I recently had the honor of meeting Gabriela Maj, a gutsy photojournalist who travelled throughout Afghanistan and gained access to numerous women's prison facilities where she interviewed and photographed over a hundred prisoners for her book ALMOND GARDEN, Portraits from the Women's Prisons in Afghanistan. The project aims to raise awareness about gender in-equality and women's rights issues as well as the human rights violations in the Afghan justice system in which many women continue to be unjustly incarcerated.
The following is an excerpt from ALMOND GARDEN by Gabriela Maj
SHARI’A, RELIGIOUS LAW INTERPRETED AND APPLIED IN AFGHANISTAN, strictly prohibits zina, or sex between two people who are not married. “Moral crime” is an umbrella term used in Afghanistan to describe all of the possible ways by which a person may be accused of zina. It can apply to victims of rape, individuals accused of adultery, or those who have run away from the home of their father or husband or who have helped someone else to do so.
Running away, not listed explicitly in the penal code, is often interpreted by judges as the beginning of an attempt to commit zina and is therefore also penalized with incarceration. The female prison population in Afghanistan overwhelmingly consists of individuals who are serving 5-15 year sentences for moral crimes. Although the privileges and power bestowed on men in Afghan society are significantly greater than those permitted to women, men can also be incarcerated for zina, as can anyone viewed to have aided in the crime; in this way, entire communities are affected.
Instead of expending the limited resources available to the justice system on tracking and incarcerating victims of abuse, focus should be redirected to responding to the calls of those in danger, to arresting and bringing to justice perpetrators whose violence reverberates throughout Afghan society and affects everyone, and to establishing transparency within the justice system’s own ranks.
As the international community withdraws from the country, it leaves in its wake a population of women and girls who are ostensibly free, at least for the moment, from the brutality of the Taliban. And yet they lack a robust infrastructure within which their basic human rights will be protected. International support for the continued battle for gender equality is vital not only to maintaining the progress that has been made but to the safety and survival of many.
FARESHTE’S MORAL CRIME
Fareshte was alone in the large cell where she slept with seven other women when I knocked on the heavy door at the end of the dim hallway. We sat together on the carpeted floor while her infant son played between us, exchanging a few basic questions through a female translator. I asked which province she was from, what her son’s name was; she asked me which country I had come from. We talked about the summer heat, we noted the fact that we were the same age, and then I asked her, “Tell me why you are here.”
“I was raped by a man in my village,” she responded. “After it happened, there was a jurga [a meeting of elders], and they made the decision to kill me, to stone me to death. My father said, ‘No. If my daughter is going to die, the man who did this should also be killed.’ A letter was written to the police, and I was arrested.”
Fareshte gave birth to her son while in prison. She was later offered a reduced sentence if she would agree to marry her rapist. I asked her what she would do. She looked at me and said, without changing her tired expression or quiet tone,
“If he agrees, I will marry him. What else can I do?”
That first day in Badam Bagh [prison], I met several young women whose lives were completely devoid of the self-determination I had always enjoyed and mostly taken for granted. Stories of unimaginable abuse and powerlessness intermingled with talk of everyday things such as education, lipstick, teething babies and mobile phones. Somewhere in between these jarringly dissimilar threads of narrative, many of which were familiar to me, I found myself stunned in the face of the disparity between us, not on account of the contrast between our lives—there were many differences, and they were significant—but ultimately because of how arbitrarily we had each been dealt our respective hands in life.
Two years after my first visit to Badam Bagh, I was once again in the prison and inquired about Fareshte. During the course of this project there were several women I had the opportunity to meet with more than once, which, beyond being a way that I could gain a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by incarcerated women, was also something I very much looked forward to. I wanted to see Fareshte but was informed that she had been released. I asked if she had married her assailant, as per the offer that had been presented to her by the court the last time I met with her. “No,” the guard responded between loud sips of hot tea without looking at me, “she’s in a women’s shelter somewhere; he did not agree to marry her.” A cellmate of hers recently reported that she had heard Fareshte had been killed by her family, another said that she had fled the country with her son.