KABUL, Afghanistan – An Indian woman whose memoir about life under Taliban rule was turned into a Bollywood movie was shot dead Thursday by suspected members of the Islamist militia, officials said.
The killing of Sushmita Banerjee was the latest in a string of attacks on prominent women in Afghanistan, adding to fears women's rights in a country where many are barely allowed outside the house will face setbacks after U.S.-led foreign forces fully withdraw in 2014.
The militants arrived before dawn at Banerjee's residence in eastern Paktika province, which lies in Afghanistan's east – a region where the Taliban are especially influential. Her husband, Jaanbaz Khan, answered the door, only to be quickly bound and blindfolded, provincial police chief Gen. Dawlat Khan Zadran told The Associated Press.
The militants then dragged Banerjee outside, took her to a nearby road and shot her at least 15 times, Zadran said. Banerjee, who officials said was in her 40s, was buried Thursday morning, a relative told AP. She lived in Daygan Sorqala village, and was well-known as a medical worker in the area, with special training in gynecology, said the relative, Zafar Khan.
Taliban spokesmen did not answer phone calls seeking comment late Thursday.
Banerjee – who was from Kolkata, India – wrote "A Kabuliwala's Bengali Wife." It later became the basis for the 2003 film "Escape from Taliban."
The book described how she met Jaanbaz in India and agreed to marry him despite her parents' disapproval and the fact that he was Muslim while she was Hindu. According to summaries of the book online, Banerjee moved to Afghanistan as Jaanbaz's second wife, only to find that life would become unbearable with the Taliban increasing their hold over the country.
The Taliban militia, which rose to prominence in 1994 and officially ruled the country from 1996-2001, placed severe restrictions on women.
It forced them to wear all-encompassing burqas, banned them from working and prohibited girls from attending schools. The Islamist rulers' harsh interpretation of their religion meant many women could not get proper medical care because the only physicians available were men who in most hospitals were allowed to examine women only if they were fully clothed.
In an interview posted on India's Rediff news, entertainment and shopping website, Banerjee described trying to flee Afghanistan multiple times to get away from the Taliban, and how she was ordered executed as a result of her attempts. She made it back to Kolkata in August of 1995.
"I still remember the day I stepped on Indian soil for the first time after I had left," the interview quotes her as saying. "It was raining outside. People were scurrying for shelter. But I didn't run. I just stood there and let the rain wash off my pain. I felt if I could bear so much in Afghanistan, I can surely bear my motherland's rain. I don't know how long I stood there, but I won't forget that day."
Her book was published in 1997, about nine years after she got married, according to the interview, conducted around the time of the film's 2003 release but reposted Thursday in light of Banerjee's death. The film starred actress Manisha Koirala.
The relative who spoke to AP, Zafar Khan, is the father of Jaanbaz's first wife. He said Banerjee was beloved in the area, was known locally by the name Sahib Kamal and that many residents were upset that a peaceful woman had been targeted. Zafar Khan said Banerjee had converted to Islam, though it was not immediately clear when. She and Jaanbaz had no children of their own, Khan said.
"She was a very kind woman. She was very educated – she knew the Internet," Zafar Khan said. "Myself, I am very sad. Believe me, I haven't been able to eat."Militants have targeted prominent women several times in recent months in Afghanistan.
Last month, officials confirmed that Fariba Ahmadi Kakar, a lawmaker who represents Kandahar province in parliament, was kidnapped and was being held in exchange for four insurgents detained by the government. Also in August, insurgents ambushed the convoy of a female Afghan senator, seriously wounding her in the attack and killing her 8-year-old daughter and a bodyguard.
Senator Rouh Gul Khirzad's husband, son and another daughter were also wounded in the attack in the Muqur district of Ghazni.