Trailer for “To Kill a Sparrow” from CIR on Vimeo.

When Soheila was 5 years old, her brother broke tribal law in Afghanistan. He stole another man’s wife.

Soheila has been paying for his crime ever since.

Her father had to make amends. So he gave away Soheila to be the man’s wife. But when she grew up, she didn’t want to be with a man in his 70s. Instead, she ran off with her love, Niaz Mohammad.  

They both ended up in prison for it, and they are the focus of filmmaker Zohreh Soleimani’s documentary film “To Kill a Sparrow.” Throughout the film, Soheila and Niaz are confronted with the fallout of their romance: Soheila has nowhere to go after being released from prison – her family won’t take her back unless she kills the son she had with Niaz. Meanwhile, Niaz’s health deteriorates inside a men’s prison.

I spoke with Soleimani before the premiere of “To Kill a Sparrow” at The European Independent Film Festival in Paris to learn more about her documentary and how long-standing traditions in Afghanistan put women at risk.

In the film, you focus on Soheila’s story, but there are so many other women in similar situations. What did these women do wrong?

At the women’s prisons in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, I saw the same stories of women who ran away from their house because of abusive husbands or abusive fathers or brothers. And although (running away from home) is not a crime in Afghanistan constitutional law, no one really cares and they put them in prison.

What made you choose to tell Soheila’s story in particular?

I think because many of (these women) are illiterate, they can’t even really tell their own story, and many of them were afraid to talk, were afraid to be shown on TV or any media, and then they were afraid their family would do something against them.

But Soheila, I think she’s a very brave woman and she was the one who could talk and tell her story. But many others that I’ve met in the same situation, basically they didn’t do any crime according to the constitutional law of Afghanistan. They want to live as any human being. They want to live with the partner that they want to, not the one that fathers force them to be with because of a piece of land or money or because of exchange in the family.  

Where do women like Soheila who’ve been put in jail go from there?

With most of the women like Soheila, running away from home means dishonoring the family. That’s why in this traditional society, these women don’t have any place in their home anymore. They can’t really return to their parents’ house. They can’t really go back to their husband’s house, to their home.

The presidential election in Afghanistan is just days away. Is there any indication of what the results of that election would mean for the future of women’s rights there?

Honestly, I think the problem is not the president or the system.

The situation will be the same as they had been before during (the regime of President Hamid) Karzai, because the problem in Afghanistan is not the system – it’s the tradition. I think it’s because tradition is still more strong than laws and also because of the Taliban and extremists. I can’t say just all Taliban, because there are a lot of people who believe there are no rights for women. Look at Soheila’s father. He’s not the Taliban, but he believes women don’t have any rights in that country.

The problem is not the country, the problem is not the president. The problem is the extremists who live in the country.

There is one scene in which you are sitting on the floor with Soheila’s father and brother, and they’re telling you that the only way Soheila can come back home is if she kills her son. As a female filmmaker in that situation, how was that interaction?

For a people who had more than 30 years (of) war, who are used to seeing assassination, who are used to seeing millions of people who were killed around themselves – I think that’s why most of them really look at killing and murdering like a regular thing in daily life.

Sometimes, it was really, really hard to react. When Soheila’s brother told me, “We are not afraid of killing … killing her is like killing a sparrow,” inside, I was really, really upset. It was a little bit scary because I was in the suburb of Kabul, and if anything happened to you, nobody would really know. It’s like if you do something wrong, they could kill you like a sparrow almost.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Watch a clip of “To Kill a Sparrow” that aired on PBS NewsHour:

Kelly Chen is a news engagement specialist at The Center for Investigative Reporting. She manages the day-to-day social media strategies and online engagement for CIR. In addition, she works to break down complex issues and ideas and create content for CIR's online communities. Kelly also works to increase engagement on cironline.org and on other online platforms. Previously, she produced discussion segments for PBS NewsHour and oversaw social media and engagement efforts for the American Graduate project, a public media initiative on the high school dropout crisis. She's also worked at Southern California Public Radio and National Geographic TV. A native of Los Angeles, she studied international relations and English at UC Davis.