Visitors approaching Badam Bagh might be surprised by the noises emanating from Kabul’s notorious women’s prison. It sounds more like “an elementary school than a penal facility,” Polish-Canadian photographer Gabriela Maj told Women in the World in a phone interview. Badam Bagh, which translates as “Almond Garden,” has a large population of children as well as inmates–innocent kids whose mothers have been convicted of crimes ranging from extramarital sex to murder.
In 2010, Maj travelled to Afghanistan the first time, to photograph an artist in Kabul. While there, she learned that many Afghan women were being arrested for so-called “moral crimes” — a broad category encompassing any violation of Shari’a law, and sometimes used to incarcerate women who’d been raped or run away from abusive husbands. Over the course of four years, Maj returned to Afghanistan six times, visiting women’s prisons across the country to meet and document the female inmates’ experience. She presents her profiles of these women in her new book, Almond Garden: Portraits from the Women’s Prisons in Afghanistan. Most appear in headscarves or veils; some pose with babies or small children. Many are young, in their 20s or even teens.
Many women enter prison pregnant; often, their arrests are the result of rape or extramarital relationships. Others bring their kids to prison, if their relatives can’t afford to take them in or if their families have disowned them. After a woman is tainted by an accusation of a moral crime, “Often times, the family wants nothing to do with her,” Maj said.
Growing up in prison, children have no consistent schooling, and face dangerous situations. Though the majority of the inmates have been imprisoned for “moral crimes,” some are actually violent criminals. “You have everyone mixed in together,” said Maj. “These kids are in very volatile environments.” Once the children reach a certain age–usually between five and eight–they’re taken away. Some find homes with relatives or independently-run shelters; others end up on the streets.
Though many of the women suffer from mental health problems like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, the prisons offer no psychological help.
As dismal as prison is, many of the women fear release even more. Maj said the most common response to her inquiries into their future plans was: “I will be killed,” by families or communities who feel the women have brought them shame. Yet in spite of their bleak present and uncertain future, the women “maintain this amazing connection to the familiar, the everyday, the mundane,” Maj said. One woman asked to change clothes before Maj photographed her: “She wanted to look beautiful.”
While her project shows how difficult it often is being a woman in Afghanistan, Maj believes her own gender was an asset in her reporting. Authorities saw her as less threatening; especially if she put on a burqa, she felt she could “disappear” in the eyes of the locals. And the female prisoners were willing to be candid with her. “Women, especially coming from conservative rural backgrounds, are not accustomed to speaking with men outside of their immediate family,” Maj said.
Advance copies of Almond Garden are available on almondgarden.net; a portion of the proceeds will benefit Women for Afghan Women, an NGO dedicated to advancing women’s rights in Afghanistan. It will be available for purchase on Amazon from June 23.