Sex before marriage, fleeing abuse, even being raped could land a woman in one of Afghanistan’s moral prisons.
“Oppression of Afghan women did not start with the Taliban nor has it ended with their defeat.” So wrote Anne E. Brodsky in her book, With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.
Violence against women in Afghanistan occurs due to structural inequalities between women and men, including women’s lack of access to economic, political and social resources. This gender gap is deeply rooted in androcentric and religious fundamentalist values. Afghan girls and women face many forms of violence: threats, torture, rape, child and forced marriages, Baadal (the exchange of daughters or sisters as brides), and Baad (arranged marriages to settle dispute).
Women also face imprisonment for up to five years for so-called moral crimes such as running away from home (even to flee violence) and zina (sex before marriage).
A report by Human Rights Watch states that such incarcerations of girls and women for moral crimes are on the rise. The number increased from about 400 in the autumn of 2011 to about 600 in the spring of 2013. In spite of compelling evidence of the injustice faced by women in Afghanistan, and recommendations by the UN member countries, the Afghan government has categorically rejected abolishing the prosecution of women for moral crimes, which often occur when women are fleeing sexual and gender-based violence (GBV).
How to Wind up in a Moral Prison
Sitting on the floor in a prison courtyard, six Afghan women, aged 18-57, form a semicircle facing one another. They take turns narrating their stories, describing why they were now in the prison. They help each other by adding details from their own experiences of injustice, signaling solidarity without the fear of being judged or heard by the policeman who has been tailing them around in the courtyard.
Tahmeena* is a 24-year-old Tajik female. She refused to sleep with her brother-in-law when her family was away. She was then accused of attempted adultery: “The female police rained batons on me. I kept shouting I haven’t done anything. They [the police and her family] didn’t believe me. There was no trial, just the sentence.”
Zahra, 57 has been in the prison for a year. She killed her husband because of the constant sexual and physical abuse. “I killed him. I stabbed him a few times,” she states unapologetically, and shares a smile with the others that turns into familiar laughter.
Sameena, 19, has been in the prison for six months because she had pre-marital sex with her boyfriend. “He is in prison and I will marry him when I get out of here but I also fear for his and my life,” she says.
Sumaira, 18, was raped by her uncle when she was 16. She now has a year-old daughter and is in prison for having sex outside of marriage. “I was alone in the house when he [the uncle] came to my room, threatened me with a knife and raped me. I didn’t know what was going on,” she recounts. “This happened a few times and a couple of months later I was pregnant. I never told my family because of the fear of getting killed. When they found out at the seventh month, I told them what had happened. My uncle accused me of seducing him and lying. He never faced trial and I was brought here for zina.”
Attacks like the ones these women experienced are a tool to control female sexuality in a climate of impunity with the government failing bring perpetrators to justice. Women in Afghan jails are often sentenced for so-called moral crimes while religious and influential men are exonerated for the same offenses. The women’s stories make it obvious that the power discrepancy between men and women is the root cause of their imprisonment.
Humaira, 18, ran away from home at the age of 13 to escape baad. She was accused of “moral crimes” and was subjected to forced “virginity tests.”
“They did virginity tests on me. I kept saying no but they ignored my cries,” she says. “The tests were negative but the guy who was forcing me to marry him bribed the authorities and I am now imprisoned for attempted adultery.”
Virginity tests in Afghanistan can happen if women flee their homes or enter public spaces without the supervision of men. Any legal authority, with or without the demand of the victim’s family, can order a virginity test to determine the presence of an intact hymen, even in the absence of substantial evidence that any sexual act has occurred. Tellingly, the examination focuses only on virginity, not on documenting the physical injuries of girls and women that occurred as result of GBV.
The World Health Organization has clearly stated that “such examinations have no scientific validity in determining virginity or sexual history. The use of such examinations for these purposes is a violation of international human right standards and principles.”
Life in the Morality Cells
The morality cells are excluded from the rest of the prison. The cells are stuffy; there are no windows, just brick walls. Inside, 16 bunk beds are attached to one another in four square rooms, leaving hardly any space to move around. Several women are carrying toddlers born out of wedlock. Many of the inmates are mothers who have either given birth while in the prison or brought their children to live with them after they were incarcerated.
Next to one of the rooms are two squatting toilets shared by over 30 women. This is where the women wash their clothes and bathe their children as well as themselves using a bucket provided. The toilets neither have doors nor windows. They run out of water frequently and always have excrement in them. The smell of sweat, dirt, dust, excrement, and body odor is unbearable. Occasionally there are screams and shouts, when a fight breaks out between the female inmates.
“There are men [male police and guards] everywhere in the prison. Our movement is restricted. We have to be inside and around our cells,” says Tahmeena. “The prisoners and staff don’t behave well. We fight amongst ourselves every day. We curse each other.”
“There is no good food. When it’s cold, we don’t have heating. Sometimes the staff beats us with iron rods. There is no health care. The head of the prison is the worst and beats us all the time,” she continues.
After finishing their prison sentences, women and their children are transferred to highly fortified secret shelters to protect them from honor-killings by their immediate family members until a more permanent and safer solution is worked out.
Thus Afghan girls and women are blamed for causing or provoking violence, especially when they are trying to escape it. In trying to defend themselves, they also end up confronting other injustices such as beatings, kidnappings, and threats of honor killing – a vicious circle which they find difficult to escape.
None of the six women had much faith in the justice system. The authorities, including female lawyers and women-centered organizations, adopt a traditional attitude, with an inherent male bias, toward GBV survivors. Women are expected to follow the “morality framework” and remain subdued to maintain the status quo.
“I have no trust in the justice system. They [government and police officials] don’t want to work; they take bribes. If you know someone in the system, if you have the money, you can buy the law,” Tahmeena says.
“It’s easier for men. Men will sympathize with men.”
In the first six months of 2016, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported 5,132 new cases of violence against women, including 241 murders, in the country. In almost all cases, the perpetrators act with impunity.
Similarly, innumerable cases have been recorded of authorized violence against women, such as public lashings and executions ordered by local ulemas and jirgas (informal community courts and local councils) attended and chaired by powerful male fundamentalists who defend religious decrees in all parts of Afghanistan. The Afghan parliament in the past has attempted to make stoning legal for actions that violate Sharia law, such as adultery.
The government has clearly failed to fully implement the 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law, landmark legislation that came into force in Afghanistan through a presidential decree to protect girls and women’s rights. The law criminalized 22 acts of violence against women and other harmful practices. It, however, received stiff opposition from parliamentarians and has been waiting for approval for eight years.
Challenging Misogyny and Fundamentalism: A Top-Down Approach
While female Afghan activists and women rights organizations have been persistent in advocating for women’s rights and providing specialized services to the victims of GBV, they face tremendous challenges, even threats to their lives. They operate within an Islamic framework to present their perspectives, which would otherwise be rejected or ignored. In recent years there have been a continuing series of attacks and assassinations of high-profile female politicians and women rights’ activists, to which the government has categorically turned a blind eye.
However, some women remain undeterred by the threats and oppositions. The women-led anti-fundamentalist organization Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), whose own founding member was assassinated by an Afghan fundamentalist group, still works underground in Afghanistan. They continue to face threats from fundamentalist groups and enormous challenges due to a lack of international funding and support.
RAWA argues that the U.S. government is compliant in promoting fundamentalist values and can be blamed for the current situation of women in Afghanistan. While the United States and the UN have the power to influence the Afghan government, they have failed to make women’s and girls’ rights their prime agenda. Women are hardly ever consulted on key decisions that would have an impact on their lives.
Women’s subordination has its roots in their exclusion from the high-level political agenda. The prioritization of male voices leaves little room to make gender-neutral and equitable policies, perpetuating a cycle of violence that we can’t seem to control from generation-to-generation.
The United States plays a significantly powerful role in the decision-making processes of Afghanistan and its political reconciliation, which can be utilized to persuade Afghan leaders to decriminalize moral offenses and promote women’s rights using a top-down approach. That would be the real deal for Afghan women.
*Note: The names of the women in the article have been changed to protect their identities.
Ritu Mahendru is a freelance journalist based in London. She divides her time between Afghanistan, India, and the United Kingdom. Ritu has a Ph.D. in sociology and is a published author. She writes about gender, race, sexuality, migration, and conflict. Her work has appeared in Open Democracy, the Middle-East Eye, Arab Weekly, and Asian Global Impact. Ritu tweets as ritumahendru.