A 16-YEAR-OLD GIRL I'll call Shereen from Taliban-contested Helmand Province has been admitted to the hospital with burns covering 45 percent of her body. Cooking accident, she tells nurse Amini, but she smelled like gas when she was admitted.
"My feet are sore," Shereen says, barely above a whisper, her eyes wide. Frayed braids of hair frame her sunken, jaundiced face. Feathers of burned skin hang from her cheeks and chin. She is draped in a filthy fleece blanket and antibiotic-stained sheets. A doctor stands beside Amini, who prepares a solution to clean her burns.
Feathers of burned skin hang from her cheeks and chin. She is draped in a filthy fleece blanket and antibiotic-stained sheets. "My fingers aren't working," she says.
The doctor draws an X on her left arm where he wants a new IV needle inserted.
"You have gloves?" he asks Amini.
She nods, fills a tray with Betadine solution.
"Tell me your story again," the doctor tells Shereen.
"My dress caught fire while I was cooking, and I tried rubbing it out with mud. I put water on it. I called my family."
"I don't believe you. I was on duty when you came in," the doctor says, his voice calm but firm. "For the first day you couldn't speak. Now you're speaking. Tell me the truth."
Shereen stays silent. She looks shamed.
Amini begins removing the bandages that swath the patient's torso, arms, and legs. Cries from other wards drift down the vacant halls. Despite the antibiotic cream applied to her body, Shereen's skin sticks to the unraveling bandages. She gasps, her voice rising and merging with other cries filling the ward.
"Don't cry," Amini says. "We're almost done."
She finishes unraveling the bandages and applies a fresh layer of cream to the girl's arms. Shereen's body shudders, her eyes rolling. Amini's face settles into a grim stare.
Amini wanted to be a nurse for as long as she can remember. When she was two years old, her father died. She and her mother moved in with an uncle. Another uncle, a doctor who practiced in London, helped support Amini and her mother, a nurse. Amini liked the smock her mother wore when she worked, the bright whiteness of it and the way it billowed as she walked.
When she was only 12, Amini's Afghanistan uncle married her away to his 15-year-old son. Had he married his son to a girl outside the family, he would have had to pay a dowry. Amini, on the other hand, cost him nothing. Within a year Amini was pregnant, but the child died, as did the two that followed. Amini was 18 when her fourth child survived infancy. Today, that boy is 15. Her four other children are 13, 10, 7, and 5, plus two adopted children who were abandoned by their parents. Despite the demands of her family, Amini studied nursing in Kabul.
Bashir lives her life under constant guard.Amini's husband married a second wife in 2002 but did not tell her until months later. He and his second wife have a five-year-old girl. Now Amini's work as a nurse, once a source of independence, has become a trap. Her salary supports her own children and her husband's second family. "I work day and night to have some money to make my children's futures better," Amini explains later. "As a mother I am just hoping for their futures."
But Amini is silent now. She shares her story only with patients who admit to self-immolation, not girls who tell tales of accidents.
"Give her an injection to keep her quiet," Amini tells the doctor.
BASHIR'S LAND CRUISER passes through quiet neighborhoods, past a man carrying multicolored balloons and women in burkas cradling babies. She stares straight ahead, the world passing outside her veiled window like a silent movie.
"How much is this?" Bashir would ask a shopkeeper, and he would reply, "You are the prosecutor." Every time, she wondered: Had he been to her office? Had she prosecuted him?
Her claustrophobic, bodyguard-ruled life limits her in ways she had never imagined. Before, she had enjoyed going out by herself, seeing friends, shopping and sharing tea. She usually wore only a hijab, but sometimes to escape her notoriety she would slip on a blue burka and walk to the bazaar. Soon, she found men recognized her voice. "How much is this?" she would ask a shopkeeper, and he would reply, "You are the prosecutor." Every time, she wondered: Had he been to her office? Had she prosecuted him? She stopped going to the bazaar alone and settled into this new life, a captive to her security.
When she was young, Bashir's father had told her that as the eldest child, her life was hers to make. On her exams for graduate school at Kabul University, Bashir was asked her top three choices for a course of study. She wrote "law" in all three blanks. After graduating in 1994, she took a position as a criminal investigator with the attorney general's office in Kabul. She married and moved to Herat with her husband. Then the Taliban assumed power in the city in 1995. On the first day after the Taliban took over Herat, Bashir donned a burka and went to work, but the office was locked. The women were told, "You can no longer work in an office."
Forced to stay home, she started an underground school for girls. Because the Taliban forbade girls from learning to read, they had to sneak to her building, their books concealed. Bashir knew the repressive regime couldn't last forever, and when it fell, she wanted Afghanistan's young women to be ready to rejoin society. She saw the 2001 American-led invasion as that chance. Girls returned to school, and Bashir went back to work as a criminal investigator. A few years later, Afghanistan's attorney general visited Herat, and Bashir asked him whether he thought a woman could ever succeed as a chief prosecutor. Despite his reputation as a conservative, the attorney general said yes. And he gave her the job.
Bashir's reputation as being incorruptible has put her at great risk. As has the fact that she takes up the cause of abused women. In one instance, a husband beat his pregnant wife's feet so severely she could not put on her shoes. Another man struck his wife with a laundry iron. A third burned his wife with cigarettes. And then there are all the self-immolation cases. For all these women, Bashir endures the limitations imposed by her security detail, but the weariness shows.
One day in late 2007, Bashir's daughter and youngest son were playing in the street. With the number of death threats increasing and the Herati Taliban resurgent—even the former mayor joined their cause—Bashir had three police officers assigned to protect her family at home. She started receiving calls: We know when your children leave for school. We will kidnap them if you do not leave your job. The police kept a restive watch, scanning the street for threats. The sky darkened and rain drove the children indoors.
Suddenly, the power went out. A blast shook the building. Inside, Bashir felt as if her body were pressed by an invisible crowd. Glass shattered, shards sweeping across the living room. Bashir's children ran to the empty window frame. Her daughter covered her ears and screamed. Smoke rose from where two guards had been stationed. Both were severely injured. One would lose a leg. Bashir ran down the steps of her building, wielding a pistol, ready to confront her assailants. "I'm not scared of outlaws," she told reporters who gathered the next day. It was only the rain that saved her children.
Bashir received a text message: "Resign or we can do worse."
A young woman, on the run from abuse at the hands of her husband's second wife and family, cries as she begs Bashir to take up her case.Over the next year and a half, Sitara Achakzai, the female secretary of the Kandahar Provincial Council, and Malalai Kakar, the top-ranking woman officer on the Kandahar police force, were gunned down outside their homes. Zarghuna Kakar, another member of the council, was attacked along with her family in a public bazaar—her husband shot and killed, one of her daughters wounded. In Herat, the son of another of Bashir's bodyguards, mistaken for Bashir's son, was kidnapped and murdered.
Now, Bashir home-schools her 11-year-old son Sajad and 14-year-old daughter Yasaman; an older son has been sent to Europe. Every morning, Yasaman gets up with her mother and helps prepare breakfast. Then she cleans the house, does her homework, and waits with Sajad for their teacher. The day we visit, they are wearing hoodies and T-shirts—you have to look close to realize they're probably Chinese knockoffs and not goods from the Gap or Old Navy. After Sajad finishes his homework, he watches TV and complains to his sister of being bored. When Sajad sees boys his age, he wishes he could go out and play like them. Because he can't go out, he doesn't have friends. A sad-eyed boy, he is shy among guests. He would like to be a lawyer like his mom, or a pilot, when he grows up.
Their teacher comes for a few hours a day, six days a week. Her family did not want her to teach Bashir's children. They worried she would be harmed by the people who set the bomb. The teacher insisted. If Allah had determined that she was to die teaching Bashir's children, then that was her fate.
Yasaman knows the schedule of a nearby girls' school. She has written down the time they get out so she can look out the window when class is dismissed. After they pass, she stays by the window and waits for her mother. Yasaman often wishes her mother had a different job. "But I know that she is helping people—especially women—to have their rights. Her job is good for the people, just not for us."