KABUL -- Mumtaz, her disfigured face a collage of bulging red scars, fidgets nervously with a pen as she attempts to write her name for the first time.
The 18-year-old, standing among a handful of women in a makeshift classroom, is attending her daily lessons at a women's shelter in Kabul. The shelter is one of more than a dozen around Afghanistan that provide refuge for abused Afghan women who have fled their homes.
Mumtaz's face lights up as she writes her name correctly on a chalkboard. But her smile quickly vanishes when asked about the events that led her to seek protection at the shelter, run by the Afghan nongovernmental organization Women4AfghanWomen, five months ago.
The shelter currently houses around 20 women, some with young children. Many, unable to return to their homes and families for fear of being killed, have been there for years because they have nowhere else to go.
Mumtaz says she was victimized by a scorned man who decided that if he could not marry her, he would make sure nobody else would want to. The middle-aged man, who reputedly had links to a local militia, had asked for her hand in marriage, but her father refused the request.
In response, Mumtaz says, the man, accompanied by six others, broke into her home in northern Kunduz Province, beat her father, and sprayed skin-burning acid over her mother and three sisters. Mumtaz says her one-time suitor pulled her hair back and emptied a bucket of acid over head and body before fleeing.
"They took me to a hospital in Kunduz, where I stayed for about 10 days. They wouldn't even look at me there," she says. "The women's group brought me to Kabul. I had one operation but then they discharged me, saying I wouldn't get better and would die. Finally, they sent me to India."
Indebted To The Shelter
Against overwhelming odds, Mumtaz survived after receiving several life-saving medical procedures in New Delhi. Mumtaz's family members, too, survived, although their safety remains precarious as many of the men accused of involvement in the attack are still at large.
After months of rehabilitation at the shelter in Kabul, Mumtaz is in stable condition and is able to speak, move, and eat freely. Doctors are still closely monitoring her fragile psychological condition as Mumtaz battles trauma and depression.
Mumtaz says she is indebted to the shelter, which helped pay her expensive medical and travel expenses. She hails the efforts of women's shelters, many of them run by Afghan NGOs and funded by a mix of private donors, international organizations, and foreign governments.
Many, she says, continue to work despite routine death threats and assassination attempts by the Taliban, which often claims the shelters are brothels and a haven for drug use.
"The shelter has helped me a lot. If they hadn't helped me, I probably would have died," Mumtaz says. "I'm very happy here. They help me in every aspect, including food, clothes, and ensuring I have my own room. They do everything for us."
Fear Of Progress Undone
To many, Mumtaz's shocking ordeal highlights the fragile state of women's rights in Afghanistan, where domestic abuse is routine, forced marriages are the norm, and female suicide rates remain among the highest in the world despite gains made since the fall of the Talban in late 2001.
Now, as the United States and its NATO allies prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, fears are rising that what little progress women have made could be undone if the Taliban reenters the political scene.
The country's independently run and funded women's shelters, a prime symbol of that progress, are already bearing the brunt of growing conservatism within the government. In February 2011, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, under pressure from powerful social and religious circles, attempted to bring the shelters under government control.
The draft law, which was abandoned following a flurry of Western media attention, would have required women to obtain government approval and even virginity tests before they would be granted access to shelters.
'We Don't Trust Our Own People'
Muzhda Saleh, who has worked as a volunteer for the Women4AfghanWomen shelter in Kabul for the past two years, says Afghan women are already struggling to shed their second-class status in one of the world's most religious and conservative countries.
"In the provinces [outside the major cities], very few people have accepted that their girls should study, go to school, and eventually work," Saleh says. "Many women will lose the gains that they have made in the last 10 years. This is not easy to say, but we women don't trust our own people. Perhaps the rights that women have now will be taken away from them. The only environment in which these rights can be saved is when international forces are here."
Mumtaz, too, is pessimistic about the future. Despite repeated pledges from the international community that Afghan women will not be abandoned, she predicts the West will lose interest and the Western-backed Afghan government will sell out women as it negotiates a peace settlement with insurgents.
Whatever unfolds in the next few years, Mumtaz, who insists she can never go back to her village for fear of her life, maintains she will embark on a new chapter. Mumtaz hopes to finish school and eventually give back to the cause that she says saved her life.
"I don't know what will happen to me in the future. I would like to study and work in this office for women. They always come to the aid of desperate women," she says.
"Whenever I reflect on my own experiences, I think if they weren't there then I would have died. I had no life and my family didn't have the means to help me and take me to the hospital. Every girl and woman in Afghanistan is living under hardship."