As told by Heather Barr, Human Rights Watch's Afghanistan researcher
It was winter when I interviewed Tahmina at a Kabul prison for girls. Six to eight girls lived in each room, and although I preferred to interview each of them privately, the girls all wanted to stay together and hear what everyone had to say. So together, we sat on the carpeted floor and listened to Tahmina’s story.
Facing a forced marriage that she didn’t want, Tahmina told me, she ran away from home, trying to find the boy she liked. Instead she encountered two men who kidnapped and raped her. Afterward, the two men took her to a neighborhood elder, who took her to the police station. She was arrested and found guilty of “moral crimes” – specifically, running away, and, because of the rape, zina, or sex outside of marriage.
Almost all girls in juvenile detention in Afghanistan have been arrested for moral crimes, while about half the women in Afghan prisons were arrested on these charges. These “crimes” usually involve flight from unlawful forced marriage or domestic violence. Some women and girls, like Tahmina, have been convicted of zina after being raped or forced into prostitution.
The fall of the Taliban government in 2001 promised a new era of women’s rights. Significant improvements have occurred in education, maternal mortality, employment, and the role of women in public life and governance. Yet the imprisonment of women and girls for “moral crimes” is just one sign of the difficult present and worrying future Afghanistan’s women and girls face – especially as the international community substantially decreases its commitments in the country.
Discrimination against women in Afghanistan is rampant, and the abuse can be appalling. Domestic violence or forced marriages are rarely prosecuted. Women who try to flee abusive situations often face apathy and derision from the police and courts.
Tahmina was the 25th woman I interviewed for the report, I Had to Run Away. I spoke with 58 women altogether. What was hardest and most upsetting about these interviews was what the women thought would happen to when they were released from prison. About one-third said they would probably be murdered by their families.
Many of the women and girls seemed to have given up hope. Sometimes, interviewing them was like talking to a person who was already dead. They saw their lives as finished.
But not Tahmina. She came across as a romantic teen-age girl. She had a passport-sized photo of the boy she loved, the one she ran away from home to find. All the women in the cold room passed the photo around and agreed that he was cute. In her future, she believed that she and this boy would be together. (I was skeptical.)
She kept her romantic notions despite the fact that, during her trial, the court did not believe that she had been raped, as no one heard her scream. She was also blamed for the attack, as women who go out at night “are followed by certain dangers.” She also did not know whether the men who raped her were convicted of zina, though they too had sex outside of marriage.
Tahmina and the other girls felt safe in the prison. Female prisons in Afghanistan have a feeling of sanctuary about them. The female guards inside her prison seemed compassionate.
And in prison, no one outside could hurt them.