, "Face to Face: Portraits of the Human Spirit."
updated 7:06 PM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Europol claims 380 soccer matches, including top level ones, were fixed - as the scandal widens, CNN's Dan Rivers looks at how it's done.
updated 7:37 AM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
That galaxy far, far away is apparently bigger than first thought. The "Star Wars" franchise will get two spinoff movies, Disney announced.
updated 2:18 AM EST, Fri February 8, 2013
It's an essential part of any trip, an activity we all take part in. Yet almost none of us are any good at it. Souvenir buying is too often an obligatory slog.
ADVERTISEMENT