Visiting women’s prisons in Afghanistan is a sobering affair. At the prison in Mazar i Sharif, women and men share the same prison compound but the women’s section is behind a locked metal door just off the main courtyard. Behind this door are forty women and fourteen young children. Inside is a small courtyard and two small rooms where these convicted prisoners and their children spend their days. This multi-purpose communal space is all these women will see for the duration of their sentence. It serves as their sleeping quarters, daycare, dining hall and classroom.
We walk through a small doorway out of the rain and into the larger of the two rooms where a sea of multi colored headscarves fills up the entire space. Women of all ages and several young children and babies are learning to read and write. The sea turns to see who has arrived and miraculously parts to allow us space to enter.
These women comprise the entire female population for the whole province. They are convicted of murder, robbery, prostitution, and the ever-ambiguous crime of adultery. We are offered one of the few floor cushions and one of the prisoners brings us tea and a small plate of cookies, Afghan etiquette firmly in place, even in prison.
As we begin to talk, one woman emerges as the leader de facto of the group. A fiery woman, with an easy a laugh in a white headscarf, sits at the front of the class. Maidezel freely admits that she is guilty of murder and says she is sentenced for 18 years. A fellow prisoner nudges her and asks, “Why did you say that, you should have lied!” Maidezel just laughs and makes her way through the crowd to sit directly in front of us. Her 12-year-old daughter lives with her husband but neither come to visit her in prison. Dr. Fazee says she is charged with the murder of her son, but Maidezel won’t elaborate further. When asked about the conditions, she says they are happy that the government gives them food and that she is learning to read and write. “I must be happy here or I will not be released.”
A young woman, Armeene, sits down next to me with her tiny three-month-old daughter, Suyafa. Both her and her husband are in jail and her young daughter will be raised here until Armeene is released or Suyafa reaches age six. She is one of fourteen children being raised in the prison. Once they are school age, they will either join their other siblings at home or become temporary wardens of the government at an orphanage set up for children of prisoners. Either way, their early years are spent in the same crowded and sparse confines as their mothers.
Forty women sleep in these two small rooms side by side, a few choosing space in exchange for the chill of sleeping outside in the courtyard. These women spent 24 hours a day within a few feet of each other and rather than turn against each other, they build a community of sisterhood, taking care of each other and the children. As if to prove the point, Maidezel is passed one of the younger babies, which she places in her lap as though it’s her own. As we continue to talk more and more women from outside join us and soon it is though we are facing a female jirga. The room is filled to capacity with women sitting cross-legged, many with children in their lap.
Many don’t have any idea of the length of their term, and Dr. Fazee says that’s because many asked not to know. They seem to be the ones with the longest potential sentences, those in for murder. The majority of the women here are charged with murder and adultery. Nineteen-year-old Sayra gets released tomorrow. With vibrantly dyed red hair, she sits snapping chewing gum in the back of the group. She has spent 3 months in jail with a vague charge of runaway. She says her husband is also in jail, which seems to set up a squabble among the women, many saying that he’s not her husband. Prostitution seems the likely offense, especially given the short sentence.
We move into the smaller room which doubles as the vocational room during the day, two sewing machines set up in the middle of the small space. Sleeping blankets piled up in the corner, with an older woman resting on the pile. Here the women learn handicrafts and tailoring in the hopes that they develop a useable skill that they can use when they are released. Maidezel follows us in, taking a place behind one of the sewing machines, asserting her authority as it were. A beautiful woman sits behind another in the corner, smiling kindly at us occasionally while she works. Several more children join us and when the camera comes out the mood in the room shifts and suddenly the children are clamoring for photographs to be taken, jabbering to us in Dari, and all smiles when we show them their photo.
The woman in the back, 30 year old Shakeela, smiles broadly at the children. Her youngest, 4 year old Hujasta, is in the photo-centric group and has been hamming it up for the camera. Shakeela is one of several women in here convicted of murdering her husband. Many of these women were sold, or forced into marriages with much older men, beaten and raped. Divorce is not an option, neither is simply running away. Some of these women are charged with adultery, which is often a false crime as the women are most often raped by a male family member or friend and to save face the blame is placed on her to bear. These women are often disowned by their families and as convicted criminals, outcasts by Afghan society. The handful of social workers that are working with the prisoners focus their work on liasioning with the families to educate them and build sustainable bonds so that these women don’t end up on the street. At the same time, literacy and vocational programming is the key to giving the women the tools they need to build a better life for themselves when they are released, and the children a decent start on life despite spending their young lives behind bars.
photo by Travis Beard