Afghan Woman Recovers From 'Unspeakable Crime'

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The maiming of a teenage girl in Afghanistan could have become another forgotten tragedy of war, except for the efforts of one journalist. Host Michel Martin talks to reporter Gayle Tzemach Lemmon about her story of this young woman, who was severely disfigured in an act of domestic violence, and how that story is playing out in the debate over the war in Afghanistan.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

When journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon paid a visit to a women's shelter in Afghanistan last December, she fully expected that she would encounter heartbreaking stories about the violence that many Afghan women face in their struggle for even a small measure of personal dignity and freedom.

But even her years of reporting and much time spent in Afghanistan did not fully prepare her for what she saw when she met a young Afghan woman named Bibi Aisha. Her story and her face have become a cause and a challenge for many Americans as they contemplate the way forward in Afghanistan, because Bibi Aisha was the victim, as you shall hear, of an unspeakable crime.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon was the first journalist to report the young woman's story, for The Daily Beast on an article of the same title. She joins us now from our studios in Washington. She's just back from Afghanistan. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Ms. GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON (Journalist, The Daily Beast): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You knew that Bibi Aisha was at the shelter, which is one of the reasons you went. But then when you met her, tell us what you saw.

Ms. LEMMON: Yes, I actually was there reporting on a story about the new domestic-violence law in Afghanistan ,and to look at some of the cases and talk with some of the women there. And I have to say, and I've reported a lot from Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world, this was definitely the hardest set of interviews I had ever done. Just one story after another about women who had been either electrocuted or beaten or, you know, set alight by their spouses.

And so in the middle of this, sort of last round of interviews, the door opened and in walks this young woman who I did know about ahead of time, but I certainly wasn't prepared to see. She had her nose cut off and her ears cut off by her husband's family in retribution for the shocking crime of having tried to escape a situation where she had been battered for months by her husband and his family.

MARTIN: She had been forced to marry her husband when she was 13, a settlement for a dispute between her husband's family and her uncle's. What were some of the conditions that forced her to run away?

Ms. LEMMON: Yeah, there's a practice in Afghanistan, and it's certainly not just in Afghanistan, but there is this practice called bhat(ph), where women are given as basically the price of settlement of a dispute between families. The story is that her cousin had killed a member of her husband-to-be's family, and so her father gave her in bhat to this family as a way of settling the dispute.

MARTIN: She was married to a Taliban fighter, correct?

Ms. LEMMON: Her husband was with the Taliban. And the story was that in punishment for her having dared to run away and ended up in prison as a punishment for having run away from her husband, her husband and his family had taken her, basically, and tied her down. And then with a group of them, men surrounding her, they had maimed her. And she's actually still married officially because who is going to get him to actually show up in court?

MARTIN: You talked about how when you first saw her - if you could just give us your reaction, how you felt.

Ms. LEMMON: It was shocking. I mean, it's shocking to imagine that someone would do that to another human being. We treat animals better than that in nearly all of the world. It really just shows you the lack of value people put on women's lives. And in so much of the world now - I don't, by any means, want to say that this kind of thing only happens in Afghanistan. It's just that in part because of the American presence, we happen to know more about some of the stories that we see.

MARTIN: In your original piece for the Daily Beast about this, you report that her father brought her to the forward operating base clinic, hoping that they could help her. And that when the translator was called in to facilitate the medical treatment, she burst into tears and had to collect herself.

I think this is a good time to point out that her story, and what has happened to her, has subsequently gotten a lot of attention, and her identity has since been revealed. At the time, you first did not disclose her real name for reasons of safety. But now, she has decided to use her real name and to go public, and she's expected to come to the United States for treatment any day now. But her face is on the cover of this week's Time magazine, and the picture itself, the image is so difficult that Richard Stengel, the managing editor, felt the need to write an entire column about why they decided to put her image on the cover. And the piece is titled, "What's Hard to Look At?" And it says: This week's cover is disturbing, but the reality it shows in Afghanistan is something from which we cannot turn away.

That's the place I wanted to sort of pick up with you on that, is that her story now has become an element in our conversation about Afghanistan. It's now, you know, the president spoke about Afghanistan. It's now become yet another issue. Why has it only now become an issue, about the way women are treated in Afghanistan, from what you see?

Ms. LEMMON: I think the image is meeting a political crescendo. The questions about where we are in Afghanistan, what happens next, what will the future look like, what will the December troop review look like, what does July 2011 actually mean? I think all those questions are coming at the same time that you have this incredibly arresting image. And Aryn Baker, who's the Time magazine reporter, is actually a dear friend - and actually, a Kabul housemate. So I was even privy to some of these discussions about would she go on the cover, and how they were thinking about it.

And the truth is that people should not be allowed to look away. If you're going to talk about Afghanistan, if you're going to talk about what happens in women's lives, we must pay attention. And it's easy to say, oh, isn't it awful? But it's much more powerful to say, so what does it mean? And what does it mean for the U.S. presence? And you know, that's when we first did the story, the facts were very murky because as you can imagine, the girl had been through an incredible amount of trauma.

And you know, to see her again I just did this follow-up piece for the Daily Beast last week, I think the day before the Time magazine piece came out. And to see how she has changed, how she has really flourished in the shelter, is another - for me, another point in what we must pay attention to.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the struggles of women in Afghanistan, with a particular focus on one young woman who was the victim of an unspeakable crime. Journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is author of an article for the Daily Beast by that title. She's made the plight of Afghan women very hard to ignore.

What was the response of the Afghan government when your reporting first was published?

Ms. LEMMON: So interesting. I mean, I think, you know, a lot of people were, oh, what about can she have this Time magazine cover run, and what does this mean? These are not shocking stories on the ground in Afghanistan. I mean, these are, of course, difficult stories. I am not saying this is - at all saying this is commonplace in Afghanistan. But do people know that stories about domestic violence of this magnitude of horror exist? Yes. So it is much more a story for this market, for the American news media market, than I think it is in Afghanistan on the ground. And I think that's very easy to forget here.

MARTIN: So essentially what you're saying is, the reaction was, so?

Ms. LEMMON: You know, I don't know if the reaction is so, but the reaction is yes, isn't this awful? And these things happen.

MARTIN: You've been reporting on the question - of the whole issue of women and entrepreneurs and how women are functioning - 'cause you have an MBA; that's one of the issues that interests you. So I'd like to hear a little bit more about how women are functioning in Afghanistan, because we hear so many different stories. On the one hand, there's the scenario that suggests that this is a very traditional, very conservative society, and that the role of women in that society is essentially unchanged over the course of time, and that if it is going to change, it has to come from within, in Afghanistan - that the Taliban may be an extreme group, but they are essentially a reflection of the core consensus of Afghan society, about the status that women should have in the society.

On the other hand, many people say, well, if the U.S. were to leave, that things would become even worse for women, that this is an extremely oppressive environment and that there's a moral responsibility on the part of the world community to intervene in that.

And other people, of course, say it's none of our business. They have a right to determine their own culture. And I'd like to just ask, based on your reporting time in Afghanistan, what is your sense of how women function there in Afghanistan? Has there been a change over time?

Ms. LEMMON: I would start answering that question by saying we are very accustomed to seeing Afghan women as victims who deserve our pity rather than survivors who deserve our respect. And the truth is, Afghan women have been getting families through 30 years of war. They have been civil engineers. They have been doctors. They have been teachers. They have been lawyers. They have led community organizations. They have been farmers.

So I think there is a much more complex story about how much Afghan women have been able to do for themselves and their families despite being in an incredibly conservative culture. There are a number of Afghan husbands, brothers and fathers who have done all they could to make sure that the women in their family get educated, and that they are able to contribute to their families.

And so I think that's important, because I think the narrative that we get very accustomed to - is, oh, this is such an entrenched society, we won't ever be able to do anything about it - is actually inaccurate; it really is. And women in these past - since 2002, have really been able to take the small pockets of opening that had - the international community's presence helped - created, and the end of the Taliban has created, and really make the most of it on behalf of their families because it's a very family-centered society.

MARTIN: Tell me a little more about Bebe Aisha in the time that we have left. When you first met her, you described somebody who the medical personnel whom you interviewed described her as being extremely traumatized, that she required a great deal of coaxing just to allow them to clean her wounds, and so forth. Tell us a little bit more about how she is now, and what is ahead for her.

Ms. LEMMON: Yeah. Maybe just a little bit back to the Air Force folks who had originally treated her. One of the doctors said to me: You know, Ive done two tours of Iraq, and I have never seen anybody do anything like this to another person. And the American military personnel were really both shaken and incredibly moved by her story.

And I think that was what really struck me about the first story, was how this young woman had touched so many people by enduring the tragedy she had endured and also by really making it clear from the beginning what a resilient spirit she had. And so then to see her I met her briefly, you know, last winter and then to spend a little more time with her and sit down and really talk for a while last week was pretty remarkable to see the change.

You know, she is really such a sweet and sharp and funny young woman who has been through things that are really and truly unimaginable. And so, to see her say, you know, people have been making decisions for me my whole life and now, I'm going to make decisions for myself. I want to get educated. I want my nose back. I want my face back, and then I can move on with my life. And I will make my decisions for me.

To me, it was just striking because you wonder - I have to say, some horrible part in yourself says, you know, would I be able to bounce back? Would I be able to be that resilient - if you had endured something so horrendous.

MARTIN: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the deputy director of the Women in Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She's the author of a forthcoming book on women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan. She's just back from Afghanistan, and she joined us in our studios in Washington. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, thank you for joining us.

Ms. LEMMON: Thank you for having me.

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