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With news of the assassination of the second female minister in Afghanistan this week, CIR looks at the oppression and intimidation of Afghan women and the implications for their security as the U.S. withdraws its troops. The story takes viewers inside women’s prisons in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif to provide a rare glimpse of a shocking aspect of Afghan society little known to the outside world. The majority of Afghan women in prison have committed no other crime than being in love with the wrong man – or running away from abusive husbands who were selected by their fathers.

Soheila: I did not want to be with him, he had two wives already. My father wanted to take me to Nuristan to get married with that man. As soon as I learned, I ran away with my lover. When my father found me, he put me in prison.

[On-screen text: The majority of women in Afghan prisons have committed what courts have deemed “moral crimes.”]

[They are jailed for refusing arranged marriages, running away from home, marrying without family consent and attempting adultery.]

[Title card: Prisoners of Tradition: Women in Afghanistan]

Yakta Azad*: Afghanistan is a male-dominated society. Fathers and brothers are the ones who decide every aspect of a woman’s life. In the poorest villages, daughters are still sold in marriage for a piece of land or money. Often they can be as young as 9 years old.

[On-screen text: In 2004, Afghanistan revised its constitution to include more freedoms and rights for women.]

Azad: In theory, Afghan law is very similar to many Western countries, but the reality is radically different.

[On-screen text: Gul Ghutai, women’s right’s lawyer]

Gul Ghutai: If the husband disappears for more than three years, Afghan law says the wife can go to court and ask for a divorce. But according to Shari’a law, a woman has to wait for her husband for 70 years. The judge will give his verdict with consideration to both Shari’a law and civil law.

[On-screen text: Women’s prison in Kabul]

[Inmates: 155]

[Soheila, 23]

Soheila: They gave me six years of prison, and I have been here for the past 17 months.

Azad: In exchange for a piece of land, Soheila’s father demanded she marry and become the third wife to an older man. Instead, she ran away and married her lover. Her father found her and had her arrested, even though she was pregnant.

Born in prison, her son is one of 42 children in Badam Bagh. Prison is the only home many of them know.

Soheila: Here I don’t have a life. My child does not have a future. Living in prison is difficult. But if I go to be with my husband, my father will kill me.

[On-screen text: Soheila’s husband, Policharki Prison]

Soheila’s husband: I think girls should not marry until they are 18, and then they should be able to get married with whomever they like. It is not right that fathers sell their daughters for money!

Nobody could have arrested me if I had not gone to the police and handed myself over – but I did it because I love her. I thought it couldn’t be possible that she stays in prison and I be free.

[On-screen text: Under Afghan law the legal age for marriage is 16 for women and 18 for men.]

[But according to the United Nations, nearly 60 percent of girls are married before they turn 16.]

[Soheila’s father]

Azad: Soheila’s father still visits her in prison. He says that as soon as she accepts his choice of husband she will be freed. Soheila says he is only thinking about his piece of land.

Soheila’s father: Islamic law says an 8-, 9-, 10-year-old girl belongs to whomever the father marries her to. That’s it.

[Off-screen question] So the father can marry his daughter to any man, no matter how old he is? Is this the Islamic law?

Soheila’s father: Yes.

[Off-screen question]: Or is it the law of Afghanistan?

Soheila’s father: Afghan law.

Azad: Most Afghans don’t know a lot about laws, even about Shari’a laws, because of the lack of education. In fact, the majority of judges don’t have a university education.

[On-screen text: Less than one-third of adults in Afghanistan are literate.]

Ghutai: In Afghan law, running away from home is not a crime unless it’s in connection with adultery.

[On-screen text: Women’s prison in Mazar-e-Sharif

Inmates: 69]

Azad: But the prison in Mazar-e-Sharif is filled with women who ran away from home. In reality, many were escaping forced marriages or abusive husbands.

Latifeh: I went to a male neighbor and begged him to do whatever he could to free me from my husband.

[On-screen text: Latifeh, 18]

We would fight every night. My husband would put a pillow on my mouth and sit on my head as if he wanted to kill me. Only when I was close to dying did he let me free. My husband was very abusive. I could not tolerate it anymore. If I didn’t get married I would have liked to go to school.

Azad: Many women fear for their lives when they get out of prison. There are few places they can go to be safe.

[On-screen text: Disguised as residential homes, safe houses have been established by NGOs, giving women a chance to escape honor killings by their families.]

[Samirah, 23]

Samirah: “Don’t come home; your brother will kill you,” my mother hugged me and whispered in my ear when she came and visited me. The real story is we are rich, and he is poor. I say, this is my life! I want to marry him. Still my family didn’t want me to marry him, and in the trials they bribed the judges.

In 19 days it will be two years that I have been in the safe house.

I think I will be here for the rest of my life. I want to be alone with my sadness.

Azad: With no skills, education or a support system outside, once a woman enters a safe house, she finds it difficult to leave.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Afghanistan was actually a modern country. Women used to go to universities and had jobs. They could walk around the city with skirts.

But once the Taliban came to power, women were forced to wear burqas and were banned from schools and the workplace.

Although the Taliban was overthrown in 2001, the effects of fundamentalist rule remain.

Today, violence against women is part of the norm in Afghanistan.

[On-screen text: The U.N. estimates 70 to 80 percent of marriages in Afghanistan are forced.]

[In a 2008 Human Rights Watch survey, 87 percent of women had experienced at least one form of sexual, physical or psychological abuse.]

Ghutai: The responsibility of Afghanistan’s society is not just to educate women – it is also to educate men. Many boys from childhood on, when they are 9 or 10 years old, start to work in order to support their families. Once they start to work, nobody pays attention to their education, and they never learn about women’s rights.

Azad: What will happen to women when international security forces leave? Many fear a return to Taliban rule. Human rights leaders continue fight for reform so that women in Afghanistan can freely follow their dreams.


Reporter and videographer: Yakta Azad

Producer and video editor: Ariane Wu

* To protect her identity, the reporter’s name has been changed.

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Ariane Wu is Series Producer, Multimedia for The Center for Investigative Reporting. She is passionate about discovering new ways of telling stories visually and through sound. She was previously a Fulbright scholar based in Beijing, as well as a new media fellow at the Asia Society. Ariane holds bachelor’s degrees in film studies and political science from UC Berkeley.