Kabul’s central jail holds female prisoners whose only ‘crime’ is their refusal to be second-class citizens.by Ramita Navai
Sharifa Daadekhoda’s two-year-old daughter, Krishma, has never seen the outside world.
She was born in prison and she’ll be at least three when she is released. Her mother’s crime?
Running away from home.
Sharifa was 12 years old when she was forced to marry a 30-year-old man. He immediately began prostituting her, but Sharifa was too ashamed to tell her family and he would beat her if she complained.
After three years she gained enough confidence to run away but was caught 15 minutes from her parent’s house by the Taliban. As a woman travelling on her own, unaccompanied by a male family member, she was committing a crime.
When the Taliban realised she was also fleeing her husband she was instantly imprisoned. She was released after six months but forced to return to her husband.
A year later she fled and was caught again, receiving a longer sentence – only this time her captors had been installed by the American-led coalition. In President Hamid Karzai’s Afghanistan, women are still imprisoned for running away from home.
Snow-capped mountains look down on an imposing, crumbling fortress that rises up from the dusty plains that surround the city. Kabul Central Prison is pockmarked by bullets and bombs, the visible scars of 25 years of war.
There is no road to the prison, instead cars must negotiate the dirt tracks that cut across the rocky terrain. Inside the grounds, prison guards clutching Kalashnikovs mill about. A man walks a black, shiny goat on a rope while another has his hair cut in the ruins of a half-collapsed guard post.
Sharifa is jailed in the women’s block, a concrete slab with slits for windows. A thick smell of damp and urine fills the long, dark corridors as the drip-drip of water echoes along the hollow passage. Sharifa shares a room with a handful of other women. They huddle around a fire-heater in the corner of the room – it is bitterly cold. Electricity is a rarity in Afghanistan.
An ancient generator spits and rattles, sending grimy light bulbs limping into action, emitting a dim, orange hue over the cracked walls.
“When the Americans came I thought it would be better, but nothing has changed,” says Sharifa, with a shy smile.
There are 25 women and 21 children here, jailed for drugs offences, murder and “family matters” – which includes having sex outside of marriage. Many of the children, jailed with their mothers, have been in prison for years.
Sharifa does not know when she will be released, or where she will go when she comes out. For the women who have committed crimes against the family, returning to their communities and villages is not an option. In most cases, it was their families or neighbours who alerted the police to their “immoral” behaviour.
“The Taliban were awful but it is also just our way. In the villages a woman will be stoned to death if it is thought she is friendly with a man – this has been happening with or without the Taliban,” says Sharifa’s cellmate, 24-year-old Nouria.
She also ran away from an abusive husband, fleeing to a friend’s house. Rumours started circulating that she was behaving “inappropriately” with her friend’s small son and she was nearly lynched. Being taken to prison probably saved her life.
It was three years ago that George Bush triumphantly announced: “The mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school – today women are free.”
However, most women still wear the all-encompassing burqa, through fear of attack and social pressure, a third of women in Kabul do not leave the house, forbidden from doing so by the male members of the family, and it is still almost impossible for women to get a divorce.
It might be three years since the Taliban were toppled but age-old traditions and social attitudes are deeply engrained.
But there are a few signs of change. For the first time in the country’s history there is a Ministry for Women’s Affairs, Kabul’s first women-run radio station was launched this week and there is even a women’s fitness club.
Last month saw the opening of Afghanistan’s first job centre for women. Business has been slow. Since the fall of the Taliban, only 2-3% of women have returned to work.
“You can rebuild the city but you can’t change attitudes,” says Alischah Paenda, deputy head of a mission for AGEF, a German non-governmental organisation (NGO) partly funded by Britain, which is involved in setting up the job centre with the Ministry for Women’s Affairs.
“Jobs for women are very limited. Most women are not allowed to leave the house. And if they are allowed out, they can’t work in fields dominated by men as their families don’t want them mixing with the opposite sex.”
As most sectors in Afghanistan are male dominated, it’s a catch-22 situation. “Even if you work for an NGO you’re not considered very pure. It gives you a bad reputation,” Paenda says.
Another obstacle for the job centre is finding qualified women – after years of being banned from education, 90% of Afghan women are illiterate. Even today, centuries-old marriage traditions mean that 60% of Afghan girls are forced into marriage before they reach their 16th birthday and few husbands will allow their wives to go to school.
But Dr Massouda Jalal, the minister for women’s affairs, is hopeful. “Thirty-five per cent of girls are in school – that’s 5.5 million girls, the highest number in the history of Afghanistan,” she says.
One of three female ministers, Jalal was the only woman to run for president. She came sixth out of 18 candidates, securing 1.2% of the vote, something she is proud of.
“I did it on my own, ” she says. “I had no money, no army, no guns and no media.” Three of the candidates who beat her were warlords.
Jalal works more than 12 hours a day with one of the smallest ministerial budgets. She says women’s rights have been ignored by the inter national community, which has assumed women have attained instant freedom since the fall of the Taliban.
“The West believes in equal rights, but why don’t they help us bring it here?” says Jalal. Of all the ministries, hers has the fewest foreign workers – vital for imparting knowledge in an emerging country.
But she is certain local attitudes will change: “Nothing is impossible. When the new constitution is implemented things will start to change faster. It states equal rights for men and women and that all negative traditional practices will be stopped. But it will take time, patience, resources and security.” In a country divided by ethnic clans and warlords and terrorised by extremists, it could be a long wait, but Jalal will never give up.
“What I want for the women of Afghanistan is exactly the same as what I want for my two daughters,” she says.
“I want them to have a healthy, educated, enlightened, respected, secure life. A happy life. And that is what I am fighting for.”
Sharifa can only hope that will happen in her lifetime.
Copyright © 2005 smg sunday newspapers ltd. no.176088