Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Inside a Women’s Prison in Afghanistan

Our work in the Herat prison began with a performance called “Backbiters”. Now we’ve begun ongoing workshops. This post from Anna delves into the prison itself and why these women are here in the first place.

The Prison
The women’s prison is in a different compound from last time we were here. Their prior location was adjacent to the men’s prison and was needed for overflow of male prisoners. (The male prison is overcrowded with more than 3,000 inmates! The women total around 140.) It’s a good thing the women moved, as there had reportedly been problems with sexual abuse by the male guards, and now the women have their own separate location with only female guards.  The new compound also looks less like a prison. Instead of being stuck within a concrete enclosure with bars on the windows and heavy metal doors, the women can move freely between the buildings and the surrounding open space of the courtyard. Laundry hangs to dry between a few trees. The women sleep in communal dorm rooms with bunk beds, colorful blankets, and television. The women do not wear uniforms as is common in American prisons; they wear personal clothing as well as jewelry and make-up. This already makes for a more humane experience. Wearing uniforms dehumanizes individuals. From what I understand, the women can spend the day as they wish, and have available various activities supported by different NGO’s – tailoring, rugmaking, hairdressing, literacy classes, and an agricultural program where they learn to plant vegetables.

We met with the director of the women’s prison, an affable but authoritarian woman in her fifties. She told us she does not want the prison to look like a prison but instead like a dormitory with supportive activities for the women. She greatly welcomed our program.

This sounds very promising, and the conditions for the women don't seem so bad. Still, it is a prison and the women do not have their freedom. They are constrained within walls and they do not have control over their own lives. Of course, for some this may not be very different than their prior circumstances: many women in Afghanistan are not allowed to leave the house and all their activities are controlled and restricted by their husband, father, or brothers. Quite often they are beaten and abused. For some, prison must be preferable to what they endured outside it. Even so, to be in prison carries stigma, knowing you have been shamed and shunned by your community and family, stamped as a criminal and punished by society. Before you were controlled by your family, now you are controlled by the state. Your life is not your own. 

The Women
Given these difficult circumstances and with little hope for the future, many of the women have become depressed, self-harming and suicidal. One day we arrived for workshop and a woman came up to us and showed us her wrist, which had two deep burn marks. She had burned herself with a cigarette. I asked, why did you do that? She said, I was so full of angry feelings! She had wanted to see the doctor and the guard wouldn’t let her. She couldn't lash out at the guard so she lashed out at herself. Our fellow workshop leader, one of the young women from Simorgh Theatre, said she felt sick when she saw the burns and she couldn’t understand how this woman could do that to herself. But in the face of such utter lack of control and power over one’s life, this is sometimes the only way a person knows to cope and manage intense feelings and distress. This is why we are doing the workshops, to give these women an outlet in which they can express their feelings – and find more constructive and creative coping mechanisms. 

It is no wonder these women are depressed and frustrated when one learns the reasons they are  in prison. Many if not most are in prison for adultery--that is, they had sex outside marriage. This is a crime in Afghanistan. A girl falls in love with a boy; they have relations; now they are both in prison. Some women run away from home. This is not a crime per se, but it is assumed that they engaged in illicit relations. It is almost impossible for a woman to prove her innocence. Upon arrest, a woman has to submit to a virginity test, an extremely violating procedure that proves nothing. And certainly not if you happen to be a married woman. In many instances, the women have engaged in sex, but whether they were truly willing is questionable. It comes down to this: if a woman wants to leave her home, she needs the help of a man. The price for this is sex.

Why does an Afghan woman feel compelled to leave her home? Usually it's because of forced marriage and abuse. Many of the women spoke of the problem of marrying too young. As I was repeatedly told, a daughter is a toy to her father and a slave to her husband. But it does happen that she runs away for love.  A 17-year old girl in the prison ran off from home with a boy she loved, but since they now agreed to marry, they will both be released. This is one story that has a happy ending, but other girls are not so lucky. The boy no longer wants them, and now they are stuck in prison. After that, where can she go? Often the family will not accept her as she has brought "dishonor" upon them and may even threaten to kill her.

Even in the case of rape, a woman will be sent to prison for adultery. Because no one believes her. It is enough to be accused of infidelity by your husband to get locked up. Many women and girls seemed to be in prison based simply on someone’s accusation. In one case, a woman was raped by her husband’s brother, but the husband accused her of having an affair. The brother fled to Iran. The woman was sent to prison. She was pregnant but the husband said it wasn't his child and divorced her. She was released after eight months. The usual sentence for adultery is 1.5-3 years.

Some of the women are in prison for murder. They killed their husbands. No doubt for many it was a desperate act. They were married off young and abused by the husband and his whole family. But in some cases, the woman loved someone else and together they conspired to kill the husband and run away. The desperation is there but the justification is sometimes questionable.

It was challenging to learn the real reasons why the women were in prison, because, we were told, the women will often make up stories until they feel safe in speaking the truth or if they think it might benefit them in some way. But I also felt it was difficult to get accurate information from those we spoke with in prison management; they seemed too ready to dismiss the women’s circumstances. But after further discussion, they acknowledged the challenge that exists for a woman to be able to prove her innocence and how often she is in a compromised situation. The system is set up to fail these women. No matter the crime or reason, the real problem is that they have very little chance to defend themselves or escape their circumstances.

The prison psychologist shared a few particular cases with us:

·         One woman killed her husband with the help of her 14-year old son, because the father was a drug addict who tried to rape their 9-year old daughter. Now both the mother and her son are in prison. The mother was sentenced to 16 years.

·         A young woman had been beaten by her father so severely in her childhood she didn’t walk until she was six years old. As she got older her father wanted to marry her off, but she refused. She put gasoline on her father and burned him. She is sentenced to 18 years.

·         The psychologist spoke to us also about kidnapping and how entire families are swept up in the crime. A father and a brother may have conspired to kidnap someone for money. The police then raid their house and arrest everyone: the mother, the daughters, the sister-in-law, the grandmother, and everyone goes to prison. There are two young women in prison now for this crime. One was jailed at age 14 and sentenced to five years.

Here are additional stories from the women we worked with:

·         “A” has been in prison two months now. She killed her father because he was forcing the mother to have “temporary marriages” with other men (that is, sex for money). Finally the daughter couldn’t take it any longer. She took her brother’s gun and shot her father. Then she went to the police and said: “I have killed my father and I am happy I did it!” She is ashamed that he was her father, and she is proud she killed him so her mother doesn’t have to be “married” to another man again. "A" has a one month old baby with her in prison. I don’t know how long she has to stay there.

·         B is a feisty and outgoing young woman of 17 years old. She had an affair with a neighborhood boy. A couple of months later she got married, but her husband discovered she was not a virgin. So she said she had been raped. Her husband wanted to kill the other boy. But the neighbor called the national army for help and said the husband had a gun and also that he and B had stolen money. The national army came and beat up the husband so he ended up in the hospital. B had an altercation with the neighbor's daughter and cut her with a knife. Everybody was arrested, including the neighbor's daughter because she knew about the illicit relation and had not reported it, and was therefore accessory to the crime. The husband has now been released as well as the neighbor's daughter, but B and the neighbor boy were just sentenced to six months in prison for adultery. A complicated situation! B has a lot of anxiety and nervous problems. But she is very enthusiastic about the workshops and fully engaged. She’s our star participant. She even stayed up one night until one a.m. teaching the others in her room all the exercises she had learned!

·         C is in her early twenties and also very excited about our workshops and a main participant. She has been in prison for 7 months and has a 10 month old daughter. Her situation is a bit unclear. She had problems with her husband, and apparently he accused her of stealing and got her put in prison. The husband has now divorced her. She is about to be released and says her family supports her. But the first day we met she said to me that she wanted to find a family to take care of her daughter and give her an education, because if the daughter was left with her father he would marry her off early as he did her. She is so inspired by the workshops that she wants to continue doing theater when she gets out.

·         D is 27 years old. She was married at 15, but the husband became addicted to opium. He would abuse her and her child. She says her father and mother-in-law encouraged their son to beat her. They accused her of having sex with other men. She is now in prison for one year. She is worried about her 11-year old daughter who is with the in-laws; they don’t let her go to school and they beat her. The daughter comes to visit the mother every two weeks and says she’d rather stay with her in prison.

·         E is in her late forties and has a young child with disabilities. She has been active in all the programs the prison offers.  E has been in the prison 10 months and is sentenced to 16 years for killing her daughter’s husband. But she says she didn’t do it. I did not get to find out further and verify her story. Perhaps she did do it, or perhaps someone else did and she got the blame. Perhaps her daughter did it and she took the blame instead. There are several situations like this where the man died and the wife gets blamed for his death. There is little a woman can do to defend herself.

·         F is 22 and recently arrived in prison with her newborn son. She got there when her baby was 10 days old. Her husband’s second wife had died suddenly, and now she and her husband were accused of killing her by the wife’s brothers. She is in prison pending investigation and autopsy, and is hoping to be cleared.

·         Then we have G who is 19 and was working as a police officer in Kabul. One day her brother called and said, “Congratulations! Your father has found a husband for you.” But she did not want to get married, she wanted to go to the university and continue her work. The family summoned her back to Herat. She met her prospective fiancĂ©, but did not like him – so she shot him. Just like that. Apparently, her father and brother often visit her in prison so it seems they have a good relationship. Why did she not simply ask them to please not make her marry? She said she doesn’t know, she just got so angry. She didn’t think the family would listen to her. She has now been sentenced to hanging. And yet she always seems to be in a good mood when we see her!

The women are very happy when we come but this does not mean they aren’t suffering. And sometimes they are just too depressed to participate. But we have to keep showing up for them -- the workshops are ongoing so that they will have this support available for a long term.

The Children
As mentioned, the women have their children with them in prison. Children stay with their mothers until the age of 5, when they are placed in a child support center run by a non-profit. We visited and will be doing workshops there as well. It’s a good place and the children genuinely seem well-cared for. This is really encouraging to see. They get to visit their mothers every two weeks or so. The smaller kids who are with the mothers in the prison get sent to a kindergarten every day, where government employees’ children go. This is also a new development and did not exist four years ago when we last visited, as far as I know. It’s really good that the children can be with their mothers, but it is important that they are not stuck inside the prison all the time and can socialize with other kids. There are about 75 children living with their mothers in the prison. One girl was seven years old, but otherwise mostly toddlers and babies. We had several crawling around us as we did our workshop. The women are help each other take care of the babies, so the mothers can participate. 

Stay posted for further updates about the juvenile center and our other performances!

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Afghan Creative Arts Prison Project - First Report

In April Joanna and Anna spent a month in Herat launching the Creative Arts Prison Project. We are working again with members of Simorgh Theatre, with whom we collaborated for the Theatre for Social Development project in 2011. Here is Anna’s first report.

Together again!
Back in Afghanistan after four years. Back to Herat to see the girls of Simorgh again! How wonderful to have the chance to work together again. Four years is a long time, and yet it’s like yesterday. But going from 13 to 17 or 16 to 20 makes a big difference. They’re young women now, all grown up. I hardly recognized some of them! And others look exactly the same. (For me, I just look older, as one of them pointed out. Well, yes, time does that!). We had a happy reunion and then we met the new girls who have joined the group. All in all, we are working with six young women, and then two young men who are helping out -- who really just want to be part of the process, and I’m so glad to see them again too! They are great guys. But this project is specifically for women by women.

Getting ready for action
All of us jumped headlong into our work together with great excitement and energy. For the first nine days we did training to prepare the group for the upcoming program. Workshops practicing various theatrical exercises in the morning, and in the afternoon rehearsals to develop a performance. In between we have lunch together. During the week I think to myself, “We are having such a wonderful and fulfilling time together that if this is all we do with the project I will be happy!”

Enjoying lunch together the Afghan way. 
But we have much more to accomplish. The goal of our project is to bring theater workshops to the women’s prison and the juvenile correction center as a way to offer psychosocial support -- to give the women and girls a safe, creative forum in which to express themselves and process their experiences through play and physical action. Research and experience has shown theater to be an effective tool in helping people heal trauma, build self-confidence and manage daily challenges. Eventually the women will have the opportunity to create their own plays. The aim is for this to be an ongoing program throughout the year.

We are training the members of Simorgh Theatre to lead the program and teach the workshops, as we are only here for a month and after we leave, the project will continue. We are also preparing a play that we will present first thing as an introduction to theater. That is, the Simorgh girls will present it. Joanna and I are directing and they perform. Many in Afghanistan have never seen a live theater performance and have no idea what it is. We want to show them that they can create a play just like this with their own stories.

A Common Problem
The play is called The Backbiters and centers on two gossiping women who make life difficult for a young woman, Nafisa, who wants to go to university. They talk bad about her and spread rumors that worry her family. Nafisa’s friend, a younger girl of thirteen named Fereshta, looks up to her and dreams of herself becoming a doctor one day. But Fereshta’s father has other ideas. He has decided she’s going to get married to an older, rich man who will give the father lots of money. Fereshta is devastated. The mother can do nothing to prevent it, but finds an ally in Nafisa’s mother and together they speak to the mullah (similar to parish priest). This mullah is a wise, learned man who talks to the father about the laws of Islam and that a girl must agree to who she marries and that Fereshta is much too young and should get an education. He points out what happened last year when the neighbor’s wife almost died because they couldn't find a female doctor to treat her. It’s good that girls study to become doctors! The father struggles with the idea but finally decides to forego the marriage and let his daughter study. Meanwhile, the backbiters have had some backlash and decide they must mend their ways.

Our story has a happy ending, but unfortunately this is not the case for many girls in Afghanistan. This is a common scenario – forced early marriage. Even though Islam does say a woman must agree to marriage and should be educated, many villages follow old tribal ways that have become tradition and conflated with Muslim practice. The community listens to the mullahs who often are corrupt or ignorant. And people are very concerned with what the community thinks and says about them because honor is everything. Gossiping old ladies is a common problem and families can be destroyed by bad rumors.

Our talented actors in Simorgh made the play very compelling and also added lots of humor to it. The two women playing the backbiters were funny and forceful, and the woman playing the father (yes, women only-troupe playing all characters) didn’t hold back in her portrayal of a gross, old man. It’s exaggerated but all too real.

Joanna guides a discussion planning for our workshops in the prison. 
Showtime in the Prison
The day arrived for us to present our play at the women’s prison! I wasn’t sure what to expect, or how the women would take to the show or the idea of doing workshops.  How open and accessible will they be, or perhaps closed off, resistant, even hostile? No telling what will happen, we’re breaking new ground. Here we go – "hala hamagi hamabaham bedboard!" ("Now everybody all together, let’s go!")

Well, it went fantastically well. About ninety women in all gathered to see the performance. They laughed and applauded and listened intently, and a few cried. Afterwards we did a talkback where they had a chance to speak about the show and go up on stage and engage with the characters. This is where I wasn't sure how it would work. But it worked very well. The women didn’t hesitate to engage. Some stood up and talked about their own personal circumstances. Others got up on stage to confront characters, especially the father. They argued with the father for not letting his daughter go to school and marrying her off so young. The woman playing the father stood her ground and said “Everyone in my family married before the age of 13, it’s no problem.” The prisoner countered, “And this is why we’re all in here!” Spontaneous applause broke out in acknowledgement. Another woman wanted to speak with the mullah and proceeded to rail against mullahs who are bad and want money and don’t follow proper Islam. She was animated and passionate in her speaking. All the women spoke with great passion. It was clear the play really resonated with them. It reflected and acknowledged their situation and gave them a chance to have a voice and speak out.

Afterwards, several women came up to me and exclaimed over and over again, “I’m so happy, I’m so happy, thank you for being here, thank you for presenting this play to us.” One woman seemed particularly taken and keen to connect. She asked my name and where I was from, I said USA and Sweden, and then she wanted to know which I liked better, Afghanistan or Sweden. I told her they are very different, and that I really like the people of Afghanistan -- they are so friendly and hospitable. She said, “We are friendly because you are. We respond to you. You are so nice and friendly, and we want to be friendly back.” At the end, she took a ring off her finger (a crocheted band with black beads) and put it on mine and told me, “This is a memory from me.”

I wonder what happened to her, what she did that she is here in prison. Did she run away from home? With her lover? From a threatened forced marriage? Or was she forced into marriage? And did she run away from an abusive husband? Was she raped? Did she kill somebody? These are many of the possible scenarios and circumstances that land a woman in prison in Afghanistan. I did not want to ask this woman right away, but Joanna and I have heard many stories since that first day.

More to follow! 

No photos beyond the barbed wire!