The Afghan women imprisoned for fleeing forced marriage

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MORE than two-thirds of the 202 inmates in Afghanistan’s only women’s prison are serving sentences of up to seven years for leaving their husbands, refusing to accept an arranged marriage, or leaving their parents’ home with a man of their own choice.

Some of the women in Badam Bagh were jailed while pregnant, others are here with their young children. The prison’s director general, Zaref Jan Naebi, this week said there are 62 children living with their mothers, sharing their grey steel bunk-beds.

The Taleban were thrown out of Afghanistan 12 years ago, ending five years of laws that enforced a tribal tradition and culture denying girls schooling, ordering women to stay indoors unless accompanied by a male relative, and even blackening first-storey windows so prying eyes could not see women within. Women were forced to wear the all-encompassing burka or suffer a public beating.

In the first years after the Taleban’s removal in December 2001, strides seemed to be made: schools were reopened, women came out of their homes (albeit many were still in burkas), they appeared on television and were getting elected to parliament.

But women’s activists in Kabul say within a few years of the Taleban’s fall, interest in women’s rights waned and even president Hamid Karzai made statements that harked back to the Taleban era, saying women really should be accompanied by a man while outside their home.

A new law was enacted – the Elimination of Violence Against Women – but its implementation is erratic and rare. While it might not be against the law to run away or escape a forced marriage, courts routinely convict women fleeing abusive homes with “the intent to commit zina [adultery]” – most often simply referred to as “moral crimes” – a recent report by the United ­Nations Assistance Mission on Afghanistan said.

“Perceptions toward women are still the same in most places, tribal laws are the only laws followed and in most places nothing has changed in the basics of women’s lives. There are policies and papers and even laws but nothing has changed,” said Zubaida Akbar, whose volunteer organisation Haider fights for women’s rights. It sends lawyers and aid workers to the women’s jail to defend inmates in court.

In the overwhelmingly male-dominated legal system, Ms Akbar said even when a woman gets her case heard in front of a judge, things are hard: “He says, ‘It is her husband, she should go back and make it work. It is her fault and not her place to leave him, not in our society.’”

Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative society – tribal assemblies still hand out rulings that offer girls and women to settle debts and disputes.

Badam Bagh is surrounded by a high fence topped with razor wire, but there is one small patch of open space where children being kept with their mothers can play. Nearby, women hang out laundry. The two-storey building – built with Italian aid money – is only six years old, but already it is grimy and neglected.

The prison’s director said inmates attend a variety of classes during the week, ranging from basic literacy to crafts and sewing, with the intention of giving the women a skill once they leave the prison. But on balconies obscured by mesh and steel bars, women sit and smoke.

Six women often share a cell. Three sets of bunk-beds line the walls of the room. In some of the beds, infants tucked under grimy blankets sleep while their mothers tell their story.

Nuria went to court to demand a divorce from a husband she was forced by her parents to marry. She said: “I wanted to get a divorce but he wouldn’t let me go. I never wanted to marry him. I loved someone else but my father made me [get married]. He threatened to kill me if I didn’t.”

Nuria had pleaded with her father before her marriage, begging to be allowed to marry another man.

“When I went to court for the divorce, instead of giving me a divorce, they charged me with running away,” she said. The man she wanted to marry was also charged and is now serving time in Afghanistan’s notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison, one of the country’s largest.

At the time she went to court, Nuria didn’t know she was pregnant. She gave birth to her son in jail. The baby’s father is her husband, who has offered to have the courts set her free if she returns to their home.

But Nuria said: “He wants me to come home now because I have his son but I said, ‘No. I will wait until my sentence is up.’” That is in eight months, she said.

Adia, 27, left her husband, who was a drug addict, and sought shelter with her parents. But they wanted her to return to her husband, who followed her and demanded she come back.

She said: “Instead I escaped with another man, but it wasn’t a romance, I was desperate to get away and he said he would help me. But he didn’t, he just left me.

“I went to the court. I was angry. I wanted him charged and my husband charged, but instead they charged me and sentenced me to six years. I went back to court to appeal the conviction and I was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years.”

Seven months pregnant, Adia will have her baby in jail.

Fauzia isn’t sure of her age, though she looks to be in her early 60s. She stares out through the prison bars. She has already spent seven years in jail, serving a 17-year sentence for killing her husband and daughter-in-law.

Expressionless, she tells her story, rolling up her sleeve to display a mangled elbow where her husband had hit her with a stick. She was his fourth wife.

She said: “I was in one room. I came into the next room and they were there having sexual relations. I found a big knife and killed them both.”

Haider’s Zubaida Akbar said despite what she calls a veneer of change, in reality little is different for most Afghan women despite the Taleban leaving.

“When you dig in deep down below the surface nothing fundamentally has changed,” she said. “It has been really tough.”