The day I went to visit the women’s jail in Herat Province with two other women journalists, we had to wait a long time to get permission to enter. The jail is located in the heart of the city and is secured by Afghan National Police and hidden security cameras.
First we met General Abdul Majid Sadeqi, the general director of the west zone. He told us how the jail came about.
“After the fall of the Taliban regime, I became the commander of the west zone prisons. There was nothing left after the Taliban. We started from zero. Through the support of the international community we reconstructed the jail for males and females.
“Now it is like a guest house for them. We wanted to make it a place to learn life skills for the people so we built a jail for women that has space for 400. Currently we have about 130 female prisoners. They are sentenced from three months to 20 years for different types of crimes, like murder, escaping from the house, and other crimes.”
Sadeqi said the women are given the opportunity in jail to learn to read and write, weave carpets, and learn English and computer skills. “They can have their children with them,” he added.
After we finished talking with him we asked to talk to the women in the jail to see whether what he told us was true or not.
We met Malika, a 29-year-old mother of two girls. She wore a jacket and skirt and a big, white scarf. She had disappointment in her face as she introduced herself, saying, “I am Malika, a woman, a mother, and sick with lung cancer.”
It seems she was sentenced to three years in jail because she was accused of having sexual relations with men when she was trying to cross the border to Iran to see her daughters.
As she told her story we learned she had married at age 14 when her family forced her to. Her husband was not educated.
“I was studying. My husband was not happy, but we were living in Iran so he was not able to stop me from going to school.”
She said finally she became a mother and her first child was a daughter. After two years she had a second daughter. She said her husband’s family became violent towards her after the second child because it was not a son.
“I suffered for six years. One day my husband beat me a lot and I decided to leave the house. I took my daughters, but one of my husband’s sisters wanted to take them. I fought. She attacked me. There was a knife close to me and I took the knife and injured the woman. They complained to the Iranian police, who arrested me. The court in Iran sentenced me to five years.” She said her arrest shamed her family and they did not come to see her. While she was in jail, her husband divorced her and sent her two girls to live with her parents.
Malika explained that after the jail term in Iran ended she was deported to Afghanistan, where she hoped to start a new life and use her education to get a job. After a year, her mother in Iran contacted her and asked her to come visit her children because she was sick and could die without seeing them. The girls are now 15 and 13.
“I had to get a passport, but because of corruption in Afghanistan, I had to pay lots of money. I didn’t have the money so I had to go illegally. I found a driver who said he could take me to the Iran border.”
She said that when they got to the border, she and another woman who was traveling with them were told to spend the night in a house nearby. “So I went to that house but after a few hours Afghan police arrived and arrested us and brought us back to Herat and said that that house was for sexual relations with many men. They accused me of this illegal crime.”
She has been in the jail for five months, but her sentence is for three years. The jail has a clinic and she is allowed to buy medicine from outside.
“Two times I am sentenced because of my love for my children. Every mother has this love and they do everything for their children, but this time I did not do any crime. I am in the jail because I did not have the money to pay for the judge to prove my innocence. I know I will die. But I wish that one time I could see my daughters.”
This was the sad story of Malika. I am sure that everything happened to her because of being an Afghan woman. It is not good for Afghan women to travel alone. They get accused of many crimes that they have never done. There are women judges in the court, but they cannot provide strong proof to help the women.
The conditions for women in Afghanistan are getting worse day by day. The news carries more reports of violence against girls, but their attackers go free. General Sadeqi was professional and he looked like a good person. Many organizations have recognized his work at the jail. But when we entered the jail we had to go with General Sadeqi, so it was difficult to know the real conditions for women in the jail.
Photo of women’s prison in Herat Province courtesy Reuters
Thank you for this report. Your story is important and even if you had to have the general with you, you were able to use your eyes and ears and see some of the reality. Your writing is direct and clear. You also say conditions for Afghan women are getting worse day by day. I would be interested in reading more about what is happening and why.
Thank you for shining a light on this important aspect of Afghan life, and especially for giving Malika a voice!
Thank you for your strength in investigated this story. What is so important is that you have become a voice for a woman who does not have one of her own. I am sad for her suffering. You communicated a clear message full of heartbreak and suffering. Although this story was painful, you have shed light on an issue that I am sure is not just an issue for one woman, but for many.
I really enjoyed your post. You’re a thorough, detailed writer and by incorporating as many quotes as you did, I was able to feel closer to this story than I really am. What is interesting is that this prison almost sounds like a safe haven for these women to escape their reality. They have the freedom to study and to spend time with their children without the fear of being beaten or found. I hope to read more of your entries on these women and their experiences behind bars.
The courage you show in your story is amazing. The way you are able to be a voice for Malika and sharing it with us is very enlightning. Thank you for the post. I hope you are able to continue to talk to women in the prison and let their stories be heard, as well.
Seeta, thank you for telling Malika’s story in such a moving way. I feel like I got a sense of her love of her children, her desire for a better life and an education, and the sadness of her situation through your writing. This was a very well written piece.
Great report. Very clearly written and it really interesting to see what life is like for a woman in jail.
This is a beautifully written account of a most regrettable story. Thank you for using the strength of your voice to tell of another strong woman whose story would not otherwise be heard. I look forward to reading more of your reports.
This is such important work and urgent that these women’s voices be heard. Malika and Seeta, keep writing and sharing your stories. And take good care. Hugs.
Seeta you told it the way it should be told. The facts, the voice of a woman. Her story.
Please keep sending more. Your reporting is so important. much love Barbara
Thank you, Seeta, for taking us inside a place where few outsiders will go, and for talking to a woman whose story needs to be heard. It’s hard for me not to feel low and helpless after hearing her story, for her suffering seems extremely unfair. But I can pray for her and wish her healing and strength. And I can thank you again for helping us see more clearly.
Must say though, one line that really stuck with me–when the General said that the women were incarcerated for “murder, escaping from the house…” !! The very idea that “escaping the house” could be anything closely akin to murder…
Keep up the excellent work!
Thank you for shedding light on such an inspirational woman. How she manages to stay strong through such traumatizing suffering, we will never understand. Your story allows for many to recognize the injustice in Iran and the help that many women need under a corrupt government.
I thought this was an excellent detailed account of Malika’s time in prison and how she was accused of sexual relations with men, an accusation surely given to thousands of women. Interesting that the prison allows these women so many freedoms, including having their children with them. I look forward to reading more of your reports in the future, Seeta.
Thank you for sharing Malika’s story. It is very important for people from other countries to hear true stories of the plight of Afghan women. The way they are treated is hard to swallow as a Westerner who has never been faced with such blatant discrimination. The quotes you included were poignant and added a lot of the story. It almost seems as is jail is a safe haven for Afghan women–They have more freedom behind bars than within their culture/society.
Hello, Seeta. Your report was very profitable! Afghan women are victims of injustice most of times and this has to stop one day. I wish from the bottom of my heart that this day comes soon.
Renata, from Brazil.
Every mother feels for Malika. I pray that she sees her children.
Thank you for sharing this story and helping us see what women are going through, how they end up in prison–often for no reason. Please keep reporting and writing!
Thank you for sharing. It is so sad to hear about such injustice toward women. I hope to learn more from your reports. Please keep writing.
It was so painful to read the account. Please keep sharing and writing. That is the only way to keep the world informed !
I really enjoyed reading this story. It was so descriptive and moving that it made me feel as if I were there and made it easier for me to understand. I believe that your writing has opened a whole new door for others to better understand what Malika went through.