Moral Crimes in Afghanistan: Why do women go to prison?

Still from
No Burqas Behind Bars
Ivona Petrova
November 17, 2022

In Afghanistan, Sharia Law is interwoven into the criminal justice system. Both women and men can be convicted for ‘moral’ crimes. 

One of the most common of these is called zina, or sex outside of marriage, which victims of rape can also be accused of. Running away from home also falls into this bracket, and is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

In No Burqas Behind Bars we hear the stories of three women imprisoned in Takhar prison for running away from home. Two of them, Najibeh and Sima, were married off at the age of 10 and fled from their abusive, adulterous husbands. They were sentenced to 10 and 15 years respectively. Sara was arrested together with her lover, and both were imprisoned when they attempted to escape following news that Sara would be forced to marry another man. The women of this overcrowded prison go about their lives for years in punishment for moral crimes, their children imprisoned alongside them.

Although in 2017 the Afghan Supreme Court declared that running away from home is no longer punishable by law, often the reform only exists on paper. Many people, especially women and girls, are instead convicted of ‘attempted zina’, though their reason for fleeing home is usually to escape violence or forced marriage. 

As a Human Rights Watch report shows, other legislative changes have also fallen short of protecting the rights of women and girls. The Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law was decreed in the country in 2009 and reconfirmed in 2018, and though it led to some changes, the justice system rarely stands by women.

Although family response and specialized prosecution units were established at some police stations, the law wasn't implemented to the same degree across provinces, with especially low implementation in rural areas. And while there was an 8.4 increase in reporting violence against women between 2018 and 2019, underreporting crimes and a mediation rate of 61% remain a hard obstacle to overcome. 

Much like with Najibeh and Sima, most victims of domestic violence are discouraged from reporting it by family and the police, and if they attempt to run to safety, they are often punished and imprisoned. There are rarely any legal actions taken against their abusers.

Honour killings are still carried out throughout the country, and are a threat to women and girls like Sara for bringing shame to their families. Although illegal, in rural areas these killings are often accepted by legal authorities, and of those who do get prosecuted, less than 25% are convicted. This is something Sara fears when she is released:

Outside I cannot feel safe. Perhaps I will be killed... I think my uncle or his sons might kill me.”

For women like Sara,being in prison feels safer than being at home. Herat Women’s Prison holds women who killed their husbands in self-defence, after years of abuse. They accept their fate behind bars and say they have more freedom there than in their marriages

The female-run Herat Prison may feel like a refuge for its prisoners, but in other penal institutions across Afghanistan run by male guards,women are often subjected to sexual harassment and assault.  

There is a staggering gap in Afghanistan’s justice system when it comes to women, which fails to protect them every step of the way -From being subjected to violence by  police in prison, to doctors performing ‘virginity tests’ that are used as evidence in court but have no medical basis, all the way to prosecuting women for fleeing abuse at home. This gap has only been widened after the Taliban took over the country last year. Women are now also imprisoned and tortured for protesting the violations of their rights by the Taliban, and female judges, who worked to enforce the EVAW law, have been running fleeing the country in fear for their lives.

With the Taliban’s pursuit to abolish basic rights for women and little hope for change in the near future, the question remains: When will there be justice for women in Afghanistan?

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