A prisoner covers her face while sitting outside a room that she shares with 15 other women prisoners in March 2010. Women in Afghanistan face serious barriers to obtaining custody of their children in the event of a divorce. Several women told Human Rights Watch that when they left prison they would have to choose between returning to an abusive husband with custody of their children or never seeing their children again. Most planned to return to their husbands.

© 2010 Farzana Wahidy

Afghanistan’s most famous star-crossed couple, 18-year-old Zakia and 21-year-old Mohammad Ali, eloped in March for love. Since then, they’ve reaped death threats from their relatives. They both also face possible imprisonment: Mohammad Ali for kidnapping, and Zakia for a crime that has no legal basis in Afghan law and violates international human rights standards – “running away.”

Human Rights Watch has estimated that some 95 percent of girls and 50 percent of women imprisoned in Afghanistan had been accused or convicted of “moral crimes,” such as running away from home or zina (sex outside of marriage). These moral crimes usually involve flight from unlawful forced marriages or domestic violence.

Statistics from Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry indicate that the number of women and girls imprisoned for “moral crimes” in Afghanistan had risen to about 600 in May 2013 from 400 in October 2011 – a 50 percent increase in a year-and-a-half. Since October 2011, there has been an almost 30 percent increase overall in the number of women and girls imprisoned in Afghanistan’s prisons and juvenile detention facilities.

Zakia and Mohammad Ali’s plight illustrates how abusive and pervasive the interpretation and punishment of moral crimes remains in Afghanistan. The couple eloped because her family did not approve of their marriage. In response, Zakia’s parents reportedly threatened to kill her to defend the family’s honor, claiming that Zakia was already married (without her consent) to a relative. Her parents were reportedly also incensed that Zakia, an ethnic Tajik, and a Sunni Muslim, would bring shame on the family by marrying Mohammad Ali, an ethnic Hazara, and Shia.  

On June 6, six of Zakia’s male relatives reportedly abducted Mohammad Ali off of a street in downtown Kabul and took him to a police station. Muhammad Ali now reportedly faces prosecution for kidnapping Zakia, an offense that can result in the death penalty. To protect herself from attack by her family, Zakia turned herself in to one of Afghanistan’s few women’s shelters, where she will remain pending a court verdict on a charge of bigamy laid by her family. The police station chief has stated that there is pressure from senior officials to keep them locked up.

A long-term solution for ending the crime of “running away” is desperately needed in Afghanistan. Both candidates in this Saturday’s election for president have voiced support for women’s rights. An early order of business for the next president is to issue an administrative decree that “running away” should not be treated as a crime under Afghan law, and pardon everyone convicted of it. Until they do, Afghanistan’s women and girls – and couples such as Zakia and Muhammad Ali – will remain under threat.