Abused for years by her ex-husband who broke all of her teeth, Marwa has retreated into hiding with her eight children after Taliban commanders tore up her divorce.
Marwa was one of a small number of women who, under the previous US-backed government, were granted a legal separation in Afghanistan, where women have next to no rights and domestic abuse is endemic.
When Taliban forces swept into power in 2021, her husband claimed he had been forced into the divorce and commanders ordered her back into his clutches.
“My daughters and I cried a lot that day,” Marwa, 40, whose name has been changed for her own protection, told AFP.
“I said to myself, ‘Oh God, the devil has returned.'”
The Taliban government adheres to an austere interpretation of Islam and has imposed severe restrictions on women’s lives that the United Nations called “gender-based apartheid”.
Lawyers told AFP that several women have reported being dragged back into abusive marriages after Taliban commanders annulled their divorces.
For months Marwa endured a new round of beatings, locked away in the house, with her hands broken and fingers cracked.
“There were days when I was unconscious, and my daughters would feed me,” she said.
“He used to pull my hair so hard that I became partly bald. He beat me so much that all my teeth are broken.”
Gathering the strength to leave, she fled hundreds of kilometres (miles) to a relative’s house with her six daughters and two sons, who have all assumed fictitious names.
“My children say, ‘Mother, it’s okay if we are starving. At least we have got rid of the abuse,'” said Marwa, sitting on the cracked floor of her bare home, clasping a string of prayer beads.
“Nobody knows us here, not even our neighbours,” she said, fearing her husband would discover her.
– ‘Islam permits divorce’ –
In Afghanistan nine in 10 women will experience physical, sexual, or psychological violence from their partner, according to the UN’s mission in the country.
Divorce, however, is often more taboo than the abuse itself and the culture remains unforgiving to women who part with their husbands.
Under the previous US-backed government, divorce rates were steadily rising in some cities, where the small gains in women’s rights were largely limited to education and employment.
Women once blamed their fate for whatever happened to them, said Nazifa, a lawyer who successfully handled around 100 divorce cases for abused women, but who is no longer permitted to work in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
As awareness grew, women realised that separating from abusive husbands was possible.
“When there is no harmony left in a husband and wife relationship, even Islam permits a divorce,” explained Nazifa, who only wanted to give her first name.
Under the ousted regime, special family courts with women judges and lawyers were established to hear such cases, but the Taliban authorities have made their new justice system an all-male affair.
Nazifa told AFP that five of her former clients have reported being in the same situation as Marwa.
Another lawyer, who did not want to be identified, told AFP she recently witnessed a court case where a woman was fighting against being forcefully reunited with her ex-husband.