Photograph by Jodi Bieber—INSTITUTE for TIME
Updated: | Originally published:

Bibi Aisha was 12 when her father forced her to marry a Taliban fighter. She fled abuse at his hands, only to find herself captive once again. She recalls the terrible night she was taken up a mountain and tied hand and foot while her husband and other Taliban members discussed whether she deserved to be mutilated or executed. They cut off Aisha’s nose and ears and left her to die, but she somehow found the strength to find help. “A power walked with me that night,” she told me. Appearing on the cover of TIME for a story about the stakes of war in Afghanistan for women led to a new home in America. During years of painful reconstructive surgery, she learned to read, write, and speak English. Today, the picture she is proudest of is on her driver’s license. But Afghanistan remains in her thoughts: “No one is safe with the Taliban.” She spoke to me from Maryland, where she is studying to become a nurse.

I’ve been fortunate to meet extraordinary women like you, who have really shaped a lot of who I am and what I believe about life. Many people don’t know your story. Can you tell us about it?

My father arranged a so-called marriage for me. And I got married to someone in the Taliban, and lived with them for almost five years. And they abused me every day. I didn’t have any rights. I decided to run away so I went to my neighbors’ house. The police took them away, and took me too. I didn’t have any choice except to go back and live with the Taliban. So I was happy to stay in jail. I stayed for five months. No one was beating me and I had good food. Then my so-called father-in-law came and bribed the police and took me. I begged the police to let me stay. But I didn’t have another choice. I went with them. And then my so-called husband came by and took me to the mountains. They tied my hands and my feet. And they cut my first ear, and then another ear and then my nose. And then he said, “We don’t care about you. We want to leave you here to die.” I walked. I went to my uncle’s house and he didn’t want to open the door to me. But something was powering me that night. I knocked on doors and told my story. I decided that I wanted to survive. I went to an American hospital and did my treatment for two and a half months, and they treated me like a family member. They saved my life. Someone in America accepted my case and said they would do my surgery. I spent nine months in a shelter. I had no idea what would happen to me. And suddenly TIME magazine came to me and took my picture. They opened the door for me.

Bibi Aisha photographed in Maryland, Feb. 2023. (Stephanie Sinclair for TIME)
Bibi Aisha photographed in Maryland, Feb. 2023.
Stephanie Sinclair for TIME

You were brave in showing your wonderful self to the world, and what was done to you. Now, after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the same people who harmed you are in charge. All that we learned and are outraged about, we know is happening every day.

It’s really hard for me. I put myself in the shoes of an Afghanistan woman. They had freedom for 20 years, and then suddenly they shut down everything for them. And they don’t have any rights.

It’s clear that those who block women from education do so because they’re full of fear.

When you don’t have an education, you cannot do anything in your life. My teacher said “when you learn mathematics and algebra, you’re slapping the Taliban in the face.” That made me so happy. The most important thing you can do is to educate women so they can help themselves.

Read the Original Story From 2010: Afghan Women and the Return of the Taliban

I also know many great Afghan husbands and fathers who have really protected and love the women in their lives. The boys are not safe as well. I saw with my own eyes how much violence the boys were facing when I lived there. The small boys, 10 or 11 years old, they were raped all the time by some of the Taliban.

You’ve experienced cruelty in your life. But it sounds like there are many people in your life who love you so much.

When I came to Maryland and met my adoptive parents, I didn’t tell my whole story to them. They just accepted me. I am surrounded by so many good people.

I have a feeling you’re going to keep learning your whole life.

This is my goal. I want to become a nurse to help people. I’ve had 31 surgeries, which means I have a lot of experience in the medical world. I want to help people who are hurting and say to them, if I could get through my darkest hours, you can.

Jolie is a contributing editor at TIME

Correction, March 12

The original version of this story misstated Bibi Aisha’s age when she was forced to marry a Taliban fighter. It is 12, not 14.

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