HERAT - After regular beatings, torture and attempted murder by her husband, Zahra, 35, tried to burn herself to death to escape her marriage. Then she learned of a safer option: divorce.
Zahra is among a growing number of women in Afghanistan's western Herat province who, with the help of a women's charity, have taken on patriarchal laws to get a divorce, a taboo in the devoutly Muslim state.
"I did not spend a single happy day with my husband ... He used to beat me every day," she said, revealing scars on her right leg and feet.
After marrying at 14, Zahra, who declined to give her full name, said she suffered years of abuse. Then a property dispute with her in-laws turned her marriage into a nightmare.
"They tried to kill me three or four times. Once they gave me rat poison ... I cannot go out because of the divorce and my four brothers are looking for me; they are out to to kill me."
The divorce led to her father disowning her and cost her custody of her nine children.
Initially her ex-husband let her keep her four daughters on condition she didn't remarry. But her financial circumstances were so dire that she remarried. When her ex-husband found out he took their daughters back.
Suraya Pakzad runs a safe house for women in Herat and has helped several women, including Zahra, divorce their husbands.
Pakzad moved her office from Kabul to Herat, which is a much more conservative town compared with the capital.
She says her outreach programme, which informs women about divorce, discourages them from burning themselves and helps them tackle divorce.
The number of divorces have doubled in Herat over the past two years, according to Pakzad, while reported cases of self-immolation have declined.
"In 2006 we had 98 cases of women killing themselves with fire ... in 2008 there were about 73. So there has been a definite decrease," Pakzad said.
"When we brought the number of self-immolation cases down, the number of divorces went up because women realised that they could not solve their problems by burning themselves."
Under Afghanistan's Islamic law, a man can divorce without needing his wife's consent. But if a woman seeks a divorce, then she has to have the husband's approval and witnesses who can testify in court that the divorce is justified.
"A man can, with great ease, tell the court that his wife's behaviour is inappropriate, that she does not behave in the home, and wants to divorce her. A man decides a woman's future with one piece of paper," said Maria Bashir, chief prosecutor in Herat.
"Women prefer death to the pain of being separated from their children ... This is why many women, before consulting the law, will resort to self-immolation or suicide or running away," Bashir said. - Reuters