Gul Meena was illegally married at age 13. When she discovered that she had become the third wife of a grandfather, she ran away in horror. Her brother and uncle, intent on avenging the family’s honor, tracked her down and attacked her with an ax, smashing her head so badly that part of her brain spilled out of her skull. Somehow she survived, and was given refuge in the Women for Afghan Women shelter in Kabul.
There she made two fast friends, Sahar Gul and Mumtaz. They did not discuss their traumatic pasts with one another, but they were otherwise quite close, all survivors of violence and wrongful marriages.
On one of her visits to the shelter, their American pro bono lawyer, Kimberley Motley, brought along several picture books, easy readers for young children. Sahar Gul is also 18, or maybe 17 (ages are often just estimates in Afghanistan); she is now in the seventh grade and can read a bit, so she read the books to Gul Meena and to Mumtaz, who is now 26.
Sahar Gul took the news of her friend’s departure hard, even though she knew it was coming. “When I heard, I thought that I am a ghost,” she said last month. “I am so sad to be losing my friend. On the other side, I am so happy that she will be free, and will make a life for herself.”
Gul Meena, on her last full day in Afghanistan, was so nervous that she couldn’t steady her hands; the other girls in the shelter helped her dress. Her housemates approached her, bursting into tears.
“I’m not going to miss Afghanistan because I don’t even know how Afghanistan looks,” Gul Meena said. She entered the shelter as a child, and like the other girls there, she has not been allowed outside the compound since then, except under escort by staff — for safety, and under government-imposed restrictions on women’s shelters.
Sahar Gul’s family sold her as a child, at age 13 or even younger, to people who tried to force her into prostitution through torture; they pulled out her fingernails, drugged and raped her, and sexually assaulted her with hot pokers.