This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
While the fall of the hard-line Islamist Taliban in 2001 helped to reduce violence against women in Afghanistan, women there still have a long way to go in terms of living in safety. As foreign troops leave the territory and the international presence becomes more discreet, funding and support for development programs is also being reduced. Fears about a potential spike in violence against women and a societal return to more traditional values have also arisen.
One of the most recent examples of extreme violence against women was in March, when a female student was beaten to death with sticks by a crowd of men in central Kabul. Her body was subsequently set on fire and dragged into the city's main river. The death of the 27-year-old girl, who according to Reuters had been "wrongly accused of burning a Qur'an," sparked violent protests on the streets of the city.
Islamic law is still widely applied in Afghanistan, and "zina," which refers to sexual intercourse between two people outside marriage, leads to the condemnation and imprisonment of many women.
Polish-Canadian photographer Gabriela Maj traveled to seven female prisons in Afghanistan and spoke to over 100 women who had been incarcerated for "moral crimes." She presents their stories in pictures in her book Almond Garden. The book's title is a direct translation of the name of the country's most famous female penitentiary, Badam Bagh, located on the outskirts of Kabul. I called Gabriela for a chat about what her visits to those prisons have taught her.
VICE: Hi, Gabriela. Can you tell me a bit more about the conditions women live in within those prisons?
Gabriela Maj: There are usually about five to ten women per cell. Cells are open during the day, so they're free to move around and spend time in the open space (if there is one). Generally, conditions are very basic, but acceptable. Women all have access to running water and toilets. There are two meals a day.
What's interesting is that the facilities are generally relatively new—they were recently built thanks to foreign funding. For example, the Italian government recently spent a fair amount of money on them.
What had the women you photographed been incarcerated for?
A lot of women have been arrested for moral crimes. This refers to the ways a woman may be accused of "zina," which could include running away from home or from a forced marriage, being raped, sometimes having an involuntary pregnancy as a consequence…
These are innocent women who live in open prison facilities, often alongside women who are dangerous and potentially displaying violent behavior. That makes for a very volatile and difficult environment, especially to raise a child. There is no mental health support, though often women are often suffering from PTSD.
In your book, you mention that some women were actually guilty of committing crimes, like killing their husbands or aggressors by strangling them or slitting their throats. In these cases, did you feel the sentence was "deserved"?
Most of them have been unjustly arrested and incarcerated. After a while I stopped distinguishing between those who were "guilty" or "not guilty"—had these women had different life experiences, access to education, or a legal system that could offer protection for victims of abuse, they would have probably made different choices. Many times, I thought I could have done the same thing as them. What would you do if you were forced into prostitution by your husband or raped by strangers?
Did some stories make you feel particularly uneasy?
There was only one person that I would say I felt a sense of "unease" around. It was a woman who was a serial killer, who'd been arrested alongside five male family members for 137 counts of murder. She had been the victim of abuse from a very young age and was constantly exposed to that horrific violence she was taking part in alongside those men. It was evident that she suffered some serious psychological repercussions. She was unpredictable and had violent outbursts.
In the pictures, many women are posing with their children. Do they actually give birth in prison? Are children able to stay on and live with their mothers?
Many women are arrested while pregnant, often as a result of rape or of an illegitimate relationship outside of marriage. In some cases, they deliver the child in special facilities outside the prison, but in many cases that option just isn't there.
As the incarceration often involves a moral crime, families sometimes reject both the mother and her child, as the understanding of "zina" is that it brings tremendous shame to the family. In worst case scenarios, there is even a threat of death, as honor killings still happen a lot in Afghanistan. This also means that the child may have nowhere to go outside the prison. Kids are technically able to stay in the prison up until the age of about five.
What happens to them when they leave?
They either go back to the family, or some of them end up in shelters for children. Unfortunately, many also end up on the streets and have very few opportunities. It just shows how this aspect of justice not only drains very limited resources—it costs a lot to maintain these women in prison—but also destroys communities and families. It shatters not only the lives of women, but children, too.
In the book you also mention prostitution networks within the prisons. Could you expand on that?
I didn't witness it with my eyes, but I heard many mentions of it—both by guards and by people outside [of the prisons]—over the course of the five years I was traveling there. Women in the prison also talked about it. A recently appointed prison director I once met also spoke to me very openly about the fact that he was replacing a predecessor who'd been engaging in sexual exploitation of the prisoners.
Are there endemic judicial problems in Afghanistan, or is the idea of "moral crime" still deeply rooted in people's minds after all this time?
The justice system in Afghanistan is riddled with corruption, and a significant conservative contingent still has power in the Afghan government. But if it were just a policy issue, it would be an easy fix. The issue lies with the fact that it's a larger societal perception. In the families I spent time with, women were horrified that I spent time with incarcerated women, and specifically women who'd been accused of moral crimes.
It's almost like a death sentence in Afghan society to be accused of this—it's something that's reacted to very strongly. This idea of bringing shame to your family is almost the worst thing you can do as a woman. Associating with such women is almost seen as associating with lepers.
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Are there any support groups locally?
Women for Afghan Women, which is partly funded by independent donors internationally, is a grassroots organization run in Afghanistan by Afghan women. They run a system of shelters for women who have ran away from their families or who are leaving prison and have nowhere to go. They also run educational programs for kids and offer legal support. The demand is, however, much greater than what they're able to offer.
Is there enough help coming from the international community?
After 2001 [and the fall of the Taliban], there was a lot of funding from the international community through programs supporting women's health and education. There were programs in the prisons that included literacy training and basic skills training, to enable these women to somehow ensure a certain income after they leave the prison.
At this point, though, much of that has dried up. As troops are being withdrawn, so is a lot of support and aid for the country. The situation for these women is desperate and hopeless. It's almost worse when they leave the prison, because they don't have the tools and resources to secure a life for themselves.
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