The Female ‘Moral Criminals’ of Afghanistan’s Prisons

Shirin Shamloo is a third year English Literature student. She is passionate about issues of women’s health, human rights and social justice.

Women in Afghanistan are convicted of and imprisoned for “moral crimes” more and more frequently every year. These women can be convicted of any form of “zina“, or sexual relations outside of legal marriage, even if that sexual relation is rape or forced prostitution. The justice system in Afghanistan works actively against these women: they are prosecuted for being targets of abuse, while their abusers walk free. Women can also be convicted of crimes of “running away” from home, although most of these women leave home in order to escape abusive families and husbands. “Running away,” or fleeing home without permission, is not a crime under the Afghan criminal code, but the Afghan Supreme Court has instructed its judges to treat women and girls who flee as criminals. Many of the women convicted have been beaten, stabbed, threatened with honour killings, burned and kidnapped. The sentence for a woman convicted of “moral crimes” or “zina” can be 15 years, considered a life sentence in Afghanistan.

Almond Garden, Portraits from the Women’s Prisons in Afghanistan published by Daylight Books, April 2015.

Once a woman has been charged with a crime, there is often no hearing, or jury- she is simply convicted on the statements of those accusing her of the crime, statements which are obviously often fabricated or twisted greatly to serve the prosecutor. Women who cannot read or write are often made to sign over their rights, without fully understanding what they are signing to. Additionally, there is the forced implication of virginity tests among those who are convicted of moral crimes: women are subjugated, often multiple times, to “tests of virginity”, in which they are examined by a medic to determine their alleged “innocence”. According to the World Health Organization. “such examinations have no scientific validity in determining virginity or sexual history. The use of such examinations for these purposes is a violation of international human right standards and principles”. Additionally, the government of Afghanistan itself has been unable to justify the reasoning behind the need for multiple such examinations, marking it as a flagrant instance of sexual abuse against women by the government. The process of implicating women for these “moral crimes” is hugely corrupt, and built upon the pillars of a culture of a deeply rooted sexism and inherent prejudice against women.

Almond Garden, Portraits from the Women’s Prisons in Afghanistan published by Daylight Books, April 2015.

After the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, international support for women’s health in Afghanistan blossomed, and a multitude of facilities were established throughout Afghanistan. In recent years, however, international support has increasingly dried up, especially as foreign troops are evacuated from the country and the world’s attention turns elsewhere. Internally too, Afghanistan’s government has largely turned its back on its women. Despite the enactment of the EVAW (Elimination of Violence Against Women) bill by presidential decree in 2007, Parliament has failed to pass the bill in the seven years since its conception. EVAW should, supposedly, provide protection for women against violence, forced marriage, under-age marriages, and polygamous marriages. Despite this, the number of women convicted of supposed “moral crimes” is incessantly increasing; between the fall of 2011 and the spring of 2013, the percentage of women convicted and thrown into prison rose by 50%.

Almond Garden, Portraits from the Women’s Prisons in Afghanistan published by Daylight Books, April 2015.

Because many of the women who are convicted and imprisoned for their crimes are convicted of “zina”, or sexual crimes, many are pregnant upon entering the prison. Others become pregnant while in the prison, due to the sexual abuse and rape they endure at the hands of the prison guards. As such, a huge number of children are born into the prisons and have never left. Children can officially remain in the prisons with their mothers until the age of 5, but many stay much longer, up to the age of 18. For many mothers, there is no alternative to keeping the child in prison with them – if convicted of moral crimes, the family often shuns and disowns the woman, leaving her isolated and with no resources. In other cases, the father of the child is estranged, or travels for work and is unable to care for the child. Alternatively, there are institutions where children can go, mostly orphanages, but these institutions are rife with corruption and mistreatment.

Afghanistan’s women prisoners are the victims of a system built to function actively against them, and to work in favour of their male counterparts. “Moral crimes” and the convictions they bring about are another form of control over women under the ruse of religious righteousness, and they seem to perpetuate and justify abuse of women, with the fault for said abuse coming to rest on the shoulders of those then stripped of the power to oppose it.

All photos included come from the 2010 book by Gabriela Maj entitled Almond Garden, an expose developed over the course of four years of the women’s prisons of Afghanistan. The book is named after one the most well-known prisons outside of Kabul, ‘Badam Bagh’, Maj chronicles the lives and stories of the women and children who are being held captive within prison walls


Further Reading:

Vice Article:  Portraits of Afghani Women Impisoned for “Moral Crimes” 

Al Jazeera Article: Growing Up Behind Bars

NPR Piece: Mother and Child Behind Bars: The Women of Afghanistan’s Prisons 

Afghanistan Analysts: Mothers Behind Bars 



One Comment Add yours

  1. Great article! Very interesting and empathetically written

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