Bibi Aisha’s fight for justice just got much, much harder.
The only man ever arrested in connection with her maiming has reportedly been set free, six months after he was taken into custody, a move that has caused considerable alarm among human-rights advocates. As The Daily Beast first reported last December, Aisha’s father-in-law, Sulaiman, was arrested in the Chora district of Uruzgan province for his role in holding down the young woman and cutting off her nose with a knife as punishment for escaping her abusive marriage. Neither Aisha’s husband nor his brother, both of whom are reported to have been involved in the attack, have ever been found, and are said to be on the run.
Human-rights and women’s-rights advocates who have worked with Aisha are outraged by the release, first reported by The New York Times on Monday. “Events like this show that those people who violate women can do so with impunity; that the government is not going to hold them accountable,” said Esther Hyneman of Women for Afghan Women, the women’s shelter that has cared for Aisha since American military officials evacuated the young woman to Kabul in late 2009. “I am shocked about this in one way. But in another way not so surprised, given what we know of justice in Afghanistan and the attitude toward women’s rights that is expressed by the action of law-enforcement officials and higher-ups in the government.”
Hyneman notes there was no trial, nor did Women for Afghan Women ever receive word of an interrogation of Sulaiman. She says that though Aisha is now in the U.S., Women for Afghan Women offered to provide the government with a deposition from the young woman and pushed to have the trial moved to Kabul so that shelter staff who interviewed her extensively about the incident shortly after she arrived could testify about Aisha’s condition.
“When somebody like this is released by people in the government, whoever the people were, it sends a message throughout the country that women’s rights are irrelevant,” Hyneman said. “They never even inquired about getting a deposition in the United States from Aisha herself.”
Advocates say Sulaiman’s freeing is part of a pattern of pushing justice out of reach for Afghan women.
“Acts of violence against women are taking place with impunity,” the United Nations wrote in a 2008 report compiling statistics about violence against women in Afghanistan. “The government, communities, and families are not making enough effort to prosecute incidents of violence against women.”
Aisha, who knew of the initial arrest and said she was glad to hear of it, does not yet know of her father-in-law’s release. Her case was first reported by The Daily Beast in December 2009 and later captured the world’s attention when her mutilated face appeared on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan.”
Immediately after the attack, in late 2009, U.S. military officials helped Aisha reach the Women for Afghan Women shelter in Kabul. In August of last year, the California-based Grossman Burn Foundation paid for the young woman to come to the United States to receive reconstructive surgery to repair her nose. But she has struggled in the U.S., fighting to overcome the emotional damage left behind by the attack that disfigured her face.
Today, Aisha lives in New York with the Women for Afghan Women team, trying to move on from the trauma that she has endured. Shelter staff say she is slowly healing. They note that she is learning to read and write, and recently took her first canoe ride on a lake, an outing that thrilled her.
The release of her tormentor is a troubling sign of things to come, and goes far beyond Aisha’s case, say human-rights advocates.
“We are very upset about the fact that the Obama Administration has not said a word about the situation of women in the country for a very long time,” Hyneman says. “When there is progress in the country toward women’s rights, an event like this sets women back. One hopes Aisha will get justice, but she may never.”