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Afghan women in Kabul prison over 'moral' crimes

Wednesday - 4/10/2013, 5:00am  ET

Picture taken March 28, 2013 shows Afghan female prisoner Nuria with her infant boy at Badam Bagh, Afghanistan's central women's prison, in Kabul, Afghanistan. “When I went to court for the divorce, instead of giving me a divorce, they charged me with running away,” Nuria said. The man she wanted to marry was also charged and is now serving time in Afghanistan's notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison. 202 women living in the six- year- old jail, the majority of the women are serving sentences of up to seven years for leaving their husbands, refusing to accept a marriage arranged by their parents, or choosing to leave their parent's home with a man of their choice. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

Associated Press Writer

KABUL (AP) -- Lost and alone in a strange city Mariam called the only person she knew, her husband's cousin. She worried he wouldn't help her because she had left her home in Afghanistan's northern Kunduz province, fleeting to the capital Kabul to escape his relentless and increasingly vicious beatings. But he promised to help. Too busy to come himself he sent a friend who took her to "some house", held a gun to her head and raped her.

Finished with her he settled in front of a TV set, the gun on a table by his side. Choosing her moment, Mariam picked up the gun shot her assailant in the head and turned the gun on herself.

"Three days later I woke up in the hospital," she said, slowly, shyly removing a scarf from her head to reveal a partially shaved head and a long jagged scar that ran almost the length of her head where the bullet grazed her scalp.

From the hospital Mariam was sent to a police station and from there to Badam Bagh, Afghanistan's central women's prison where she told her story to The Associated Press. For the past three months Mariam has been waiting to find out why she is in jail, the charges and when she can leave.

"I haven't gone to court. I am just waiting."

Hugging a ratty brown sweater to protect her from the damp cold of the prison, Mariam is one of 202 women living in the six- year- old jail. The majority of the women packed are serving sentences of up to seven years for leaving their husbands, refusing to accept a marriage arranged by their parents, or choosing to leave their parent's home with a man of their choice __ all so-called "moral" crimes, says the prison's director general Zaref Jan Naebi.

Some of the women were jailed while pregnant, others with their small children. Naebi says there are 62 children living with their imprisoned mothers, sharing the same grey steel bunk-beds, napping in the afternoon hidden behind a sheet draped from an upper bunk, oblivious to the chatter and the crackling noises from the small fussy television sets shoved off to one side of the rooms.

The Taliban were thrown out 12 years ago ending five years of rule and regressive laws that enforced a tribal tradition and culture more than religious compulsions denying girls schools, ordering women to stay indoors unless accompanied by a male, and in some of the more severe cases even blackening the first story windows so prying eyes could not see women within. Women were forced to wear the all- encompassing burqa or suffer a public beating.

In the first years after the Taliban's December 2001 removal strides seemed to be made for women, schools opened, women came out of their house, many still in the burqas but appearing on television and getting elected to Parliament.

But women's activists in Kabul say within a few years of the Taliban's ouster the ball was dropped, interest waned and even President Hamid Karzai began making statements that harkened back to the Taliban rule saying women really should be accompanied by a man while outside their home. A new law was enacted called the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW), but its implementation is erratic and rare, says the United Nations Assistance Mission on Afghanistan, whose human rights arm monitors such things.

An UNAMA report issued in December last year says it is difficult to even get information about violence against women from the authorities partially because they don't want to look bad if it showed that little was being done and little, if any, official documentation on violence against women exists.

While it might not be against the law to run away or escape a forced marriage, the courts routinely convict women fleeing abusive homes with "the intent to commit zina (or adultery)" which are most often simply referred to as "moral crimes," says the report.

"Perceptions toward women are still the same in most places, tribal laws are the only laws followed and in most places nothing has changed in the basics of women's lives. There are policies and papers and even laws but nothing has changed," said Zubaida Akbar whose volunteer Haider organization fights for women's rights and sends lawyers and aid workers to the women's prison to defend the inmates in court.

In the overwhelmingly male dominated legal system, Akbar said even when an inmate gets in front of the judge, "he says 'it is her husband, she should go back and make it work. It is her fault and not her place to leave him __ not in our society.'"

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