Pictured are 11-yr-old Khudaja (left) who is engaged, and her 9-year-old sister.
Today, we met Khudaja, a thin, shivering 11-year-old girl with big white teeth and bright dark eyes. “Salaam,” I say to her. “My name is Beth.” With a wide grin, she says right back to me, “My name is Khudaja.”
Khudaja learned some English last year in 3rd grade, her first and only year in school. “I like school a lot. I like to learn.” But three months ago, during school winter break, she became the victim of a fiancé swap. Khudaja’s 18-year-old cousin needed a wife, so her guardian—an aunt—traded her to get a girl for her own son. Khudaja’s fiancé is the 9-year-old younger brother of her cousin’s fiancé. And her future father-in-law is forbidding her to go back to school.
“Maybe you could talk to the boy’s family,” Zia Jan, school administrator, pleaded with the aunt this morning on the front steps outside her mud brick home.
“This is the best thing for us,” the aunt said about the engagement. “There is no other choice for us. We have so many problems because we don’t have a man here to help us.” Her husband was a soldier killed in fighting, and Khudaja’s father (by all accounts an abusive bastard), was murdered by her mother. At mention of the men, Khudaja runs inside and reappears with their pictures.
Zia tries to reason: By the time the boy is ready to marry, Khudaja could finish high school.
(Pictured is Kudaja with her aunt)
For Khudaja this whole conversation is a break from all the housework she is expected to do. As the oldest girl in the home, every chore you can name is her responsibility. She does all the cooking, all the cleaning, all the wash, and all the yard work.
“It is such a tragedy,” says Razia Jan, founder of the Zabuli Girls’ School. “Khudaja and her younger sister, Khodija, are different than every other girl we have at the school. There are 200 girls – and 198 of them are similar. These two are special. They need extra help.”
Khudaja’s younger sister, 9-year-old Khodjia, was in school today. I ask the aunt, “Will you make her be engaged, too, soon?” She shakes her head and chuckles, as though I’ve asked the most ridiculous question she can imagine. “No,” she says, “her sister can finish school. I hope she will finish.”
On our way back to the school from their home, we see two women in periwinkle blue burqas walking down Deh Yahyah Street—one holding the fattest, most colorfully dressed baby you’ve ever seen, the other holding hands with her daughter. It is a sweet and telling scene, and we want to take a picture. But the moment Kevin gets into position in front of them, several male shopkeepers come running down the street, screaming, and waving their arms like lunatics. “What are you doing? Stop! You have no right to take pictures of our women! It is forbidden!”
We return to the school to pick up Iqbal Shah , the night guard. Iqbal grew up in the village, knows everyone, and returns with us to the scene of the crime. Again, the men come—red-faced and nostrils flaring. Iqbal assures them that we have only taken pictures of the children, not the women. There is a loud and animated conversation. Then the men hug. Everything OK?, we ask. Yes, is the answer we both want and receive. Still, we are told that we should keep a low profile over the next few days. We will drive in a different car. We will take a different route. And when we visit homes, Kevin will stay back and I’ll have to go alone to do the interviewing and filming.