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Afghanistan beckons, but there, an arranged marriage waits

When she was 7 years old, Rahila Muhibi was engaged to her 8-year-old first cousin. The betrothal was arranged, in the Afghan custom, by her father.

When Muhibi was ready for high school, her father fended off relatives who demanded that the marriage take place. He thought she was too young, and instead helped her win a scholarship to attend school in Canada.

Last month, Muhibi, 24, graduated from tiny Methodist University here. Her father now says the time has come for Muhibi to return to Afghanistan and marry her cousin.

She has refused, setting up a test of wills with her father and a challenge to the societal customs that require women to be obedient daughters and wives.

Muhibi wants to go to graduate school in the West and continue running a small nonprofit literacy program she founded for Afghan women. But for the program to flourish -- and for Muhibi to reconnect with a family she misses terribly -- she must return home.

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“It’s hard for me to say no because my father has helped me so much,” Muhibi said, speaking flawless English while chatting with fellow students on campus. “But I refuse to be submissive.”

Muhibi said she didn’t care for her cousin when they were children growing up together in a village in northeastern Afghanistan. She cares for him even less now, she said, calling him “my supposed fiance.”

She has told him more than once that she has no intention of marrying him. When he telephoned her to congratulate her the day she graduated, she drove home the point.

“I told him to find someone else,” she said. “I said I didn’t want him blaming me for making him wait. He treated it like a joke. He said he didn’t believe I would really say no because it would bring such dishonor.”

Muhibi’s father, Abdul Ghaffer, is 63 -- a tall, bony white-haired man. (Some Afghans choose surnames from other family members. Muhibi’s father chose his grandfather’s surname; she chose her grandfather’s.)

A retired government clerk, he and his family rent a simple mud brick house on a rutted side street in Kabul, Afghanistan. He is proud of his daughter’s educational accomplishments, he said, despite the criticism he has endured from friends and relatives over allowing her to attend school overseas. But now that Muhibi’s education has been completed, he said, she must honor her obligations.

“If my daughter does not accept my idea, well, of course I will lose respect among my relatives,” he said over black tea and chocolates in his tiny mehman khana, or reception room. “But I don’t think my daughter would do anything against our culture.”

Certain family obligations cannot be refused, he said. He pointed out that his son and a nephew are married to sisters of Muhibi’s betrothed cousin.

“This is not just a problem for me if my daughter does not marry, but it would be a problem for the rest of the family too,” Ghaffer said.

An Afghan woman who refuses an arranged marriage can bring dishonor to her family, and the act may result in banishment from the home. In some cases, reluctant brides have run away, been jailed or committed suicide.

Ghaffer said he considered the groom-to-be, the son of a herder, a fine catch. Now 25, he graduated from Kabul University last year and works for a cellphone company.

Ghaffer himself entered into an arranged marriage when his wife -- Muhibi’s mother -- was 11. She too has urged Muhibi to submit to the marriage. “My mother told me: You should listen to your dad,” Muhibi said.

With degrees in global studies and political science from Methodist University, she is almost certainly the best-educated woman in her Nikpai tribe. After so many years in the West, Muhibi cannot abide by the old, restrictive ways of her culture, she said.

Even when she lived in Afghanistan, she did not wear a burka as her mother and sisters do. When she was 12, she said, she broke a cultural taboo by sitting with Afghan men to talk politics, encouraged by her father.

Inside the student union building, Muhibi looked at home: Dressed in a white blouse and black slacks, she joked and giggled with several female friends and casually greeted the male students who stopped by to chat.

Muhibi said she received a full scholarship to Methodist after an official from the university visited her high school in British Columbia.

While in college, she obtained a $10,000 grant from the Davis Projects for Peace foundation to start a summer program that in 2007 brought students from Kabul to visit young people in the village where she grew up. They all attended classes under a tree because the village had no school.

She then raised $8,000 in a single night, selling home-cooked Afghan meals to American donors. She used the money to create the 100 Mothers Literacy Program to help educate women in her village.

At first, there was resistance in Afghanistan, she said -- from village elders and the women themselves. The women said they were too old to learn and preferred that the money be used to build toilets.

“I thought: How can you choose a bathroom over education?” Muhibi said. “If I had stayed in the village, I would have ended up just like them.”

Muhibi raised more money, and, after the women and elders relented, she visited Afghanistan in December 2008, launching the program with 104 students. She hired as instructors male and female teens educated in the village’s first schoolhouse, built in 2007. Each is paid $40 a month.

The program is run by Muhibi’s oldest brother, 45, a teacher in the village. Her 22-year-old sister, who lives in Kabul, helps out.

Several hours by car from Kabul, the village is reachable only by dirt tracks. Muhibi asked that her siblings’ names, and the name of her village, not be published. She said she feared Taliban insurgents or sympathizers would retaliate against them for teaching women -- considered apostasy by some Afghans.

Someone, she said, threatened recently to toss acid in her sister’s eyes, a common Taliban punishment. Others have spread rumors that Muhibi is trying to convert villagers to Christianity, a rumor Ghaffer quashed by assuring elders that his daughter is a devout Muslim.

Despite her father’s insistence on the arranged marriage, Muhibi said she considered him relatively moderate. When she visited in December, she said, he asked her to wear a burka. She refused, and he did not try to force her.

In fact, Ghaffer is the main reason for his daughter’s remarkable journey.

The few Afghan women who do manage educations overseas tend to be from prominent, politically connected families. Muhibi grew up in a village in Baghlan province without indoor plumbing and electricity. Her mother is illiterate. Her father did not attend school but went to a mullah to learn to read and write.

Muhibi and her family are Hazara, a Shiite Muslim ethnic group that historically has suffered discrimination from Afghanistan’s dominant Sunni Muslims. Some anthropologists think Hazaras migrated to present-day Afghanistan from Mongolia; many Hazaras claim to be descendants of Genghis Khan.

During the Taliban regime in the late 1990s, gunmen burned villages and killed Hazaras in Hazarajat, the ethnic homeland in northeast Afghanistan, which includes Muhibi’s village. The legendary Buddha statues of Bamian, which had stood since the 6th century, were destroyed.

Muhibi said her family members were forced to flee in 1998, when she was 13, abandoning their home and possessions. They walked for three days to a neighboring village, passing burning villages and Hazara corpses.

Her father covered her eyes, she recalled, but she knew what had happened. “I knew what was there. I could smell the dead,” she recalled. The family later walked seven days to Kabul, then fled to Pakistan. They returned to Kabul in 2002 after the U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban government.

Her father’s strength has kept the family safe over the years, Muhibi said. He used his savings to provide an education for his four sons -- and his four daughters too. When Muhibi was 11, he rewarded her good grades by paying for private English lessons.

“My dad is one of the best dads ever,” she said. “If he was a mean dad, it wouldn’t be so hard to say no to him.”

While pondering whether to return to Afghanistan to reject the arranged marriage in person one last time, Muhibi has been applying for graduate school and temporary jobs. Last month, she said, she was accepted for graduate study at a small Islamic university in London.

She said she would like to study international development and return to Afghanistan to direct projects. She may even marry, she said, if she meets the right man. But she will not marry her cousin.

“I’m waiting for him to find someone else,” she said, relaxed and smiling among her friends in the student union.

Seven-thousand miles away, Ghaffer sipped hot tea as he squatted on pillows and a Persian rug spread across his floor. He was polite but firm.

“I thought about her future, and I sent her for education outside the country,” he said. “So I hope she would also accept that we have promised to marry her with her cousin.”

Muhibi might be in the United States for now, he said, but her home is Afghanistan. “And Afghan custom,” her father said, “is different from any other custom.”

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

Special correspondent M. Karim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this report.


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