I am the oldest girl in a family of four brothers and one sister. I live in Kandahar. At the turn of the millennium, I was only eighteen, but my father was a drug addict so I was responsible to care for the eight of us. Because the Taliban ruled the country at that time, I was only allowed to go to school until middle school.
My main responsibility was to serve the unwanted guests who would show up at our house at any time. A group of five or six ladies would come to our home every other day. As usual, my mother had to welcome and take them to the guest room, which was always prepared for guests. My younger sister, Rehana, would help me bring chai and other drinks to the guests.
Throughout Kandahar, I was known as a well-mannered, soft-hearted princess of beauty. The stories of my beauty were discussed everywhere and therefore, many men wanted to marry me. I received many proposals even though I had been engaged to my cousin Javid since I was two.
When Rehana was almost sixteen my mother wanted to find a suitable husband for her. But the problem was that when I was in the room, people hardly paid attention to her. My mother would tell suitors I was already engaged, but they would not listen. They would get angry and comment on our old-fashioned home. Since my father was a drug addict, we could not afford to buy new furnishings.
My mother was tired of welcoming potential suitors for me. She wanted me to be married soon. But Javid was in Pakistan studying at the university, so I had to wait for three more years.
Even though Javid and I had not yet met, we loved each other. We were in love with each other’s photos and voices and we spent hours talking on the phone. Javid told me: “I will never ever leave you alone; you are mine and will be mine forever.” I was very happy and felt like the luckiest girl in the world.
But my happiness was soon to be shattered. Javid would remain a dream forever and we would never meet.
At the end of 2001, a new government came into power and one of my uncles, Ahmed Khan, became a political leader. This was an honor for my uncle, but also for his tribe. He was very rich and owned many houses and fancy hotels in Kandahar. Ahmed Khan’s elder brother, Wali Khan, who lived in America with his family, came to Afghanistan to help Ahmed Khan with his business. Everyone went to meet him, including my family.
Wali Khan instantly fell in love with me and had to have me for his second wife. He was fifty-five; I was eighteen. I became a goal for Wali Khan. He knew I was already engaged, but he also knew that my parents were in trouble financially.
“I want Palwasha’s hand. I want to marry her,” he told my parents.
My parents were shocked. My mother said, “Palwasha is already engaged to my nephew.”
“Could you not find someone within our family, that you engaged her to a stranger?” Wali Khan asked angrily. Then he tried to make my parents feel guilty for giving my hand to Javid.
My father stayed silent and my mother seemed thoughtful. She preferred to be silent rather than saying something disrespectful.
Wali Khan was married and had two daughters who were older than I, but he still fantasized about me as his second wife. An older man marrying a young girl is not an odd tradition in Afghan society. He was a man with desires and wishes. More important, he was a man with power who could easily buy me as his property, which he did.
The next morning, Wali Khan came to our house with several tribal elders, including my uncles. Wali Khan again asked my parents for my hand. However, this time the tribal elders who accompanied Wali Khan also told my parents: “It is against our family and tribal honor to marry our daughters to outsiders. Palwasha is only engaged; she is not yet married. If you accept Wali Khan as her husband, he will solve all of your problems and he will give you as much money as you want.” This time, my father and my uncles agreed because Wali Khan could not only benefit from my family, but also provide employment opportunities to every man in our tribe.
My mother was unhappy with this decision and said: “We should talk to Palwasha first and also with Javid’s family.”
“Palwasha will be all right and we don’t need to talk to Javid’s family,” my father replied.
I was in the kitchen preparing tea while the devil guests were playing a game of hide and seek with my life. A smile appeared on my lips every time I thought of Javid. I was clueless about the decision being made outside the kitchen. I was unaware that my own family was changing my husband like a fashion. No one ever asked me or Javid what we wanted.
Javid’s family was soon informed. They were sad, but Javid was devastated. He came to Kandahar to protect me, but before he could do anything, he was put in jail and tortured. After three days, he was sent back to Pakistan and warned that if he attempted to come to Kandahar again or meet my family, he would be given a death sentence. They threatened to accuse him of being Taliban or Osama bin Laden’s spy.
Wali Khan was arrogant about achieving his goal and it wasn’t long before he came to our house with his family and friends to celebrate his engagement. He brought many expensive gifts, jewelry, clothes and an abundance of fruits. He also brought thousands of dollars. Everyone in the family was happy, except my mother and me.
The mullah was called to tie our nikah, our marriage ceremony. Everyone stared at me when the mullah asked if I accepted Wali Khan as my husband. I wanted to reject him; I wanted to say no but I couldn’t. My mother cried. “My sweetheart, I know you are forced to marry Wali Khan but you have to accept him, if only for the sake of your father and family honor.” I was very lonely and there was no one to protect me or support my decision, not even my mother. I had to sacrifice my desires and dreams for the happiness of my family and tribal honor.
Everyone danced and enjoyed the party and there were plenty of sweets and drinks. After dinner, one by one, the guests left. Wali Khan was now formally my husband. He was allowed to be alone with me in the same room.
I was sitting in my room, lonely and crying, when suddenly Wali Khan entered. My body wrenched in fear as I saw the old man with his big belly leering and coming closer to me. He grabbed my hand, but before he could say anything, I shouted loudly, and ran to the door and escaped. I ran next door to my uncle’s house and locked myself in one of the rooms. My family came and knocked on my door to find out why I ran, but I would not talk to anyone.
Even though the weather was chilly that night, I felt as if my world was on fire, burning and melting me in bloody tears. I opened the window and sat in the corner on the floor. I looked out the window to the sky and cried for my destiny. I cried for being a powerless woman who is not permitted to make her own decisions. I cried for being a woman who is ordered to do what men want. I cried for being away from Javid. I looked at my hands, my fingers, and my palms to search for my destiny line and for Javid’s name between these lines. I looked at the sky, searched for my and Javid’s stars and saw the distance between them. I searched for the moon to cry to her. I searched for Allah-Pak to beg him for Javid, whom I loved so much. I asked him why I was born to a drug addict father. I felt hopeless, for I found nothing. There was no one to feel my pain and to brush away my tears. That night, everyone was angry with me, even the sky, the stars, the moon and Allah-Pak. I spent the whole night looking to the sky crying, crying, and crying until dawn.
Wali Khan spent that night burning in anger in my room at my house. The next morning, he left without informing anyone. In the coming days, he tried many other times to be alone with me before he left for the United States. But I would not be with him.
Following my marriage to Wali Khan, I spent my days and nights lonely and sad in my room. I was not eating or drinking properly. The only thing I did was look at and talk to Javid’s picture. I had sacrificed my happiness for my family and I had lost Javid. In a few months, my family settled in a better home because of the continued support of Wali Khan. My brothers and sister went to school. We got new home furnishings and bought a new car.
When Wali Khan arrived in the United States, his first wife and daughters had been already informed of his engagement to me. They were very angry at him. His wife, who was from a very wealthy and aristocratic family and owned most of Wali Khan’s property, told him that if he married me, she would kick him out of her home. His daughters warned him that they would marry American guys.
Wali Khan could afford to lose his property and his life, but he never wanted his daughters to marry foreigners. He was a well-honored person among his tribe, and his brother was a well-known Afghan leader in the world. Therefore, for his daughters he had to give up.
It was almost twelve months from the day after Wali Khan left when we received a divorce letter. It was a dreadful, unforgettable day for everyone. My parents cried and hit their heads on the walls to penalize themselves. They said they were to blame, embarrassed and repentant for playing with my life. But now it was too late. I had lost two beaus. I cried: “I am divorced! I am divorced twice!” I pulled my hair. I couldn’t bear having the stain of being divorced.
Things got crazy for me and I felt like I was losing my mind and my health. I spent nearly three months in the hospital suffering from a terrible headache. After I recovered, my family tried to keep me happy, but I did not feel like I could trust them. I stopped meeting relatives and friends, going out or attending parties. I wanted to avoid people who might feel pity for me or who might talk about my ex-husband. I spent another six months in my locked room asking myself crazy questions like why didn’t I stand up against my family, why didn’t I try to escape, and why didn’t I die before being apart from Javid?
One day my auntie, who was a teacher and lived in Kabul, came to visit my family. She couldn’t stop crying seeing me so weak and as sad as a dying bird. She wanted to help me.
My auntie said: “Look, my sweetheart, Palwasha, I know whatever happened to you is wrong and your family is to blame for it, but it does not mean you should end your life over it. You are a young woman and you have a long life ahead of you. Don’t harm yourself by crying and thinking useless thoughts! I want you to be happy and make a future, which I believe is very bright. I want you to get an education and become an independent woman who can help herself and other women in our country.”
I had never thought of going back to school after so many years. I wanted my auntie to keep talking me. Her words were like ointment healing my wounds, giving me strength to think about the future instead of looking back. She refreshed my dying soul and broken heart.
I looked at my aunt, hugged her very tightly, and cried with her so deeply. After crying, I felt as if my heart was painless and my sadness and sorrows had disappeared. I replied, “I promise I will not to cry anymore, I will try to forget everything, and I will change my destiny to be the power of education.”
The air was fresh and the birds were chirping the next morning when I walked on our lawn. My family was pleased to see me outside after such a long time. That morning, I went to school with my sister. I had high hopes for the future as I walked to school. However, as excited and happy as I was to be going back to school after ten years, I was also concerned about being too old to be a student.
As we arrived at school, I got scared seeing so many girls walking on the grounds. I wondered if they knew me and if they knew I was divorced twice, if it was written on my forehead. I wanted to run from them and hide.
My sister Rehana saw me to my classroom; I was afraid as I entered. I thought I would be called grandma because I was too old to be in the ninth grade, but I was surprised to see girls older, younger, and my age in that classroom. They were survivors of the Taliban and family rules. Their faces clearly described stories full of sorrows, but still they didn’t seem as hopeless as I was. They were struggling to make their future bright. I spent almost four years with the same classmates, laughing, talking and studying together.
I was over twenty-five years old, mature both in age and education, when I graduated from high school. Throughout those years in school, I learned that forced marriage is never allowed by any religion. All religions give equal rights to women and allow them to make their own decisions. Education is the only weapon that empowers women to fight for their rights against the cruelest nation in our society.
Now I am teaching at school as well as studying for the Kankor exam (college entry test). I want to be an Afghan female leader so that I can support all vulnerable women who are deprived of their equal rights. I don’t want to allow other cruel men like Wali Khan to destroy more lives.
photo: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images