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