Afghanistan’s women prisoners haunt WikiLeaks

Afghan women imprisoned for `moral crimes’

Afghanistan has been in the news of late.

WikiLeaks recently dumped a quarter million diplomatic cables. One of the earliest subjects to emerge from the swelter of data, information and gossip was … Afghanistan. In particular, the world press focused on `corruption’. The Guardian reported, “Rampant government corruption in Afghanistan – and the apparent powerlessness of the US do to anything about it – is laid bare by several classified diplomatic cables implicating members of the country’s elite.” The New York Times responded, “It is hardly news that predatory corruption, fueled by a booming illicit narcotics industry, is rampant at every level of Afghan society. Transparency International, an advocacy organization that tracks government corruption around the globe, ranks Afghanistan as the world’s third most corrupt country, behind Somalia and Myanmar.” National Public Radio’s All Things Considered opened an interview with the New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti, “More now from the WikiLeaks release of U.S. diplomatic cables.  The New York Times has been poring over those cables, including some that document a particular problem in Afghanistan: corruption.”

What are the particularities of corruption, as narrated in these various accounts? On one hand, it seems that graft, bribe taking, fraud, embezzlement, coercion are rife in the corridors of the Afghan government. On the other hand, corruption seems to stop at the gates of the government. Outside, it’s fine.

What are the particularities of corruption, as narrated in the cables themselves? The Guardian has posted 58 cables referring to Afghanistan. Some concern prisoners, many concern government officials, some concern regional affairs, all are about `security’ and `the war effort’. None mention women. In the 58 cables thus far available, not a single conversation, not a single cable, talks about the condition of women in Afghanistan. Afghan women are fine; they are not part of any “particular problem in Afghanistan” that goes by the name of corruption.

Afghan women prisoners, however, are not so sanguine about corruption. According to the United Nations Afghanistan Human Development Report 2007, institutionalized corruption abounds, especially in the so-called justice system, and women are particularly hard hit. For example, this past week, in the Balkh Prison in northern Afghanistan, prisoners went on a hunger strike to protest unbearable overcrowding conditions.

The situation for women at Balkh Prison is particularly dire: “Fariba Majid, director of the government office for women’s affairs in Balkh, agreed that conditions for female prisoners was a concern. She voiced concern that women guilty of only minor offences were being held alongside hardened criminals…. In Afghanistan, women and girls can be imprisoned for up to a year for simply running away from the family home.”

Who are these women who are guilty of only minor offenses?

In Afghanistan, women and girls go to prison for running away: “Fawzia Nawabi, head of the women’s department at the national Human Rights Commission, said that on a recent tour of women’s prisons, she met 15 girls imprisoned for running away from home in Balkh province, 22 in Jowzjan, eight in Sar-i Pol province and four in Samangan. `All of them said they had been married off against their will,” she said. “Some of them had run away because they were beaten for no reason, and others because they had been given away as ‘baad’.’ `Baad’ is an Afghan custom where girls are given in marriage in exchange for debts owed to the other family, or as compensation for a death.”

Once in prison, women often remain in prison for longer than their allotted time: “Zarghoona* has completed her three-month sentence at a prison in Kandahar Province, southern Afghanistan, but she is not allowed home because no male relative has shown up to guarantee that she will not run away from home again.… Women’s rights activists and government officials confirmed that in many cases female prisoners could not be released due to the absence of a male relative. `This is illegal but it happens quite often in Afghanistan,’ said Suraya Subhrang, a women’s rights commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in Kabul. What should women without `Mahram’ [close relative such as father, brother, son or husband] do? Should they end their lives because there is no man to take care of them?’ she said.”

It is illegal but it happens quite often. Afghan women do not appear in the WikiLeaks cables on Afghanistan, nor do they appear in the narratives of Afghan `corruption’. What do you call the state of illegal-but-happens-quite-often? When women suffer that kind of corruption, it isn’t called anything. It’s business as usual, and it’s fine.


(Photo Credit: BBC News)


About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.