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My name is Zarghuna

“Why did all this happen to me? Why did they give me away to this family? Only to resolve a conflict?”

I am 38 years old. There was no happiness in my childhood. When I was six years old, my brother lost a dog-fighting match and started fighting with my cousin which led to my cousin’s death. To solve the dispute between the two families, the local council decided that my family was to give a girl child to my uncle’s family in marriage.

I was only six years old at the time and was playing with friends when my father suddenly came, hugged me, and took me away from the girls I was playing with to where all the men had decided my future in my absence. My father brought me to my uncle and asked him, “This is what you want? Take her. Don’t bring her back to us. We finish our dispute here.” My uncle, who was now my father-in-law, put me on his back like I was a sack of rice and took me to his house. He left me in the yard with my mother-in-law, who was washing the clothes, and he said to her: “Take her with you. This is your daughter-in-law.” I wanted to hide when I saw the anger on my uncle’s face, but there was nowhere to hide. My uncle came to me with a short knife and said: “If you escape from the house, this is your future. I will kill you with this knife.”

My uncle was a very bad man and he would always punish me and say: “Look at your father. He gave you away.” I didn’t know at the time what that meant. I cried so much and asked so often, “Why has no one from my parents’ house come to see me? Why am I not with them?” That’s when my husband-to-be, then only nine years old, decided to take me to visit my parents. He said, “We’ll wait until my father takes his nap, and then I will take you to see your family, but only for half an hour. We’ll come back so quickly that my father won’t know that we left.” As we were trying to be quiet, we didn’t check to see whether my father-in-law was sleeping. He had gone to the mosque instead and we did not know this. We wanted so much to escape from the house, together, hand-in-hand. And suddenly, just as we were about to leave the house, my uncle returned and saw us. He beat us so much. First his son and then me. I cried so much as he was beating me and swore to him and to God that I would never go back to see my family.

Time passed and life resumed, but I was never able to be part of anything in the community. There were many parties—wedding parties, engagement parties, parties of all kinds—but my father-in-law never allowed me to attend these. I would hear the neighborhood gossiping about how I was traded and given to this family. I grew ashamed. I wondered, “Why did all this happen to me? Why did they give me away to this family? Only to resolve a conflict?” These questions still remain.

When I was 15, it was time to consummate the marriage. We had a small celebration, but my family did not attend. I liked my husband. I grew up with him and he was always kind to me. I got pregnant shortly after my marriage, and I had a baby girl. My husband, then 18 years old, had to join the army. He was to be stationed at Kandahar, where my parents lived. I begged him to ask for another location, but he told me, “Do not worry because now we are married, we have our baby girl, and all the anger will be gone from your parents’ side.”

He was due to come home on a scheduled break six months after his deployment. We were waiting for him to arrive when someone came on my parents’ behalf and gave me my father’s message: “Now you are completely free. Escape from this house and don’t accept any marriage with your brother-in-laws. Now you are just free. Come back to us.” And I understood. They had killed my husband. They thought that if they killed my husband, then I would be free, and I was at an age to decide whether to stay with my daughter or go to my family.

But I hated my family. I hated the decision they made during my childhood. I didn’t understand; I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t have any voice. So I sent the messenger back to my father with a message of my own: “I will never forgive you. If I lost every one of you, I still wouldn’t forgive you. This is my final decision.” So I stayed with my in-laws.

My mother-in-law was kind to me. But my uncle was a bad man, a very bad man, and was always punishing me. When he became infected with tuberculosis, he had to lie on his bed for years. He used to throw that bucket he used to urinate at me when he got angry. I felt I had no one to help me out, so I decided to commit suicide. I tried it twice and I failed twice. Once, I ate the medication used to kill the insects in our house. But it was so sour and bitter that I couldn’t eat a lot of it. I put it inside a tomato and ate the tomato. After a few hours, my health got worse and worse. I heard my mother-in-law crying and asking my father-in-law to take me to the hospital. I heard my father-in-law say, “Let her die. We can send her to her parents and say, ‘Take that. Your dead girl.’” My mother-in-law took me to the hospital and I survived. I wished to die but I couldn’t kill myself. This is how my life continued.

When my father-in-law passed away, I started making hats and selling them outside my house. One day, as I was selling the hats in the street, a car-full of Talibans passed by. When they saw that I was wearing open shoes, they stopped and got out of the car. I couldn’t wear closed shoes because my feet were swollen, so I begged them to please leave me be and not beat me this time. I promised to wear shoes not sandals next time. They started whipping me. After two lashes, I took the man’s hand, took the lash from him and I threw it into the river. And I said to him, “Look, I asked you to leave me alone today and tomorrow I will wear shoes but you did not listen.” The commander who was sitting in the car came out and asked what’s going on. I told the commander, “Shame on your Pashtun men. I am a Pashtun and you are beating your people. Is that the way? I threw the lash into the river.” The commander told his soldier to go to the river and get the lash. He laughed at him for being stopped by a woman and thought of it as enough of a punishment. They left me alone. I don’t know what got into me. It wasn’t the pain of the beating that pushed me to stop the Taliban. It was the humiliation of being beaten in public that drove me to use all my energy to put a stop to it.

I prayed every night for the Taliban to leave our country, so I could see freedom in my homeland. Then came the day when all the streets were empty. No one was on the street, and I was so scared and very early in the morning I woke my mother-in-law and said, “Come and see, outside, there is no one outside walking on the street. Something must have happened.” When I heard that the Taliban were gone, I went to the kitchen, and I made halva and distributed it to all the people to thank God that we are now free from the Taliban.

After this, I went to the hospital for my depression. The doctor told me, “You don’t need any medication. When you remember your past, it hurts you. So you need somewhere to go and sit with women, with different kinds of women—with lucky women and unlucky women, with poor women and rich women—so you can see how they are dealing with their problems and how they are dealing with the challenges that they face.”

One of my friends told me about Women for Women International and how it provided training for women. When I joined, I found myself in a group of 25 women. That’s when I learned that I wasn’t alone in my suffering. There are other women, who have the same pain and the same hardships. To realize that was amazing. I went to the organization for a year until I graduated. After that I succeeded in finding a job in embroidery and handicraft. And I was always thinking about how I could build my own business. Eventually I decided to take a micro-loan of $500. From there I started selling my embroidered products and my business grew quickly. I am so proud to be able to tell you that I have $30,000 in the bank. And just a month ago, I was able to purchase machinery for $18,000 to improve my business. One day I know I will have a huge business in Afghanistan. I only wish to see peace in my country and expand my business more and more. For now, I am so happy that I am providing employment to 120 women, women who once suffered a lot. It’s not only women that I hire. I also have men as employees and helping us with the sales.

I am always talking with the women. I wanted to share all my experiences and I tell them to be strong, as I became strong. I explain to them how I transformed from victim to active citizen. “So you have it. This is a lesson learned for each of you. You have to take that step to move forward.” And as for my daughter—this year she is graduating from high school and I have a dream to see her in a university. On her graduation day from university, I will be relaxed.

In January 2014, Bloomberg reporter Gopal Ratnam interviewed Zarghuna about her growing business. READ MORE

The photo accompanying this article features a Women for Women graduate, however, for privacy or security concerns, it is not an image of the woman described in the article.