AT THE BURN UNIT'S Tuesday morning staff meeting, a doctor reads the names of patients, including the severely burned woman who died at 1:30 a.m. Amini knew she wouldn't last long. Shereen, on the other hand, appears to be improving. Two other patients are well enough to have skin grafts. Another will be released.
A nurse and a relative attend to a self-immolation case—a young woman who died the next day.It seems a miracle that anyone recovers here. Staff often pay for supplies out of their own pockets: scissors, bandages, antibiotics. They wear threadbare smocks all day, then toss them on top of their lockers to wear, rumpled and unwashed, the next day. They wear cracked plastic sandals that have never been sterilized and walk on damp floors stained with mop water. The peeling walls and ceilings drift plaster dust. Some doctors don surgical masks when they work with patients. Many do not.
After the meeting, Amini stops by Shereen's bed. Shereen complains that her married brother criticizes her too much. Her unmarried brothers harass her too, but her older married brother's jibes sting more. "Why don't you criticize your wife?" she asks him. "Why am I never good enough for you?"
The burns on Shereen's face have healed, leaving only barely discernible scars. In three weeks, she should be well enough for skin grafts on her chest and legs. In time, she will return to her village in Helmand. "Her family will again force her to stay home and keep her from going to school," Amini says later. She will have no future. Her life will be up to the village elders.
But Amini does not dwell on outcomes she cannot affect. She walks to the women's locker room and shrugs off her smock.
The first wife spoke through the screen of her burka, a bright-eyed baby straddling her hip. She said the second wife and her brother had been beating her and hurting her infant son.
EACH NIGHT, as Bashir rides home to her children, her exhausted mind circles back to the cases she's heard.
Today, one complainant sat in a chair beside her desk and spoke in a high, muffled, desperate voice through the screen of her burka, a bright-eyed baby straddling her hip. She had come to see Bashir all the way from the Ghoryan district, west of Herat near the Iranian border. She said she was the first wife of her husband. The second wife and her brother had been beating her and hurting her infant son, and her husband would do nothing to stop them. She went to the police with blood still on her face. The police arrested the brother but soon released him. The beatings did not stop. She's on the run.
Zahra, 20, burned herself with fuel at age 15 to protest her forced marriage."They will kill me if I go back to the district police," she said.
"I will write a letter to have your case transferred to my office," Bashir said.
"Just kill me now before they do," the woman said.
Bashir called the prosecutor in the Ghoryan district. She instructed him to transfer the case to her office. Don't investigate from the district level, she said.
"I will need," she said firmly, "your cooperation."
Bashir hung up and again assured the woman she would handle the case. The woman nodded, crying beneath her heavy turquoise veil.
Tears rimmed Bashir's eyes as the woman left her office. "If men marry more than one wife," she said, "but don't treat them equally, they would be better off marrying just one. But they don't think that way. They read the Koran and only see they can have more than one wife. They don't think."
A young girl—maybe 13 or 14—entered her office, passed the flatscreen TV featuring a jovial cooking-show host, and sat in the chair and talked about how a schoolboy had threatened her for refusing to marry him.
Bashir wiped her eyes and nodded.
BASHIR TELLS her children good night. In these lonely hours, as quiet settles over Herat, she worries for their futures. "Because of my work, my children don't have the freedom that other children have," she says. "That is the thing I am always feeling guilty about." She hopes it is not for nothing.
"When Yasaman grows up, I hope she will not face the hardships I faced," she says. "I hope she can become an independent woman, protected by the law, and can live and work freely and happily."
Reminders about the letter of the law are painted on the corridor outside Maria Bashir's office.The new laws and the Family Response Unit have encouraged more and more women to file complaints against abusive husbands and families. There are more cases for Bashir to prosecute, and she measures progress case by case. But she is free of illusions. Police bureaucracy and the corrupt court system can be daunting for even the most educated Afghan women, and the war against the Taliban is far from over.
"I hope that Afghanistan will have a better future," Bashir says, "but I know it won't come soon. It may take another generation. Or two. Maybe my daughter's daughter will have a good life."