Two female Afghan prisoners want to tell their stories. One is serving 12 years in jail for being raped; the other is in prison for running away from an abusive husband.
With the help of the European Union, a London-based filmmaker made a documentary in late 2010 that exposed the plight of abused women in Afghanistan but the EU has now backtracked on the project. It wants to block the release of the film “In-Justice: The Story of Afghan Women in
Jail” as it might upset “relations with the justice institutions.”
Clementine Malpas, who was given financial aid for making the documentary to highlight the lives of battered wives and rape victims convicted of “moral crimes” in Afghanistan, has also been accused of breaching her contract after claims that the film has already been screened to outside viewers.
Malpas says it was the women’s choice to share their stories and EU officials are in fact silencing the women against their will.
The filmmaker had written consent to interview Gulnaz, a 19-year-old Afghani woman, who was raped and impregnated by her cousin. She was sentenced to 12-years in prison for having extra-marital sex. The judge gave Gulnaz the option of foregoing a jail sentence if she agreed to marry her rapist, who bribed his way out of a jail term. She refused and gave birth to a daughter in prison and now expects that she will have to raise her there.
Malpas also filmed Farida, a 26-year-old woman jailed after escaping her abusive husband.
She ran off with a young man whom she says she loves but has never had sex with. She was arrested and imprisoned nonetheless.
Police said she was guilty of “the crime” because she was not a virgin, ignoring the fact that she was already married. She was sentenced to six years. Her boyfriend is locked up in an adjoining men’s prison. A wall keeps them from seeing each other, but they pass messages to each other through prison guards.
In a patriarchal society such as Afghanistan, both women risked their personal safety by speaking out against the country’s judicial system for the documentary.
Gulnaz is heard saying on tape: “I have to do the film because when everyone sees this, it will be a lesson for them and these things won’t happen in Afghanistan.”
The EU, however, insists that it is protecting the women by trying to hide their identities.
“The women and their families must be protected, which means their identities can under no circumstances be revealed ... the film in its current form does not conceal the persons in question,” an unnamed EU spokesman said to the London Evening Standard on Nov. 15.
Malpas believes otherwise.
“It is not for us to veto their voices,” she said, adding that, “it is the women’s choice to tell their stories and I admire their clear-eyed courage.”
Vygaudas Usackas, head of the EU mission in Afghanistan, wrote to Malpas threatening legal action: “We have been approached by several individuals who claim to have been shown the documentary. In addition, members of your team have said themselves they have screened it to outside viewers.
“This is in breach of your contractual obligations. The EU reserves the right to consider legal action,” Usackas wrote according to the Evening Standard.
But an email sent by an EU official to the filmmakers and a number of EU staffers in March 2011 expresses another concern: a suggestion that it could create problems with the Afghan government.
“The EU delegation also has to consider its relations with the justice institutions in connection with the other work that it is doing in the sector,” according to the email from Zoe Leffler, the EU official overseeing the project, obtained by the Associated Press.
In June the EU decided against showing the film completely.
“The EU decided to withdraw the film only because there were very real concerns for the safety of the women it portrayed. Their welfare was and continues to be the paramount consideration in this matter,” the EU said in a statement provided to the AP.
Some of the most severe restrictions women faced under the Taliban, like a ban on attending schools and needing a male escort in order to venture outside the home, were abolished when the Islamists was driven from power in 2001 by U.S.-led NATO forces. But 10 years later, Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative and male-dominated society, meaning women are still sold to husbands and rights enshrined in law are often ignored in practice.
About half of the 300-400 women jailed in Afghanistan are imprisoned for so-called “moral crimes” such as sex outside marriage, or running away from their husbands, according to reports by the U.N. and research organizations, even though the latter is not even a crime under Afghan law.
The 19-year-old rape victim in the EU-funded film told the AP that she had hoped the attention might help her get released. Now she said she is losing hope and considering marrying her rapist as a way out.
In the human rights community there is now a sense that an opportunity to draw attention to an important issue is being lost.
Georgette Gagnon, who directs human rights policy for the United Nations in Afghanistan, said it’s particularly urgent to raise the issue of women being wrongly imprisoned now, before international resources directed at Afghanistan dwindle as foreign troops draw down.
“It's now or never. We've got a couple of years until the money and the leverage and the support are greatly reduced,” Gagnon told the AP.
(Written by Sara Ghasemilee)