The saga of Aisha Bibi is known throughout the world. Fearing for her life after being beaten and abused by her husband's family, the young woman fled back to her parents before being dragged away by a group of men. While her brother-in-law held her down, her husband, a Taliban commander, allegedly cut off her ears, then her nose before leaving her for dead in a mountain clearing. She lived, was cared for in a shelter and then fled Afghanistan for the U.S. Her disfigured face appeared on the cover of TIME's Aug. 9, 2010 issue and she became a living symbol of the potential fate of women if the Taliban's strict interpretation of Shari'a law returned to rule the land.
Celebrated and cared for by human rights groups, Aisha nevertheless was mostly ignored by most of Afghanistan and by Afghan's justice system. Indeed, the only man who confessed to taking part in the mutilation has been freed after a year in prison in Uruzgan, the southern province Aisha is from. Her father-in-law, Hajji Sulaiman, was released on Monday, a move that received little attention in Afghanistan. Aisha's father Mohammadzai, who goes by one name like many Afghans, says he is now contemplating the improbable. "The Taliban government was better than [President Hamid] Karzai's administration. I will have to go and apply to the Taliban courts and share this issue with them. The Taliban courts will be 10 times better than government courts. They will do something. They will make a real decision."
Mohammadzai is clearly emotional when talking about Aisha. He tells TIME that he is happy she is in the U.S. "It's safe for her there. I'm not happy for her to come back to Afghanistan. I am trying to find someone to take me out of Afghanistan. I don't want to live here in this dangerous country." He and his daughter had become estranged when she fled her husband's family. At that time, when he tried to see her at the Afghan shelter, apparently to propose a new husband, she refused to speak to him. Over the last three months, however, father and daughter have grown closer, finally talking over long distance.
If the Taliban are asked to deliver justice, it would be a bitter irony. The Taliban, Aisha told TIME last year, "are the people that did this to me. How can we reconcile with them?" She was responding to reports of a rapprochement between the Karzai government and the rebels who wish to overthrow it. "If they come back, the situation will be worse for everyone."
Sulaiman's release has not yet been fully explained by Afghan authorities, leading several people, including Mohammadzai, to suspect some kind of deal in Uruzgan. Women for Afghan Women, an NGO that advocates for women's rights and tends to abused women, says that it too does not know why Sulaiman was released. "He was released very secretly," says Manizha Naderi, head of the NGO. "Even Aisha's father doesn't know why he was released. It is absolutely a surprise." She adds, "It's a pattern. Corruption is rife. Anyone can bribe their way out of prison. It happens very often and it sends a bad message, not just for women's rights but for the whole justice system."
Says Nader Nadery, the deputy director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission: "The failure of access to justice is a major problem in a majority of the country. This is magnified by the presence of the Taliban in the southern part of Afghanistan. We witness the influence of the Taliban there in the intimidation of justice personnel that forces them to act in a more conservative way." Nadery says his organization is looking into why Sulaiman was let go. "It is nothing to be surprised at," he says." The legal system had and continues to have major flaws. Impunity is something that has been promoted or institutionalized because of a weak justice system and Hajji Sulaiman has benefited from this."
The Taliban, for its part, says it too knows nothing about why Sulaiman was freed. Taliban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi said the insurgent group was not aware of the man's release. But he agreed the legal system and "the government administration is corrupt. They are only working for their pockets. They are not fair in their work. They are not honest." As for Taliban justice, Ahmadi says there has been no softening on the side of the insurgent group toward the implementation of their take on shari'a law. "Our justice is according to Islam. And we will obey the laws of Islam. It will be the same as when we were in power before. If someone murders someone else, we have to hang them. If someone steals, we have to cut off their hand. Our law will be completely according to shari'a."
Such sentiment is unlikely to comfort Aisha or the advocates for women's rights in Afghanistan. Says Naderi: "Negotiations with the Taliban are happening as we speak. If the Taliban comes back to power, women's rights and everything else will be very bleak and worrisome. The Taliban are as radical as they were before. Girls schools are being burned down around the country. If they can get their hands on the government it will be very bad. People are naive if they think the Taliban are going to look after women's rights."
And yet the consistent failure of President Hamid Karzai to deliver good governance contributes to the appeal of the Taliban. "The Taliban is more popular than the government here in Uruzgan," says Gulraman Ramani, a prosecutor working in a legal advocacy program in the province. "The Taliban have started their own government here and the people support that government. They like the Taliban."
Meanwhile, far away from the violent certainties of Afghan life, Aisha is making some progress. "She's well," says Naderi. "She's learning English and getting psychological therapy. She won't return to Afghanistan until she gets reconstructive surgery. But it takes up to nine months and it's an intensive, invasive procedure and she's not ready for it mentally." She adds, "All I can hope for is that one day she'll be a normal person again."