KABUL, Afghanistan — As a young girl, Zahra (who has only one name) became consumed with the idea of a life of learning, seizing on every new opportunity that trickled to her isolated town in the western Afghan province of Ghor.
In a school drama, she performed the role of Parisa, a young girl barred from attending school by her conservative family. When an educational circus traveled through about three years ago, she was one of the enthusiastic participants, selected as one of three students among 70 to take her new juggling act to Kabul.
But within the short span of her life, she was bartered away.
When her mother was paralyzed and her father decided to marry again, Zahra, then around 11 years old, became part of the dowry, according to her father’s accounts to reporters. Then, about two years later, as a sixth grader, she was married off.
Last week, Zahra arrived at the central hospital in Ghor with burns over 90 percent of her body. She died six days later, on Saturday, in a Kabul hospital. She was four months pregnant, and she was 14 years old, her father said.
The father, Muhammad Azam, said that her death was the culminating act of long abuse by her husband’s family. He accused them of beating and stabbing her after she refused to work in the opium fields while pregnant, and he said they then set her on fire with gasoline to cover their crime.
Zahra’s husband’s family insists that her death was by self-immolation, according to the police.
As investigators in Kabul and Ghor tried to piece the episode together, the conversation about her life and death once again brought to the fore the issue of child marriage and women’s rights in Afghanistan. Despite years of effort to advance women’s basic rights and build a government that protects them, they largely are still treated as little more than property.
Zahra’s family, with the help of activists, has set up a protest tent near the hospital in Kabul to demand justice. The arguments a New York Times reporter saw there on Monday over her age and the circumstances of her death also highlight a clash of values still unfolding in the country.
Even her own relatives were quick to defend the tradition of marrying young girls off to settle family disputes. And by his own account, though it was later contradicted by other relatives, Mr. Azam bartered her away for a marriage performed before it would be legal under Afghan national law at age 16.