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Stuck in Afghan jail, prisoners of tradition

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 28, 2004


It's a universal love story - she fell for the boy next door. But their romance has had an otherworldly outcome: the 18-year-old woman who ran off to marry the man of her dreams is now locked up at Kabul women's prison, being held for the crime of defying her family's wishes.

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Behind these crumbling prison walls, in series of cold, crude cells where women sleep eight to a room, lies a medieval reality that sits just across the street from Kabul's bustling downtown district full of shops where foreign visitors pick up carpets and leather jackets. Angela, who fears having her real name used, is one of many of those imprisoned here for so-called "love crimes" - relationship choices that, while unremarkable in the developed world, are grounds for imprisonment here.

Angela had known Jani Alam, a neighbor, all her life, and the two wanted to marry. But her father had other plans. He made a match for Angela with a man about 40 years her senior. After Angela was sent to the province of Wardak to be with the man in an exchange for a bride price, Angela was miserable and ran away almost immediately.

"People said to me, 'Look how your father is cutting deals over you,' " Angela blurts out. She takes a corner of her black headscarf and wipes her face and eyes, blurred by a watery glaze that comes from constant crying. "So I left."

When she came back to Kabul, she and Jani Alam decided to elope. But when they tried to go to a municipal office to have a civil marriage, the officials there informed her father. Without his permission, they would not marry the young couple.

Angela's father wouldn't agree to the marriage. And because the young couple had run off together, they were considered to have already cohabited, making them adulterers. Now they're both stuck in jail - he in another building on the same prison grounds.

During a visit late last fall, well over half of the 28 women in this prison were here for similar reasons. With the country still in a state of postwar flux, the law itself is fuzzy on the subject; a mix of ancient traditions and cues from sharia, or Islamic law, rule instead.

Uncertain justice

Afghan law does not explicitly state whether people can choose whom they want to marry. To marry without parental consent, a young woman must be older than 16, or for a young man, 18. But custom is often more influential than law, says Anou Borrey, manager of legal projects for Medicam Mondiale, a German aid group.

"Parents think they need to give their consent," says Dr. Borrey, and authorities follow their lead.

Eloping, however, can officially be treated as a crime. "That's often because payment has been done as part of the engagement to someone else," she explains. "If there's an engagement that takes place and money is exchanged and a woman runs away, she's in breach of the law. Sometimes, a woman is in jail for her own safety," she says, in need of protection from family members with the couple for defying parents' wishes. Police and the women themselves are often unaware of a limited number of shelters where they can turn for assistance.

Afghanistan's new Constitution, adopted last December, promises that men and women will have equal rights. But some women's rights advocates had hoped for far more explicit provisions. It will take years before the civil law is reviewed and applied to such cases, says Borrey. In the meantime, Medicam Mondiale is providing legal aid for women in prison, working with local lawyers to help in their cases. Of 66 cases they've taken on so far, they've won the release of 40 women, she says.

The right to divorce

They are also trying to prevent the next generation of tragic stories by changing the way marriage contracts are made, giving women the right to initiate divorce in certain circumstances.