BAMIAN, Afghanistan » She is his Juliet and he is her Romeo, and her family has threatened to kill them both.
Zakia is 18 and Mohammad Ali is 21, both the children of farmers in this remote mountain province. If they could manage to get together, they would make a striking couple.
She dresses colorfully, a pink head scarf with her orange sweater, and collapses into giggles talking about him. He is a bit of a dandy, with a mop of upswept black hair, a white silk scarf, and a hole in the side of his saddle-toned leather shoes. Both have eyes nearly the same shade, a startling amber.
They have never been alone in a room together, but they have publicly declared their love for each other and their intention to marry despite their different ethnicities and sects. That was enough to make them outcasts, they said, marked for death for dishonoring their families – especially hers.
Zakia has taken refuge in a women’s shelter here. Even though she is legally an adult under Afghan law, the local court has ordered her returned to her family. "If they get hold of me," she said matter-of-factly, "they would kill me even before they get me home."
Neither can read, and they have never heard Shakespeare’s tale of doomed love. But there are plenty of analogs in the stories they are both steeped in, and those, too, end tragically.
Zakia invokes one, the tale of Princess Shirin and Farhad the stonecutter, as she talks about her beloved, and her long wait in the women’s shelter to marry him. "I would wait until I reach my love, no matter how long," she said.
In 21st-century Afghanistan, as well, life is no fairy tale, especially in rural places like Bamian. Young people who want to choose their own mates face the harsh reality that strict social traditions still trump new laws and expanded rights – and that honor killings in such cases remain endemic.
Nearly all marriages are still arranged by the parents, and girls bring to their families bride prices that can be considerable – although for poor families like Zakia’s and Mohammad Ali’s, that might be a few goats. Afghan courts can also apply Shariah law, interpreting it to justify parental authority even over an adult child.
"The story of true love in Afghanistan," said Reza Farzam, an Afghan university professor, "is the story of death."
Zakia and Mohammad Ali knew each other from childhood, working in adjacent fields in the village of Khame Kalak, near the provincial capital.
"We would go to the desert and take our animals for foraging, and we used to spend our days in the huts around the animals," Mohammad Ali said.
Their love affair did not begin then. "We were too young to know of these things," he said. But their friendship was close, and it was abruptly cut off.
"Unfortunately, she grew up, and I could no longer see her," he said. Once past puberty, girls must remain covered and usually can go out only in the company of close male relatives.
Complicating matters, Mohammad Ali is a Hazara, who are mostly Shia Muslims. Zakia is a Tajik, a Sunni ethnic group. (As with many Afghans, neither has a surname.)
Occasionally, though, Mohammad Ali would glimpse Zakia in the fields and catch her eye under her head scarf. He was sure she returned the interest. "One hundred percent, I knew she loved me, too," he said. He found a young girl to be an intermediary, and gave her a cellphone to take to Zakia.
Zakia hid the phone where no one would find it, and for most of the past four years they spoke to each other once a week or so. Whenever Zakia, one of 10 children, could find some privacy, she would call him, let it ring once, and he would call back.
Mohammad Ali gave her calls a ringtone that was a verse from a popular Afghan song that recalls the story of Yusuf and Zuleika.
On one of their calls, he told Zakia the story. In the version as told among Afghans (details differ across the Islamic world, and in the Christian version it is the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in Egypt), Zuleika is a married woman who tries unsuccessfully to tempt Yusuf into adultery. He is thrown into prison, and Zuleika waits 36 years for him to be freed.
By then she is homely, old and blind, but her love has not flagged, and Yusuf marries her, miraculously turning her into a young beauty.
When he finished the story, Mohammad Ali said, "Her reply to me was that she’s ready to wait for me for even 50 years."
Through his father, he twice sent messengers to Zakia’s father to ask permission to court her. They were rebuffed, even after the offer of part of Mohammad Ali’s family fields as a bride price.
Zakia took the initiative and showed up at Mohammad Ali’s house, pleading to be taken into the family to marry him.
Mohammad Ali’s family sent her back, not once but twice, despite his protests. His older brother and father beat him so badly that he was hospitalized, and he still bears a prominent bruise on his left cheekbone. "We didn’t want them to be disgraced," he said. "But when they sent her back to her family it was not a secret anymore."
The second time, Zakia said, she, too, was badly beaten, and her cellphone was discovered and confiscated. She fled to Mohammad Ali’s house a third time.
"I saw there was no place to go," he said, "so I brought her to the Women’s Ministry."
When Zakia and Mohammad Ali showed up at the Bamian branch of the ministry, they were chased by Zakia’s family, who rampaged through the building trying to find them. Policemen subdued the male relatives, but Mohammad Ali had to hide in a closet from Zakia’s angry mother, he said.
When order was restored, Zakia’s parents claimed the girl was legally engaged to someone else, an aunt’s son, although the head of the Bamian Women’s Ministry, Fatima Kazimi, said their versions varied about which one. Zakia denied she had consented to an engagement, so she was given refuge in the shelter, and the matter was referred to court.
Kazimi, who has successfully pushed the Bamian police to bring hundreds of prosecutions in cases of violence against women, was barred from the court proceedings. But she later learned that at the request of the judges, who were all Tajik, Zakia had put her thumbprint on a document agreeing that she would return to her family. Her family also put their thumbprints on written promises not to harm her if she did.
"The chief judge told me, ‘We are Tajiks, and it dishonors us if you decide to marry a Hazara,’" Zakia said. "I told them whatever he might be, he’s still a Muslim."
Kazimi visited Zakia with police and government officials present, telling her that she was free to do as she chose and that they would support her. Zakia asked to be kept from her family, saying she had no idea what she had signed with her thumbprint.
As Kazimi and policemen escorted Zakia out of the court, her family went wild.
"My father and mother were pulling my clothes and even ripping them off me," Zakia said. Her mother screamed at her, calling her a whore over and over – about the worst thing one can say to an Afghan woman. Zakia said her brother and brother-in-law tried to beat her, and they all threatened to kill Mohammad Ali and her, as well as Kazimi.
"They said if I go marry him, they will not let us live," Zakia said. "But if I go home, I know my mother and father will not let me live either."
In February, the chief judge, Atola Tomkin, issued an order suspending Kazimi and another Women’s Ministry official from their jobs for intervening on Zakia’s behalf. He also insisted that the document with Zakia’s thumbprint was valid and that she should return to her family.
Tomkin refused to speak to a journalist, but another judge who had served on the panel in Zakia’s case, Sayif Rahman, called Zakia’s charges of ethnic bias in the court "just propaganda." He said the court was just trying to mediate to reach a peaceful settlement, as called for under Islamic law.
The Women’s Ministry has appealed the judicial decision, and the attorney general’s office is reinvestigating the family’s claims. Kazimi has little faith in the local legal system, however. Another of those in the shelter is a 14-year-old girl who had been raped by an old man, she said. The court ordered both of them tried for adultery and dropped the rape charge.
Zakia has now logged her fifth month in the shelter. She is not allowed a phone there, and has been unable to talk to Mohammad Ali.
"I’m very worried that my family is trying to harm him and his family," she said in an interview at the Bamian Women’s Ministry. "If he should die, I should also die."
Mohammad Ali was interviewed separately at the ministry. "Our story is the same as Shirin and Farhad," he said. "We are stuck in such a story."
In the Afghan version of that Persian tale, Shirin is courted by a wealthy prince, as well as the penniless Farhad. She tells Farhad that if he can remove the face of the mountain with an ax, she will marry him instead of the prince. He labors for months, and when the prince sees he really is moving the mountain for her, he sends a woman to tell Farhad that Shirin has already married. Farhad kills himself, and so does Shirin when she learns of his death.
"I’m still standing on my word, and I will try to reach her until the last drop of my blood," Mohammad Ali said. "Shirin and Farhad knew that in this temporary world they might not reach one another, but God knew they might do so in the next world, and my ambition is also the same.
"If they separated me from her, if anything happened to her," he added, "I would commit suicide."
Mohammad Ali said he moves around his village with great care now, fearful of being attacked by Zakia’s family. He says he is unarmed – "I don’t have so much as a nail file" – although Zakia’s family claims he carries a rifle with him.
Zakia’s aggrieved father, Mohammad Zaman, and some of her brothers sat in their mud-walled house and gave their side of the story. By last week it had changed considerably. Instead of being engaged, as the family had told officials at the Women’s Ministry, Zakia was married, to her cousin, and so could not marry again, her father said.
Court officials said there was no evidence that was true, and Zakia denied it.
Zaman said his nephew had already paid the bride price – 28,000 Afghanis ($500) about the price of three goats. Zaman said he knew he could have gotten much more, "but he’s my nephew, and I didn’t want to cheat him."
The marriage was never consummated, he said, because of a delay in arranging a wedding party. In the meantime, Mohammad Ali came on the scene and lured Zakia away.
"We would not harm her. We would not do anything to her," said Zaman, who also claimed he had "not even a nail file" as a weapon. "We know that boy just deceived her. It was not her fault. We just want her to come home."