When Shakila Zareen learned that her husband planned to kill her, she fled to her mother’s house.
A few hours later, she was alone in the living room when her husband and two other men scaled the compound walls. As they came through the door, Zareen turned to see her husband aim a hunting gun at her and pull the trigger.
The war America can't win: how the Taliban are regaining control in Afghanistan
She woke up in a hospital the next morning after miraculously surviving the shooting and a gruelling seven-hour drive to Kabul. She traced her fingers over her bandaged face and realized that half of it was missing. Someone told her she had miscarried; she hadn’t even known she was pregnant. She was 16 years old.
It was late 2012, and Zareen’s life was shattered. Alerted to her ordeal, the Indian government flew her to Delhi and paid for nine reconstructive surgeries over three years. The UN granted her refugee status, and referred her for resettlement to the US.
In 2016, the US government conditionally approved that application. Zareen, now 21, started to hope that she would be able to rebuild her life, far away from her abusive husband.
But a year later, on 23 June, US Citizen and Immigration Services notified Zareen she was ineligible for resettlement. The reason, the letter said, was “a matter of discretion for security-related reasons”.
“I couldn’t believe it. I cried all the way home. Everybody in the street stared at me. The message made me so sick I had to go to hospital,” Zareen told the Guardian.
When the US and its allies invaded in 2001, it claimed the advancement of women’s rights as a central pillar of its mission.
But cases like Zareen’s demonstrate that progress remains largely in the abstract. Legal justice and protection for female victims exists on paper, but often not in practice.
“The government has not been able to provide safe environments for women, not in the home, in the street or at work,” said Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan lawmaker.
Zareen’s asylum request was denied after the introduction of new policies under Donald Trump – but previous governments may have rejected her too. “Security-related” reasons for rejecting applicants are rarely disclosed.
However, the Trump administration’s incoherent policies, including a 50,000-person cap on refugee admissions – compared with 110,000 under Obama – will block even more Afghan women like Zareen from reaching the US.
Admissions reached the 50,000 cap in July, leaving eligible only refugees with to the US.
“Since this administration got into office, it has completely slowed down – if not stopped – any progress in cases with Afghans trying to gain asylum in the US,” said Kimberley Motley, an American attorney working in Afghanistan.
Koofi said: “There needs to be a balance between military and civilian efforts. I don’t think women’s rights are a priority for our international friends anymore.”
Zareen’s ordeal began in early 2012 when her brother-in-law – a young strongman in the country’s northern Baghlan province – came to visit the family with a 20-man entourage.
He forced Zareen to marry a friend of his who was 14 years her senior. Her family was powerless to stop the wedding: her father was bedridden from illness and died two weeks after the ceremony.
“He couldn’t protect us,” said Shirin, Zareen’s mother.
The abuse began immediately. Zareen says she was raped on their wedding night, and from then on her husband would beat and torment her.
“I was very scared of him. He hurt me during sex,” she said. “It was almost every day. Sometimes he would tie my hands.”
Her husband had powerful friends. Her brother-in-law was a local community liaison to the government, but both men also assisted the , Zareen said. A local parliamentarian, Haji Ashaqullah, confirmed the allegation.
Paradoxically, the men’s ties with the Taliban might have hurt Zareen’s asylum claim. Refugee officials, not authorised to speak to media, said even tenuous connections with people labelled as insurgents can sink an asylum request, even if the insurgents are the very people the refugee is fleeing from.
Zareen and her husband later moved north to Mazar-i Sharif. One day, after a particularly horrific thrashing, she sought help from police. She told them about the beatings – and her husband and brother-in-law’s links to the Taliban.
A commander brushed her off, saying: “He is your husband. He didn’t cut off your nose or ear, he just beat you. It happens,” Zareen remembered.
Not only did the police not protect Zareen, but someone informed the two men of her visit. In turn, Zareen’s sister tipped her off that her life was in danger. Hours later, she was shot in the face.
Zareen’s husband ignored multiple interview requests from the Guardian. In combative interviews,Zareen’s brother-in-law denied all allegations and claimed she had shot herself.
Asked about the allegations, he responded: “Do you know who I am?”
Following the shooting, Zareen’s husband was held in jail for 10 months, but was then released.
‘Oh god please let me die’: treating women who have set themselves on fire in Afghanistan
According to Motley, Afghanistan’s criminal courts often impose shockingly low penalties for crimes against women, charging attempted-murder suspects only with battery.
Nearly four years after the shooting, speaking from her apartment in India alongside her mother, Zareen said the asylum rejection had left her bereft and unsafe.
“It’s very easy for them to come to India,” she said of tormentors. “They threatened me that India is only a step away, and that they can find and kill me any time.”
Zareen believes her well-connected husband could still carry out the threats, and she spends most of her time inside the apartment. He still calls her.
In recordings of a phone call heard by the Guardian, Zareen’s brother-in-law threatens her and her mother in obscene language, as well as her brothers back in Afghanistan.
He has called Zareen’s mother, too.
“He told me: ‘I can kill your son, and when you come back for the funeral, I can have you and Shakila killed,’” Shirin said.