HBO is set to air “Love Crimes of Kabul” at 9pm tonight as part of their documentary films summer series. This intimate documentary goes inside Badam Bagh, a women’s prison in Kabul, Afghanistan, to tell the stories of three women who are being accused of committing “love crimes” or more commonly termed, “moral crimes”.
Among the prison’s 125 female prisoners, those who are there for “moral crimes,” are accused of things that, in most societies, would be termed rebellious at worst. These women, therefore, find themselves at a complex intersection between religion and the law, where the application of rules is often ambiguous and where marriage can make the difference between freedom and imprisonment.
The documentary follows three of such women prisoners accused of “moral crimes”. The first is Kareema, a 20-year-old woman whose crime is having premarital sex with her fiancé. The second woman is 23-year-old Aleema, who is accused of running away from her home. The third and youngest woman of the three is Sabereh, who is accused of having premarital sex with a boy she is in love with.
As the documentary develops the stories of these women, and the viewer witnesses snaps of the court trials, what we know of as Shariah becomes severely distorted by a male-centered fiqh of the Islamic legal tradition. Furthermore, we see how cultural and societal injustices propagate the misuse of power among male elites in addition to wedging these women between a rock and a hard place, where neither option of freedom or imprisonment translates to complete autonomy as we know it.
Kareema, who is now pregnant with her fiancé’s child, awaits trial for the crime of having premarital sex. Her situation is unique in that she went to the police herself after fearing that her fiancé, Firuz, would turn back on his promise to marry her. They were both detained. The only way to escape a harsh prison sentence of 15 years is to get legally married to Firuz while they are both still in prison.
What the viewer witnesses as Kareema’s case unfolds, is how strongly these women are up against many elements that work to their disadvantage and how hard they are willing to fight. The documentary shows how Kareema fiercely negotiates her dowry, asking for a large sum so that she will be able to support herself should Firuz divorce her later. Despite an aggressive, and often bordering on catty, display of refusal, she was unable to attain a sufficient amount because of the economic standing of Firuz’s family.
As the documentary films both Kareema’s and Firuz’s parents, the viewer catches a glimpse of how ethnic divides play a large role in the settling of the dowry and standard of living that a woman can expect to attain. Firuz is Pushtun while Kareema is Hazara. His father says that Pashtu women do not lose their honor and that, “she [Kareema] is not worth what [dowry] she is asking for,” because she is from a tribe considered to be lesser.
Aleema is charged with running away from home. After breaking her 4pm curfew she did not return to her parents’ house for fear of being beaten. Instead, she went to the house of another woman named Zia to seek refuge. Zia has a married son named Mohebullah, but the implication is that Aleema went to Zia’s house because she was having illicit relations with Mohebullah.
Again in this case, to reduce her sentence, Aleema must choose marry Mohebullah. Mohebullah, who is also in prison, says that, he must now marry Aleema out of honor, because they got each other arrested. Zia also agrees that Aleema must marry her son
Here we see a sort of power play between the two women. Zia sees it fit that Aleema marry her son to restore their family honor and Aleema questions whether marrying a man who is already married will make her happy. She also questions whether Mohebullah can support her financially. In the end, despite a prison counselor telling her that, “a bad husband is better than no husband,” she boldly decides to remain in jail for her sentencing period, rather than to marry Mohebullah and be released. She says that she can hold her head up high because she knows she did nothing wrong.
Sabereh, the youngest of the three, was eating a meal alone with a boy she fell in love with and someone told on them. Although she is accused of having premarital sex, she maintains that she is a virgin and after being examined by a doctor, her virginity is confirmed. However, this is not enough for the courts who then say that they found evidence of sodomy.
Sabereh’s father pleads with the court to acquit her and even pleads with the boy’s father to allow his son to marry her so that both will be released. She is sentenced to three years in jail after the boy’s father refuses to allow them to marry.
Although all three women are victims of the system, they are not depicted as dejected women who have simply accepted their fate. Each one demonstrates a passion for fighting against the injustice they have been dealt and each one is privy to their civil, human and religious rights, however unattainable they may seem to be. Even within the limitations of severely corrupted systems of society and governance, we can see a spark of autonomy from within towering structures of despotism.
Each case brings up challenging and problematic issues, ranging from gender roles and religious interpretations to the functioning of tribal societies, economics, the aftermath of war and how to nation-build along severe ethnic divides. Though these issues candidly coalesce into an often-debilitating circumstance for Afghan women, the message is clear, however unintended it may be: the ways Afghan women negotiate their place in Afghan society are complex.