When armed men splashed “Sameera” with corrosive acid last year, they thought they were effectively crushing the Afghan girl’s dreams – and that they could get away with it. But they were wrong on both counts, as change comes to Afghanistan.
On that cold November night when armed men stormed her home in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, doused her with corrosive acid and disfigured her face, it seemed inconceivable that “Sameera” could even dare to dream of a bright future. But a year later, the plucky Afghan teenager has not only dreamed the impossible dream, she even managed to reach the unreachable star – and a top Bollywood idol at that.
It happened on December 2, when a beaming yet slightly disbelieving Sameera (name has been changed to protect her identity) finally met her hero, Bollywood star Akshay Kumar, in the Indian capital of New Delhi, where she is undergoing a series of surgeries for her acid burns.
Sameera’s 30-minute meeting with one of India’s top actors was the culmination of a long journey in a country that has been slowly making remarkable strides in women’s rights. For the 18-year-old the quest began months ago, when volunteers at an Afghan women’s shelter asked Sameera what were her dreams.
“She said she wanted three things: One, for her health to be okay and her scars to heal. Two, she wanted an education. Three, she wanted to leave Afghanistan and live in a better place. But more than anything, she wanted to meet – and marry – Akshay Kumar. Then she started to laugh really hard,” recounted Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of a New York-based NGO, Women for Afghan Women.
The Afghan infatuation with all things Bollywood – from the melodramatic plots, to the bump-and-grind song routines, to the stars’ sartorial styles – are matched only by the ardour of the condemnations by critics, who rail against the erosion of Islamic values in a country that was once ruled by the Taliban.
Sameera’s dream of meeting her idol was not unlike the fantasies of teenagers across the world.
What is remarkable, though, is the long, harrowing journey the Kunduz native has made since that fateful November 28 night, when armed men stormed into her home, beat up her father and threw acid at Sameera, also splashing her mother and two younger sisters in the process.
Sameera’s assailants included a man who had asked for her hand and had been rebuffed by her father. The rebuffed suitor and his brothers – who are suspected members of a local militia – were extracting revenge when they heard the Afghan girl was engaged to another man.
Landmark legislation and steady changes
A year after she was brutally disfigured in the acid attack, Sameera is making steady progress after the Indian government agreed to cover her healthcare costs – including trips to a New Delhi hospital for reconstructive surgery and post-operative care.
Days after the attack, Afghan police officials arrested four men, including the older brother of the spurned suitor. The suitor himself went into hiding after the attack and has not been arrested.
The four men have since been tried and given 12-year prison sentences under the 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women law, landmark legislation that – for the first time – criminalised child marriage, forced marriage and chemical attacks on women, as well as the practise of bartering women to settle disputes – called “baad” in Afghanistan.
The implementation of the Elimination of Violence Against Women law – known by its acronym, EVAW – has been growing, according to a 2011 UN study. But despite some progress, “There is a very long way to go before Afghan women are fully protected from violence,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a statement, just days before Sameera was attacked.
According to the UN report, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission registered 2,299 cases of gender-motivated abuse between March 2010 and March 2011. But only 7 percent of those cases ended up in a prosecution.
For seasoned Afghan women’s rights activists on the ground, the improvements may be baby steps, but they are important ones in a country where poverty, insecurity and patriarchal cultural mores combine to make Afghanistan one of the world’s most dangerous countries for women.
“We are seeing more and more people arrested for violence against women,” said Manizha Naderi, Women for Afghan Women’s Kabul-based executive director. “Certainly the law is not being implemented as it should, but the government is trying to implement it.”
From reviled to ‘gender-sensitised’ police
One of the biggest improvements in the fight against gender violence has been the Afghan police force, a hitherto reviled force in modern Afghan history.
“In 10 years, the Afghan police have come a long way. We work with them on a daily basis and we can see the changes,” said Naderi. “In the beginning, the police were just trying to put women in jail. They thought running away from home, fleeing violence, was a crime. Now they are very cooperative. We get calls at 2am, if there is a case. They don’t keep women who are victims of violence at the police station anymore. They are sent to the shelter. A lot of advocacy work has gone into educating the police about the laws. The police these days are not perfect, but they’re more gender sensitised and less judgmental.”
But while the police may be a lot less judgemental than before, Afghan society still faces many challenges posed by deeply entrenched ideas of women and their proper roles.
A day after she met her Bollywood idol, Sameera’s family and supporters were at pains to protect her identity for fear of reprisals by conservative Afghan imams and elders, some of whom have launched public tirades against the country’s new “un-Islamic” women’s shelters.
In most parts of the world, a battered teenager meeting her favourite movie star would be a made-for-TV story. But in Afghanistan, change may be coming, but it’s coming slowly.
The fear, though, is that some of the hard-fought strides Afghanistan has recently taken in protecting women’s rights may be endangered if the Taliban manages to exploit the security void that many fear will follow the 2014 pullout of NATO troops.
Naderi maintains that she’s cautiously optimistic that Afghanistan will not roll back the progress that has been made over the past decade. “It all depends on how the situation unfolds,” she explains. “The government says it wants to negotiate with the Taliban. If the Taliban comes back, then yes, there will probably be a rollback. But I’m optimistic that if we have an elected government and representatives, all the improvements we’ve made over the past 10 years will not be lost.”
For Sameera, the developments have occurred at a rapid pace. From her impoverished northern Afghan home, she has journeyed to the Afghan capital and beyond – even managing to accomplish what millions of star-struck girls across the subcontinent could only dream of.
At her meeting with Kumar on Sunday, the normally effervescent Afghan teenager appeared dumbstruck, according to an Afghan doctor who accompanied her from Kabul to New Delhi.
“She was speechless, she couldn’t say anything,” said Dr. Muzhgan Nuzhat, in a phone interview from New Delhi with FRANCE 24. “Akshay Kumar even asked her why was she silent? Was she OK? Then her younger sister told him that it’s because she likes him so much, that when he died in [the 2005 film] Dosti, Sameera couldn’t stop crying. Akshay Kumar started laughing and he said, ‘But that was just in the film – look, I’m alive, I’m OK!’”
So is Sameera. It won’t be easy for the physically and emotionally scarred girl, but a year after her attackers attempted to irrevocably ruin her life, she’s determined to make it with grit and determination.