Stuck in Afghan jail, prisoners of tradition

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.

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.

"What we're working on is putting provisions in the marriage contract, where there are guidelines for divorce," says Borrey. "There are ways of working around the existing law so that we don't have to wait for changes in the law."

Angela's Afghan lawyers - who are paid by Medicam Mondiale - are visiting the prison today. It seems Angela's father has a compromise to offer. If she says Jani kidnapped her, she will be released. But that, of course, might mean that the man she loves will rot in prison while she goes free - relatively speaking. She's not sure of her safety once she's outside the prison.

"At first, my father said he would kill me for this," says Angela, the daughter of a policeman. "Now he says he's not going to kill me. But I don't know if I can trust him."

To get out, she must sign documents she can't read - she has never been to school - blaming it all on Jani. "I have to say he abducted me. My father wants him in prison," she sobs. "My father says, 'You will be released, and I will tell the people in the area that he was a bad guy and it's his fault.' And even if I do find a way to marry Jani, then my life will be terrible because my father will be like an enemy to me."

Rana Said, a white-haired prison warden, grimaces sympathetically. At 42, she's been working in law enforcement for 20 years. In comparison with life under the Taliban, she says, things are better. She and the other female prison guards are no longer expected to drag female prisoners accused of adultery off to the public stadium to be whipped or stoned. But, she says, women still have no power in Afghan society, and cannot make life decisions such as whom to marry without their fathers' consent.

"There is no respect for women here, whether she's working or at home. Rights are something on paper," says Ms. Said. "It doesn't really matter what women want." She looks around at the decrepit brown walls that are falling into a deeper state of decay. "Sometimes I regret that I took this position," she says.

Indeed, for a salary of $20 a month, Said finds herself in what may be one of the saddest workplaces in Kabul. The prison feels like Wuthering Heights meets Dungeons and Dragons - a combination of epic love stories and Spartan quarters. Lacking indoor plumbing, the women draw water from a pump in the dirt courtyard. There is intermittent electricity, and no glass on the windows, making it particularly cold for the 15 children here, some of them infants.

Shakeba, who has been in prison for 1-1/2 years, is here with Ravina, her 11-month-old baby. She had been married before while living as a refugee in Iran. But she divorced her first husband there and later returned to Kabul. After remarrying, her first husband claimed they had never been divorced. Shakeba, who didn't keep her divorce papers with her when she came to Afghanistan, was put in jail.

"Someone told her first husband that the second husband would kill him," one of the women explained as the cellmates huddled on their cots. The room holds six women and three children, packed in with almost indiscernible spaces between them.

"I blame my first husband for telling the authorities this lie, but I blame myself for not having my divorce papers," says Shakeba, putting her lips to Ravina's cheek. By day, the children have little to do and do not attend school. By night, Ravina and other babies sleep in their mothers' cots. Shakeba wants to find a home for her; her mother and sister are in other parts of the country, she says, leaving no one with whom she could leave Ravina. Many young children of women in prison, with nowhere else to go, do time with their mothers. "I wish someone could take the baby," she says. "It's cold here at night."

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