Banned under strict refugee laws from applying for asylum from within her own country's borders, the former member of parliament Noorzia Atmar had no choice but to flee.
Noorzia Atmar never wanted to leave Afghanistan. Not even after the beatings, knife attacks and bitter divorce; not even when her ex-husband turned up at her new workplace with a gun and sent thugs to the shelter where she had sought refuge. Only when the threats targeting her spread to include other women living in the shelter did she feel she had no choice but to flee.
The western countries that supported her outspoken advocacy for women's rights as a politician said their hands were tied: strict refugee laws meant they couldn't help her while she was still in Afghanistan. "The only embassy that responded was the US embassy. They came to talk to me but said it was not possible to provide asylum or a visa," Atmar said. "The only option was to leave for another country and apply from there."
So, three years after travelling the world as a prosperous, powerful politician, she now lives in a single, grubby room in an alien territory in extreme poverty, afraid to go out in case someone recognises her and reports her whereabouts back to Kabul.
"I love my country and even though I was under threat in some way I tried to get work, not to be lazy or rely on anyone else," she said by phone from her precarious refuge. "The situation pushed me to leave. No one respects women in our country. It is really difficult to find a space just to live."
Atmar asked the Guardian not to reveal her current location, for fear her ex-husband's family or her own – both furious about the divorce, which they feel brought shame on them – could trace her. Activists said her fears were well founded: "honour" killings are a regular tragedy in Afghanistan. Among recent victims are a wife whose husband cut off her lips and nose before leaving her for dead and a woman hacked 15 times in the head and face with an axe by her brother.
Atmar has applied to the UN for refugee status and hopes to be resettled somewhere further away, safe enough for her to restart her activism. But she knows her chances are slim. Hundreds of thousands seek the same thing each year, unsuccessfully.
"I am living in a rented room with a very bad situation … I am not in contact with my family, but if Afghans here see me they will recognise me. I have to cover my face when I go out," she said. But old habits die hard. "Even here," she said, "if I see someone mistreating a woman, I have the strength to try to stop them and adjust their attitudes."
Still passionate about women's rights, all Atmar wants is to start work again: "I ask people around the world to invest in me. I will repay that. You'll see, one day, if I am still alive."
Even if she does win access to a safe haven, Atmar is all too aware that she is only the most prominent among countless victims of domestic violence living in grave danger in Afghanistan, a country rated the world's worst for women's rights. Many of those other women lack the resources to reach a safer life outside.
Inside Afghanistan, the options are limited. There are only a handful of shelters and these struggle constantly with precarious funding and politics; the justice minister recently denounced them as brothels. Living alone is socially and culturallyimpossible for all but a handful of elite Afghan women, and work is hard to find.
Often, the only hope of a life free from fear and violence is to escape abroad. Yet one of the few absolute rules of the complicated international system for asylum and refugees is that people cannot apply for asylum while still in their home countries.
Afghan women line up to receive winter s Afghan women line up to receive winter supplies at a UNHCR distribution centre for refugees in Kabul. Photograph: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images
For most Afghan women, finding a way out of the country is an insurmountable obstacle in itself. British government figures, from 2008 onwards, show barely one in 10 would-be Afghan refugees in the UK are women seeking asylum in their own right.
Those who are able to travel legally to the UK can apply for asylum on arrival. But women in male-dominated Afghanistan are less likely to have the jobs, money or status to pass stringent western visa controls.
An illegal journey is an option for fleeing Afghan men, but for most unaccompanied women it is unthinkable – prohibited by huge physical risks, vast expense and cultural prejudices against travelling without a male guardian. The handful of female refugees who do make it across the border often find they struggle to be believed. UK courts are more likely to send a woman home than a man.
Debora Singer, policy and research manager at Asylum Aid, said: "Our overall sense is that the asylum system here – and we have done research in Europe and found the same – is that it's not sensitive to the needs of women fleeing countries like Afghanistan and doesn't respond as it should to their cases."
A system that was originally set up for the political refugees of the second world war does not list women as a group of people at risk of persecution, so their cases can require complicated legal arguments, and there is often less hard evidence.
"The key thing in asylum is credibility," Singer said. "You have this disparity for women. Some of the claims are based on the same thing as the men['s], whether photographs or news reports or membership of political parties, which can be documented.
"But victims of domestic violence are unlikely to have documentary evidence of what has happened to them: you don't get a certificate for being beaten. Also the shame and trauma affects their memory and it can be difficult for them to provide a coherent story … disclosing what has happened to them."
The final option – the one Atmar has taken – is to flee to an interim country and appeal to the UN for assisted resettlement. But this too has its pitfalls. Restrictions on their economic, physical and professional freedom mean few women have the funds to travel or support themselves during a process that can last years. In practice, the only places accessible to Afghan women are fraught border nations.
There are large, established communities of Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan in which it would be easy for men to hunt fleeing victims down. This is Atmar's great fear. "For those ones who really need to save themselves, there should be some possibility inside Afghanistan," said the shelter manager, Akrami. "It's easy for them to be found, tortured, even killed here."