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Afghan women speak out on abuse from behind mask

By Arwa Damon, CNN
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TV show in Afghanistan focuses on abuse
  • Afghan women dare to speak out on taboo subject of abuse by husbands
  • Women talk on the issue on revolutionary new TV series featuring masked guests
  • One guest describes how she was forcibly married off to a known rapist

Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) -- "I had so many dreams for my life, but when I saw him, they just disappeared." Saraya spoke softly, her hunched-over body and nervously twisting hands testimony to all she says she has had to endure.

"I told my father I didn't want to marry him: 'why are you doing this to me?'" She continued: "My father said 'you are of an age to be married and this is my decision, not yours.'"

Saraya says it only took three days for her to realize she had been married off to a madman.

Emotions and turmoil she never dared publicly speak of tumble out freely -- concealed, along with her face, behind a mask.

Half the mask is pale blue, the color of the "chaudari" or burka, symbolizing the oppression of women; the other half white, representing innocence.

This is Afghanistan's new revolutionary TV show called "Niqab," meaning "The Mask."

Gallery: Afghan women speak out on abuse

Behind the concept is 28-year-old Sami Mahdi.

"I was always desiring to have something like the mask, like this show in our media," Mahdi said. "I was not very sure about the concept and the format, but I was very sure about the mask, you know. Because in Afghanistan, it's very difficult for women to talk about their difficulties and their problems, and the violence they are facing in their home."

Her identity safely concealed behind the mask, Saraya said she was forcibly married off to a known rapist, a man with an existing criminal record when she was 15 years old. He was 58.

"When my youngest was just four years old, my husband brought women to the house and raped them.

"My child asked me: 'who are these women?' I could not say anything to my child -- my husband would just beat me."

She said she eventually ran away, fearing that he would harm their daughter. She said she firmly believes that if her husband ever found her and their three children he would murder them all.

Afghanistan Crossroads blog

But she says, she had to speak out for the sake and future of her children and other women.

"I am not sure we can make a difference for the victims," Mahdi said. "You know for the women who are coming here and talking about life, sometimes I think they are victims forever.

"But we can use the life of these individuals as an example to show the people, I am sure we can make some changes in the life of the women. And I am sure we can change in the minds of men in Afghanistan."

I had so many dreams for my life, but when I saw him they just disappeared.
--Saraya, guest on "The Mask"

The studio audience is made up of a panel of religious and legal experts, as well as human rights campaigners, who offer their insight, opinions and advice.

"Your marriage at such a young age to such an older man is against Islam," a religious expert told Saraya. "His behavior is against Islam and against the law."

Mahdi said the inspiration for the show came from watching his mother.

"In the mind and eye of the people, her work is not worthy although she is doing much more than I. I am not talking just about my mother, I am talking about all the mothers in Afghanistan," he said. "Maybe there are a lot of mothers, thousands of mothers who are living in the same situation, they don't have a tongue, they don't have a voice to talk about what they are suffering."

Although the situation for women in Afghanistan has improved since the days of the Taliban's oppressive regime, women have been treated as commodities for centuries.

At least 59% of marriages in the most recent survey done by an Afghan non-governmental organization, Women and Children Legal Research Foundation, were considered forced marriages. Of these, 30% were "badal" or "exchange" marriages in which men trade their daughters or other female relatives for women or girls from other families for the purpose of marriage.

Another 17% involved a female given in marriage as compensation for a crime or other act of aggression committed against a man in another family.

"During the second episode, the victim, the guest, was a lady who was 12 years old when she got married," Mahdi said, noting this was a "badal" marriage. Her brother had murdered a man. She was given to the family of the victim.

As she spoke of the abuse and torture she endured, Mahdi says everyone in the control room broke down.

"They were crying ... they were crying," he recalled. "There are a lot of realities in Afghanistan, but when you talk about realities publicly, I am sure it will shock people. I was shocked."