Abused for years by her ex-husband who broke all of her teeth, Marwa has retreated into hiding with her eight children after Taliban commanders tore up her divorce.
Marwa was one of a small number of women who, under the previous US-backed government, were granted a legal separation in Afghanistan, where women have next to no rights and domestic abuse is endemic.
When Taliban forces swept into power in 2021, her husband claimed he had been forced into the divorce and commanders ordered her back to his clutches.
“My daughters and I cried a lot that day,” Marwa, 40, whose name has been changed for her own protection, told AFP.
“I said to myself, ‘Oh God, the devil has returned’.”
The Taliban government adheres to an austere interpretation of Islam and has imposed severe restrictions on women’s lives that the United Nations called “gender-based apartheid”.
Lawyers told AFP that several women have reported being dragged back into abusive marriages after Taliban commanders annulled their divorces.
For months Marwa endured a new round of beatings, locked away in the house, with her hands broken and fingers cracked.
“There were days when I was unconscious, and my daughters would feed me,” she said.
“He used to pull my hair so hard that I became partly bald. He beat me so much that all my teeth have broken.”
Gathering the strength to leave, she fled hundreds of kilometres (miles) to a relative’s house with her six daughters and two sons, who have all assumed fictitious names.
“My children say, ‘Mother, it’s okay if we are starving. At least we have got rid of the abuse’,” said Marwa, sitting on the cracked floor of her bare home, clasping a string of prayer beads.
“Nobody knows us here, not even our neighbours,” she said, fearing her husband would discover her.
In Afghanistan nine in 10 women will experience physical, sexual or psychological violence from their partner, according to the UN’s mission in the country.
Divorce, however, is often more taboo than the abuse itself and the culture remains unforgiving to women who part with their husbands.
Under the previous US-backed government, divorce rates were steadily rising in some cities, where the small gains in women’s rights were largely limited to education and employment.
Women once blamed their fate for whatever happened to them, said Nazifa, a lawyer who successfully handled around 100 divorce cases for abused women but is no longer permitted to work in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
As awareness grew, women realised that separating from abusive husbands was possible.
“When there is no harmony left in a husband and wife relationship, even Islam permits a divorce,” explained Nazifa, who only wanted to give her first name.
Under the ousted regime, special family courts with women judges and lawyers were established to hear such cases, but the Taliban authorities have made their new justice system an all-male affair.
Nazifa told AFP that five of her former clients have reported being in the same situation as Marwa.
Another lawyer, who did not want to be identified, told AFP she recently witnessed a court case where a woman was fighting against being forcefully reunited with her ex-husband.
She added that divorces under the Taliban government are limited to when a husband was a classified drug addict or has left the country.
“But in cases of domestic violence or when a husband does not agree to a divorce, then the court is not granting them,” she said.
A nationwide network of shelters and services that once supported women has almost entirely collapsed, while the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Human Rights Commission have been erased.
Sana was 15 when she married her cousin, 10 years older than her.
“He would beat me if our baby cried or the food was not good,” she said as she prepared tea on a gas stove at a home where she has been living in secret.
“He used to say that a woman does not have the right to talk.”
With the help of a free legal service project she won a divorce from her husband in court — but her relief was shattered when Taliban commanders came knocking.
Threatened with losing custody of her four daughters, she returned to her ex-husband who by then had also married another woman.
She escaped after he announced the engagement of her daughters to Taliban members.
“My daughters said, ‘Mother, we will commit suicide’,” Sana said.
She was able to gather some money and escape with her children, and with the help of a relative found a one-room house, furnished only with a gas stove and some cushions for sleeping.
“Whenever there’s a knock on the door, I fear that he’s found me and come to take the kids away.”
A Taliban official told AFP the authorities would look into such cases where previously divorced women were being forced to return to their ex-husbands.
“If we receive such complaints, we will investigate them according to sharia,” said Inayatullah, spokesman for the Taliban supreme court, who like many Afghans goes by one name.
When asked whether the Taliban regime would acknowledge divorces granted under the previous government, he said: “This is an important and complex issue.”
“The Dar al-Ifta is looking into it. When it arrives at a uniform decision, then we will see,” he said, referring to a court-affiliated institution that issues rulings on sharia.
For Marwa and her daughters, who survive by sewing clothes, the trauma has left deep psychological wounds.
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to get them married,” said Marwa, looking at her daughters.
“They tell me, ‘Mother, watching how bad your life has been, we hate the word husband’.”