As votes are counted in Afghanistan's momentous election, the New York Times has published a heart-wrenching piece about 17-year-old Shamsia, one of 11 girls who were attacked with acid late last year on their way to school in Kandahar. The article is part of the upcoming special women's issue of the Magazine, which is already available online and proves to be a treasure trove of reportage on global women's news. So, before I get to reporter Dexter Filkins' story about Shamsia, let me just say: Make sure to read the whole issue -- and maybe first run to the bathroom, grab some basic sustenance and send all calls to your voice mail, because you will likely want to finish it in one sitting.
Shamsia undoubtedly sustained the worst injuries from the attack -- her face is covered in scars, her eyesight is flagging -- and inspired a profile, also penned by Filkins, in the Times at the start of this year. The reader response was overwhelming: Hundreds wrote in looking for a way to help her. So, he put aside his interfering journalistic objectivity and set up a bank account for the Mirwais Mena School and specifically Shamsia.
Months later, Filkins returned to the school with $25,000 in donations and held "a sort of Afghan P.T.A. meeting." Teachers, parents and students showed up to discuss what to do with the money. The decision: Pay for surgery for Shamsia's injuries and put the remainder toward a bus and a driver to whisk the girls to and from school each day, saving some of them a two-mile walk. Her father was clear on just how the procedure could better her future: "If she has an ugly face, no one will want to marry her."
The surgery was scheduled, a trip to the U.S. arranged and the bus was delivered to the school. Then, Filkins writes, "while I was out of the country, Shamsia's family backed out." Her father said they were getting threats from the family of one of the men accused in the attack, who just happened to conveniently live next door, and the local Taliban was none too pleased with the idea, either. (Although, inexplicably, he swore it wasn't the Taliban – which has a history of violence against girls' schools -- that was responsible.) The other problem: Shamsia is a girl of marrying age and couldn't afford to have her reputation damaged by a trip to the corrupt United States. He explains:
So if she stayed, according to her father, she wouldn’t be able to marry because of her injuries; but if she left to go to the U.S. and have her injuries repaired, she wouldn’t be able to marry either … And so it had come to this. The Taliban, or someone who thought like them, had thrown acid in the faces of a number of girls, and a number of readers in the United States and other countries, filled with generosity, had given their money to take care of one of those girls and the school. And now the girl’s family, for reasons I could barely comprehend, was telling me, in effect, that they wanted something else.
Ultimately, Shamsia's father agreed to a surgery in Kabul sometime after today's Afghan election. The future of this 17-year-old girl is left hanging in the balance -- and so is the future of the country and its women. President Hamid Karzai, who is favored to win, has targeted women during his campaign for reelection and proudly claims responsibility for opening several new girls' schools -- but he also recently passed a bill allowing men to starve their Shiia wives to appease conservatives ahead of the vote. So, let's not forget, even if Shamsia gets the surgery that she needs, she will still be a girl living in Afghanistan.