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Dubai's Women Inmates Happily Tied in Knots

The weekly yoga class draws a crowd at a prison in the United Arab Emirates. `Yoga makes me feel free,' one prisoner explains.

May 21, 2006|Lara Sukhtian | Associated Press Writer

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Every Saturday, the long-term prisoners at Dubai's jail for women pull on their workout clothes and dash to an hourlong yoga session to stretch their muscles, work off frustrations and calm their minds.

Harsh neon illuminates the dull concrete walls and floor in a room where the only natural light slants through narrow, barred windows near the ceiling.

Despite the setting, there is no question that the sessions of stretching, breathing exercises and meditation are the week's highlight for the women -- most of them foreigners -- locked up for crimes that include murder, drug-smuggling and prostitution.

"There are very few things that can give you joy when you're in jail. Yoga is one of them. It makes me happy, it makes me feel beautiful," said a Ukrainian prisoner serving a life sentence for murder. She spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with prison regulations.

Yoga classes are only one of the features that set the prison apart from others in the country. Maj. Fawziya Mullah, the warden, also allows the inmates to wear makeup so they will feel better about themselves.

"I'm a woman and I know that it's important to look good. They need a place to dye their hair, pluck their eyebrows and get a nice haircut," she said.

After taking the post three years ago, Mullah ordered shatterproof glass mirrors for the women's cells. In the prison's new complex to be completed in June, Mullah will have a beauty salon for the inmates.

A sign on her desk reads, "An ageless body and an uninhibited mind," a mantra she says she not only lives by but enforces among the inmates.

The main goal, she says, is reforming the 300 to 400 women who make their way to her prison cells every year.

"Yoga provides individuals with the ability to control their thoughts, their tempers, their emotions," Mullah said. "This is how we fight violence and aggression."

The young women seem transformed once the yoga class begins. They have shed gray prison garb for their own clothing. Giggles sometimes emerge as the women assume the sometimes awkward yoga positions.

Some say the Saturday class is the only prison experience that allows them a sense of normality.

"Yoga makes me feel free.... It transforms me physically, mentally and spiritually," said a Spanish prisoner serving a seven-year sentence for drug smuggling. She said it helped ease the pain of being away from her son, who last saw her just before her arrest six years ago. He was 2 at the time.

At first, the prison allowed the Art of Living Foundation, a worldwide volunteer-based group headquartered in Bangalore, India, to work with the inmates on a program of stress elimination and meditation. Soon there was yoga too, after the warden allowed volunteer instructors into the jail on a weekly basis.

"It will eventually give them inner peace ... and if they get a second chance at a life, they will not follow the same path," said Azita, an Iranian yoga instructor who would only give her first name.

The prison staff also is involved.

"Yoga teaches the prisoners to take control of themselves and their emotions. It's unacceptable for the prisoners to have self-control but for the staff not to," Mullah said.

Of the prison's 160 female inmates, only two are from the Emirates. The rest are from 48 other countries. At a recent yoga session, the 13 inmates were from six countries spread across Europe, Africa and Central Asia.

The prisoners are all taught Arabic and, if they choose, traditional embroidery skills. Once a year, they are allowed to wear civilian clothing -- on "wear normal clothes" day.

Mullah said authorities in many prisons forget that they have taken away the inmates' freedom and are forcing them to live a regimented life in a confined space.

"This causes serious depression, self-hatred, and breeds aggression," she said. "That's why we need to give them hope. We need to help them find peace so when they get out, they can live in peace with others."

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