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Afghanistan's Prisoners of Love

Even now, women can be imprisoned for violating Islamic moral codes. Inmates include abuse victims and those forced into prostitution.

March 02, 2003|Christopher Bodeen | Associated Press Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan — After years apart, Shekeba's former husband came back to take away their children and break her heart.

Then he accused her of remarrying five years earlier without getting a divorce, something that the illiterate countrywoman thought she had obtained with a sheaf of papers that -- unbeknownst to her -- he had never signed.

Remarriage without divorce is a serious crime in Afghanistan.

A judge last year sentenced Shekeba to six years in Kabul's drafty, filthy prison for women, where many of the 14 other inmates are serving similar terms for violating Islamic moral statutes. Her second husband received a five-year sentence in the adjoining men's prison for marrying another man's wife.

"He didn't know anything. He thought I was a widow," said Shekeba, a frail 25-year-old who, like many Afghans, uses only one name.

Her month-old child from her second marriage was born in a hospital, but now mother and baby are in prison together.

"If we had money, we could have gotten shorter sentences, but we don't have anything, and now no one comes to see us or ask about us," she said.

Cases like Shekeba's tell of the enduring power of the conservative Islamic justice system in Afghanistan, where the fall of the Taliban in late 2001 lifted some onerous restrictions on women but didn't shake the fundamental primacy of Islamic and tribal law.

It's especially true for husbands and wives. Women with little status or education have almost no recourse against perceived grievances brought by in-laws. Death remains a punishment for adultery, although it isn't known whether such sentences have been meted out since the Taliban's fall.

While Afghan legal officials talk about improvements in the quality of justice -- such as ensuring the right to a fair trial and appeal -- they hold that Islamic-based law will continue to form the basis of the system.

After the nation's 23 years of near-constant conflict, thousands of widows are living in dire poverty and ignorance, and must cope with a masculine culture of violence in which men with guns still have the final say.

The imprisoned women believe that they have little chance of a reduced sentence, and a sense of hopelessness pervades the tiny cell house on Kabul's outskirts. Conditions are harsh despite the outwardly sympathetic guards and the touches of home, such as flowers and checkered tablecloth.

Lunch is a dish of plain rice. Supper consists of plain potatoes, supplemented by whatever can be provided by their families. Washing is done around a well in a dusty inner yard, while inside, grime climbs up the walls and the women squeeze into a single room for sleeping to keep warm during frigid winter nights.

With little to do but look after children and chat, the women welcome a visit from reporters who ask to hear their stories.

Zarghona, another prisoner, said she had been married just three months when her mother-in-law invited a group of unfamiliar men to their house and told Zarghona to keep them entertained.

"I told her that I didn't know them and asked her who they were. She just said, 'Go in there and you'll get to know them,' and then the men closed the door and misbehaved with me," Zarghona said, declining to give details but implying that she was forced to have sex with the men.

Islamic judges often view victimized women with skepticism. Even after Zarghona fled to a neighbor's home to escape continuing abuse, a court held her accountable and sentenced her to three years in prison for prostitution. Her husband got a six-year sentence, but her mother-in-law faced no time behind bars.

Zarghona, showing a missing portion of her ear that she said was sliced off in a fight with her husband, said she endured constant physical abuse from him and his family.

"The court questioned why these things had been permitted to continue more than once," she said, holding her 7-month-old son, Balal. "I didn't have any lawyer to represent me."

Sharifa, who said she is 20 but looks older, told a similar tale. Her brother-in-law forced her to have sex with men that he brought to their house, and her husband refused to confront him and told her to keep quiet.

"My husband had no spine," she said.

She fled their home but was arrested outside Kabul. A Taliban judge threw her in jail for six months for running away from home. Rather than go home after her release, she found another husband and remarried.

But it wasn't long before her first husband's family tracked Sharifa down and brought her and her second husband before a judge, this time under the current U.S.-backed regime that replaced the Taliban. The judge sentenced her to five years for illegal remarriage. Her husband got a four-year sentence.

"Now my family says I've disgraced them. They won't come and visit, even though I've told them about my brother-in-law," Sharifa said. "I just ask them: 'What would you do in my place?' "

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