Aesha Mohammadzai, the Afghan woman who was featured on the cover of Time magazine after relatives cut off her nose and ears, appears in a new CNN on-line piece called Saving Aesha.
When she was 12 years old, Aesha’s father promised her to a Taliban fighter in order to satisfy an obligation. Not surprisingly, the marriage was abusive and when she was 18, Aesha fled. She was captured and returned to her husband’s family. As punishment for attempting to escape, her husband’s family cut off her nose and ears, and left her to die. Aid workers and the U.S. military rescued her, and she was brought to a shelter run by Women for Afghan Women.
Although generally protective of Aesha’s privacy, WAW ultimately brought her case to the attention of Time magazine. As CNN reports:
The organization’s decision to allow Time to photograph Aesha in 2010 was calculated and deliberate. The group wanted to influence the conversation about U.S. troop withdrawals, and Aesha was its best chance. She became the poster child for the 15 million Afghan women and girls it fears will be brought to their knees, again, if troops leave too soon and the Taliban regain control.
Possibly due to the publicity surrounding her case, she was able to come to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery. But Aesha did not adjust well to the United States. She was still suffering from severe mental and emotional trauma, and her reconstructive surgery had to be postponed due to her fragile emotional state. Women for Afghan Women took over her care and provide her with housing and volunteer tutors.
Perhaps due to her emotional condition, it seems Aesha was a difficult charge. She constantly threw fits, and one roommate after another fled her apartment. At one point, she was hospitalized for 10 days. After that incident, her medications were changed and she started doing better.
CNN reports that in late 2010, Aesha’s father-in-law was arrested for his role in her mutilation:
Authorities said he held Aesha at gunpoint and ordered five other men — including her husband — to cut her. The father-in-law was released last July, however, reportedly because he didn’t do the cutting himself and because Aesha is no longer around to pursue the case.
Aesha received asylum in the United States in November 2011. Although I was unable to find information about the basis for her asylum, there are a number of possible grounds: The claim could have been based on her particular social group–one formulation for this claim might be women who fear persecution in Afghanistan based on resistance to forced marriage. Also, she might have framed the claim in terms of religious persecution–her family members harmed her because she would not comply with their version of Islam. In addition, since she claims her husband in the forced marriage was a Taliban, she might have a fear of persecution based on imputed political opinion after her case became public and she moved to the U.S. Obviously, the government of Afghanistan is unable and unwilling to protect her.
Aesha’s case illustrates several important points. First, refugees are often very damaged people. Aesha is much worse off than most refugees, but people who flee persecution, who have been injured, who have lost loved ones, and who have lost their homes and property often have mental health issues. Such people may be difficult to deal with, and those who assist refugees must be patient and understanding. For me, at least, it is not always easy to be patient with difficult clients, especially when I am under pressure from several cases at once. I imagine this is true for many people assisting refugees.
A second point involves media coverage. According to CNN, Women for Afghan Women made a decision to publicize Aesha’s case in order to influence the debate about American troops in Afghanistan. Given Aesha’s fragile condition, it is unclear whether she had the capacity to understand the effect of going public, even if she did give consent (which is not clear from the CNN article). Lawyers and their clients sometimes have diverging interests, particularly when there is an opportunity for publicity. Most lawyer want publicity, but most clients prefer anonymity. I doubt that WAW had a fiduciary duty to Aesha when they publicized the case, but they certainly had a moral responsibility. If the CNN article is accurate, it raises serious issues about WAW’s decision to publicize Aesha’s case.
A final point raised by Aesha’s case is that women are often ill-served by our asylum law. Many female asylum seekers fear persecution based on forced marriage, FGM, domestic violence, and the like. But these issues do not fit neatly into the protected categories for asylum (race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and particular social group). Fortunately, enterprising lawyers (and judges) have broadened the basis for asylum to protect women from some of these harms. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if the Refugee Convention specifically recognized these types of harms?
Aesha’s case illustrates how complicated and difficult it can be to assist a refugee and help her rebuild her life. In this process, asylum is often only a first step.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
Jason Dzubow's practice focuses on immigration law, asylum, and appellate litigation. Mr. Dzubow is admitted to practice law in the federal and state courts of Washington, DC and Maryland, the United States Courts of Appeals for the Third, Fourth, Eleventh, and DC Circuits, all Immigration Courts in the United States, and the Board of Immigration Appeals. He is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and the Capital Area Immigrant Rights (CAIR) Coalition. In June 2009, CAIR Coalition honored Mr. Dzubow for his Outstanding Commitment to Defending the Rights and Dignity of Detained Immigrants.