Zahra said a neighbor raped her in her home on Friday. It was the most humiliating event in her unremittingly painful life, and the next day she begged her husband, Najibullah, to move their family so the man could not attack her again. He refused.
On Sunday afternoon, she poured kerosene over Najibullah and lit him on fire.
“I stepped back and watched him burn,” Zahra said. “I thought, ‘Someone is going to die, and it is going to be him or it is going to be me.' ”
Since then, she has been held at the women's shelter here as investigators try to sort out the facts of the case. For his part, Najibullah, in a brief interview with a reporter at the hospital here, said that he believed she had attacked him because she was mentally ill. But his condition was still too poor for prosecutors to fully question him.
Her violent act has unexpectedly brought quiet expressions of support from other Afghan women, some of whom say they are fed up with lives of abuse with no recourse. And it immediately evoked a morbid fascination in the Afghan news media; on Monday, local reporters unabashedly walked into the hospital where Zahra's husband is being treated for first- and second-degree burns, peering into rooms and asking doctors, “Where is the man who was set on fire by his wife?”
For some here, the case illuminates both the promise and the limits of Western-inspired protections for women. A dozen years ago, there would have been no women's shelter here, nor female police officers to hear testimony in such cases. But despite those changes, many Afghan women are still being abused with impunity.
Zahra's case was one of three episodes in less than a month in Baghlan Province alone in which women or their families lashed out or sought protection.
Last month, the parents of a 13-year-old girl cut off the nose and ears of a local mullah they accused of trying to sexually assault her. And on Monday, in the midst of Zahra's confession at the police headquarters here, another woman suddenly ran into the room. That woman, Lal Bibi, told a female police officer that with the encouragement of her family she was seeking police protection from her husband after he had pummeled her with bricks for the third time, and possibly a divorce.
In Zahra's confession to the police, she said she had endured years of abuse and mistreatment. She pulled down her shirt to show heavy scarring on her chest and shoulders — evidence, she said, of the time when her husband had burned her to try to induce a miscarriage.
The details of the cases in Baghlan point out some signs of potential change for Afghan women.
Baghlan and the other Afghan provinces now have female police officers who can take information from battered women. This town has a relatively new women's safe house, and there are female lawyers working in the provincial division of the attorney general's office on cases involving violence against women.
“It's very important for women to know their rights; we are trying to teach them,” said Khadija Yaqeen, the head of the Women's Ministry for Baghlan Province.
“It is not that we want them to go against their families, just to know their human rights.”
Still, Humaira Mohammedi, who recently stepped down as the head of the women's shelter in Baghlan and is now working on human rights issues, believes that women are being driven to speak out by desperation and anger rather than any sense of empowerment.
“There are many cases in which a woman has been beaten, violated or burned. But after the arrest of the perpetrator, he is released in three or four months, and this has caused distrust in the government,” she said, adding that people feel they have no choice but to “stand against the cruelty and punish the doer themselves.”
“Some people believe that she was righteous to some extent,” Ms. Mohammedi said about Zahra, “but they also consider it an illegal act.”
But Ms. Yaqeen said that by early Monday morning, less than 24 hours after the incident, she was receiving calls of congratulations from women in Baghlan who said they were gratified for once a man was experiencing the same kind of suffering they had endured.
Speaking with an American reporter at the police station here, Zahra held her 9-year-old daughter, Mirsa, and her 4-year-old son, Naqib, as she poured out her story.
She said her father married her off the first time to a man who drank. When she became pregnant, her husband tried to force her to drink, and divorced her after the birth of Mirsa — but not before impregnating her again.
Zahra was then about 30 years old, she said, and her father almost immediately forced her to marry again, this time to Najibullah, a man at least 30 years older than she. As with many Afghans, both use just one name.
“I did not want to marry that old man,” she said, adding that she knew it would go badly because she was pregnant. Najibullah was furious when he found out, she said, and in an effort to get her to miscarry, he burned her.
She did not miscarry, but that baby died four months after delivery. Daily life was a recurring bad dream.
“I used to say to him, ‘You are fine when you beat me and when you choke me, but you're sick when you need to work to feed my children.' ”
She said the last straw was when their neighbor raped her on Friday. The man had pursued her, and she had told her husband, but Najibullah protested that he could do little about it, perhaps in part because a stroke had left one of his legs paralyzed below the knee.
The man came to their house and, with her husband in the next room, forced her to have sex with him, she said.
“He cried when I told him and said, ‘I knew it but I couldn't do anything. I wish God had given me the power to stop him,' ” she recounted her husband saying.
She begged him to move the family away, saying she felt exposed and vulnerable in the house and feared the man would return, but she said he ignored her. She felt she had to act.
She has not been charged yet, though local officials say it is clear she will be. For her part, she most of all wants to go back to her parents, if they would accept her. Even though she believes her father began her life of misery by forcing her into abusive marriages, at least she did not feel so persecuted in her parents' home, she said.
She said she had just two things to ask of her parents: “Either kill me or let me live with you, because I don't want to be a victim again, nor do I want to kill anyone else.”