Why Some Afghan Women Prefer Death to Marriage

ByABC News
December 8, 2004, 10:11 AM

Dec. 11, 2004 — -- They had fled the Taliban, returned home to a "new Afghanistan," and were looking forward to continuing their education when Khusboo and Heena heard the calamitous news.

School, the two Afghan sisters were told, was a luxury the family could not afford. Instead, the girls -- who were 14 and 15 years old at the time -- would be married off to older men in exchange for money, or the customary "bride price" paid by Afghan grooms to the bride's family.

For Khusboo and Heena, whose last names are being withheld to protect their identity, the news was devastating. Raised by their grandmother in Kabul, the family fled to Pakistan after the Taliban swept into power in 1996. And though life as refugees in Pakistan was extremely hard, they did manage to go school.

So when the U.S. invasion ousted the Taliban and the sisters returned home to the Afghan capital, they had every reason to believe they would join the army of girls across the city trooping to schools, enjoying a freedom they were denied under the repressive regime.

But that, their grandmother told them, was not to be. "I was so sad because I didn't want to get married," said Heena, speaking through a translator. "I wanted to go to school."

Rather than be sold into marriage, the two girls decided to run away -- an extremely audacious and risky act in conservative Afghan society.

After decades of civil war, peace and stability -- of sorts -- are finally returning to Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, Hamid Karzai was sworn in as Afghanistan's first democratically elected leader. Speaking at Camp Pendleton, Calif., as Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld attended the inauguration in Kabul, President Bush hailed the historic milestone in Afghanistan's history.

"Afghanistan has been transformed from a haven for terrorists to a steadfast ally in the war on terror," Bush told a gathering of Marines. "And the American people are safer because of your courage."

But even as Afghan females are finally enjoying basic human rights, such as the right to an education, to work and to vote, Afghanistan remains a profoundly conservative Muslim nation.