Afghan Prison Project: The workshops

Three times a week we go to the women's prison and hold workshops with the women.  On the first day, a large group of women are gathered outside in the courtyard on blankets, nursing their babies, crocheting, drinking tea -- and waiting for us. About 15 of them join us in a circle and the rest watch. Those watching followed along laughing and clapping and thoroughly enjoying what to them was a greatly entertaining show. I am sure the women have never seen anything like this before. Grown women playing, jumping around, acting silly.

We are using various theater exercises that we think are useful to energize and uplift, practice focus and awareness, develop mutual trust, build self-esteem and confidence, exercise self-expression and just get to play. To an actor these are normal daily activities, but ordinary adults are not so used to these playful activities, and certainly not Afghan women who have been conditioned to never express themselves in any way that could draw attention. These exercises are therefore all the more powerful.

The women are of course a bit self-conscious, but it is clear that they really enjoy the opportunity to play and to move. They like that the games are physical, so that they get physical exercise and at same time an active mind. They tell us the exercises stimulate their minds and give them lots of energy. They especially enjoy the games in which they just get to play like children! At one workshop, they spontaneously engaged in their own version of blind man’s buff. Our program gives them the opportunity to play and express themselves in a way they would otherwise never dare.

But still, they dare not dance. In Afghanistan women cannot dance in the presence of men. But even in the women's prison where there are only women, it is not appropriate for them to express themselves in this way. How sad! But it was explained to me that dancing is something done in private parties only and prison is still too public a space. And yet, the women keep suggesting it in games to embarrass each other, and at one point they all wanted me to dance, clapping and chanting "Anna, dance, Anna, dance!" So I goofed it up, knowing they'd get a kick out of it. But Fariba, our fellow Afghan workshop leader, indicated this was a no no. I realized it wasn't appropriate for me to indulge in dancing either. We have to be careful that observers don't get the wrong idea and accuse us of corrupting the women with inappropriate activities (with the typical fear that foreigners are imposing Western values), and then the program could get shut down. We don't want that. So no dancing! Since we do a lot of movement exploration, we tread a thin line sometimes and have to clearly communicate that this form of physical expression is not dance.

One exercise we do is really so basic, but has a profound impact. You imagine yourself standing on top of a great mountain and you call your name out to the world. Everyone stands in a row, first shouting their names out together, stepping forward with a gesture as if physically throwing your name and reaching out. Then one by one each person calls out their name, and everyone echoes their name back. 

Here is some of the feedback we received from the women:
I never said my own name out loud before. Now I can say it proudly and freely.
When I’m on the mountain I feel free like I’m out in the world.
When I stand on the mountain and call out my name, I feel like the mountain will come tumbling down, my voice is so powerful.
We should shout so everybody can hear our voice.
I’m so full of energy, it’s fantastic.
I feel refreshed and relaxed.

From the beginning there has been lots of excitement and energy and engagement. We have a core group of women who are participating in every workshop and are very motivated. Others are joining as we go along. Many women are choosing to watch the workshop and some then ask to join.

At the same time, the women face daily challenges with their circumstances and are battling depression. So the attendance varies day by day, but we have to be flexible and patient with their ability to participate. Given the situation, I'm impressed with the women’s engagement so far.

The women working as counselors or advocates told us that many women don't go to the other activities because they're too depressed, and that's why this program is really good for them: it's very active, physical, new and different. 

Some of the women practice the games and exercises on their own after we leave, playing with each other. One woman practiced with her bunk mates till one in the morning! Her bunk mates did not participate directly in the workshop but were very keen to have her teach them what she had learned. This is great that the women are taking initiative to teach the others. One of our goals is to boost the women’s confidence and give them an opportunity to learn and exercise leadership. This woman is already doing it!

I would like more of the women to participate and benefit --  I hope we can keep inspiring and motivating the women to come, and that the women who are the most engaged will motivate the others. They key is to keep showing up for them. 

Our Afghan colleagues at Simorgh Theatre are continuing the program through the end of the year, and they have started to work with the women on creating a show based on their own stories. I look forward to hearing how this develops!

We are also conducting workshops in the juvenile correction center, the child support center and a women's shelter. More on this to follow.

Unfortunately, I cannot show any photos here of our work together. The women were adamant that we not take pictures. This is, of course, understandable, and we have to ensure a safe, comfortable environment in our work with them. On my last day they allowed me to take a couple of pictures for our documentation, provided, however, that I not post them on the internet. Four years ago the women didn't mind.  But since then they have had media come in to the prison a few times and thereafter published photos and video that caused problems for the women. I will not betray their trust!

Afghan Prison Project: Inside a women's prison in Afghanistan

Our work in the Herat prison began with a performance and is continuing with workshops. Here I will share with you what it is like inside an Afghan women's prison and why the women are there.

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. It’s a good thing they moved, as there had reportedly been a problem with sexual abuse by the male guards, and now the women  have their own separate location with only female guards. In addition, the new compound 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 buildings and the surrounding open space of the courtyard. Laundry hangs to dry between a few trees. The 140 women sleep in communal dorm rooms with bunk beds, colorful blankets, and television. They don’t wear uniforms like in American prisons; they wear personal clothing as well as jewelry and make-up. This already makes for a more humane experience. 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 do not seem so bad. Still, it is a prison and the women do not have their freedom. They are imprisoned within walls and don’t have control over their own lives. Of course, for many this may not be very different from 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. In fact, young women are sometimes driven to such desperation that they try to commit suicide by setting themselves on fire. The level of brutality that women and girls in Afghanistan have to suffer is difficult to grasp. 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. While before you were controlled by your family, now you are controlled by the state. Your life is not your own. And there is little hope for the future.

The Women
Given these difficult circumstances, many of the women are depressed and suicidal. Some are self-harming and cut themselves. 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. Our fellow workshop leader, one of the young women from Simorgh Theatre, said she felt sick to her stomach when she saw the injuries and she just couldn’t understand how this woman could do this 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 there 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. Women routinely have to submit to virginity tests, an extremely violating procedure that effectively proves nothing. And certainly not if you are 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 escape 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? Primarily it's because of forced marriage and abuse. Many of the women in the prison 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 with a young man 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 and may even threaten to kill her as she has now brought “dishonor” on them all.

It’s one thing to marry your lover in order to get out of prison, it’s another to have to marry your rapist. Even in the case of rape, a woman will be sent to prison for adultery! Because technically she has had sex outside of marriage and how can she prove she wasn’t willing. No one believes her. But if she agrees to marry her rapist, then all will be forgiven. What a horrible choice to have to make.

If a married woman is raped, the husband will rarely be able to accept it. In one recent 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 refused to acknowledge the child as his and divorced her. She was released after eight months. The usual sentence for adultery is 1-3 years. 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.

Some of the women are in prison for killing their husbands. No doubt these are desperate acts. Many women in Afghanistan are married off very young and then terribly 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 still 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 they might benefit from it. But I also felt it was difficult to get accurate information from those we spoke with in prison management and others in authority; they seemed too ready to dismiss the women’s circumstances. I sensed some resistance to acknowledge the problem of rape. They said they had never come across a woman in jail who was there because she had been attacked, that the women all did it willingly. And yet after further probing, complexities emerged that show how difficult the situation is for women. They finally 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 they have very little chance to defend themselves or escape their circumstances.

Their Stories
The prison psychologist highlighted a few particular cases where she felt the women really were innocent:

·         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. When she got older her father wanted to marry her off, but she refused. In a final act of desperation, 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.

These are the stories of the women we met:

·         “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 proud she killed him so that 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 beat her and her child. She says her father and mother-in-law encouraged their son to abuse 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 hurt her. The daughter comes to visit the mother every two weeks and begs to 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 murder 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. A counselor asker her, "Your father and brother come to visit you in prison often, they seem to love you very much. Why didn't you just ask them to please not make you marry?" She said, "I don't know, I 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 and smiling when we come, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t in deep suffering. What Afghan women have to endure is beyond what most of us can imagine. They are excited to see us because to them it means somebody cares and they are happy for the attention. The women are especially excited that two foreigners from America have come all this way to see them and help them. One woman told us “You are like a dream to us.”

The Children
The women have their children with them in prison. At first thought, this is very disturbing. But on the other hand, it's good for both the baby and mother to be together. 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 this center 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). Then the kids were just stuck in the prison. I’m glad to learn they now have the opportunity to get outside and socialize with other kids. But a few of the children were always around when we were there; it wasn’t clear to me why they didn’t go to the child center. 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 little ones crawling around us as we did our workshop. It was nice to see the women help each other take care of the babies, so that the mothers could participate. Of course, at times they had to take a break to nurse. Naturally, we accommodate this.

We have to be flexible in conducting our workshops and give consideration to the women’s circumstances. They are faced with daily challenges, 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 the long term.

The entrance to the women's prison   // Joanna and I with our two fantastic workshop leaders from Simorgh Theatre
(Click to view larger)

Next up: a little about the actual work we're doing with the women!

Afghan Prison Project: The adventure begins

We have successfully launched the Creative Arts Prison Project in Herat.  It has taken me some time to process the experience. There is a lot to share and it is difficult to distill it into a few fitting words. Here finally follow my observations and experiences of an intensive month spent together initiating this vital program. This is a collaboration between Bond Street Theatre and Simorgh Theatre. We first worked together in 2011 for the Theatre for Social Development project. Now, a new adventure awaits for us!

We begin with a happy reunion.

Together Again!
After four years I am back in Jabraeil, the village community outside Herat, and I'm so happy to see the girls (and boys) of Simorgh Theatre 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.  It's so interesting to see how different they appear now. From little girls to young women, all grown up. I hardly recognized some of them! And yet others look exactly the same.

Anna & Zahra in 2011 -- and -- Anna & Zahra in 2015. Together again!

I'm so glad that several of the girls have been able to continue with theater and to see them emerge as confident and capable leaders. Fariba and Zahra are at the forefront and so talented. 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 the two young men who are helping out, and I'm so glad to see them again too. They are great guys. They are really just there to support and be part of the process, as 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 the Afghan way

Goofing off with the gang

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.

Planning for the workshops in the prison 

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.

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!" That is, "Now everybody all together, let’s go!" 
(This has become the catchphrase of the group. In 2011 as I was trying to learn a few Dari words for my teaching, this turned into the daily mantra I would call out, and a running joke we continue to play with.)

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? 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 her right away, but Joanna and I have heard many stories since that first day. 

More to follow!

No photos beyond the barbed wire

The Creative Arts Prison Project

Our project is up and running and there is lots to report! I spent a busy month in Afghanistan in April setting up the Creative Arts Prison project with Bond Street Theatre and Simorgh Theatre in Herat -- and soon I will post my journal entries and observations from our intensive work together. Stay tuned!

Streets of Kabul

Staying in Kabul a few days before going on to Herat, while Bond Street Theatre checks in on its other ongoing youth project, and gearing up for our upcoming endeavor. BST now has a headquarters office in Kabul to manage its youth engagement project spanning the next two years. A whole house with sleeping accommodation, office and workshop space. It's managed by an Afghan staff and they don't want the neighborhood to know there are foreigners here, as it might cause all kinds of complications (due to security concerns and corruption), so we're not allowed to go out on the street.

My first day in Kabul I spent the day inside and watched life go by outside the window. People walking by on the way to work, school, shop. Women with children, a man with a little boy, a couple of teenage boys hanging out, school girls on the way home, old men on bicycles bringing home bread, and children flocking to the ice cream man. Ordinary, peaceful life. (Occasionally interrupted by the loud sound of a military helicopter.)

A couple of days later I got the chance to go shopping on Chicken Street (where they don’t sell chickens, but a lot of traditional jewelry, clothing and arts & crafts). Bought a few things, but mostly enjoyed saying hello to the shopkeepers. Salam aleykoum, khob asti? Nam-e chist? Az didaretan khosh shoudum! Practicing my Dari and making new friends. There was Khoja Sardar, the tailor with fantastic colorful Afghan dresses, and Amin, the tea seller on the street who refused to let me pay for my tea because I was his guest, but also Turyaleh, the little shoeshine boy who was so very sad... I felt so bad for him. 

Everyone I’ve come across is quite friendly. And they all offer tea, of course. Afghans are very hospitable. Watching people go by the window outside the house the other day, I was struck by the ordinariness of it, just regular peaceful life. But then you have what happened to Farkhunda, so brutally murdered in midst of day at the mosque by a mob – beaten, stomped, run over by a car, burned – the level of brutality hard to comprehend. How does a mob form to do such a thing, so suddenly, immediately, on a notion (“she’s burning the Quran!”). Would any of these people walking by on the street do that? This and all the security warnings from everybody (some of our Afghan friends feel it’s too dangerous for us to leave the house), it makes you feel life here is precarious and unpredictable, seemingly calm, but at any moment… shit might hit the fan and you might get killed. As has been pointed out, after three decades of war and conflict, the people of Afghanistan are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But it seems this incident has been a wake-up call for many.

I went to the Shah-e-Doh Shamshira mosque and there was a demonstration under way with heavy police presence. A policewoman frisked me, and then we smiled and shook hands, and my companion and I chose to go another direction. On the loudspeaker a voice condemned in Dari and English the "vicious cruel attack." I would've liked to have taken part in this protest but it was not a good idea to get too close.

We instead proceeded down the market street on the other side of the river. Bustling with people going about their lives, shopping for all kinds of sundries, and nobody paying me any mind (as the sole foreigner among them). Feeling a little apprehensive, but then quite safe and comfortable. I stopped and chatted with Moska, a young woman selling bangles on the street, and bought a few gifts for the girls in Herat.

The Women's Prison of Herat

As an introduction to our new project in the women’s prison in Herat, here is an account from my first experience in the prison in 2011 (a blog report that I never posted!).
* * *
April 2011

One of the most beautiful and devastating experiences we had in Afghanistan was visiting the women’s prison. 

The prison is located on Prison Street.  The front gate is flanked by gigantic cement planters filled with red pelargonia flowers overrun by barbed wire. Rather symbolic.

All the girls of Simorgh Theatre have their arms marked by the prison guard with signature and date in large red permanent marker across their forearm. This is so they can get out again! And not get confused for a prisoner. Joanna and I are spared the markings, no need.

We enter the courtyard where we are to perform and the women are already gathered waiting for us.

There are little children running around. They come right up to me and surround me, unabashed, unafraid, getting close to me with their little bodies, into my arms, face to my face, and hold my hands. So sweet. They’re two, three, maybe four years old. 

The children stay with their mothers in the prison until age seven and then go to relatives (or orphanage?). It’s not clear to me who decides this, does the mother have any say? Generally, as I understand, according to Muslim law, the child belongs to the mother until age seven and after that the father takes over and the mother no longer has any right to her children. I saw a couple of girls around age 10 or 12 as well, but otherwise they all looked under five. The presence of children is startling and disturbing, but also joyous – making it less oppressive, less like a prison.  Still, it’s a prison. It’s beneficial for the children to be with their mothers, but on the other hand it must be detrimental to their psychological well-being to spend their first formative years behind bars.   

The facilities, however, are so much more pleasant than one might expect of an Afghan prison, or any prison (certainly not like jails in the US). I think I had imagined dark, dank cells with dirt floors and perhaps rats, like dungeons. But these were more like dormitories. The floors are carpeted in dark red, and the rooms are large with bunk beds and colorful blankets and a TV set. The doors are left wide open, but perhaps that’s only for our tour. Then there are the children running about. There’s a playroom for them filled with stuffed animals and toys. And for the women there are occupational activities such as tailoring, embroidery, hair dressing and weaving. Another aspect that adds to a less prison-like atmosphere is the fact that the women don’t wear uniforms, they’re dressed in regular clothes of varying colors (i.e., regular Afghan clothing: tunic with pants, or dress, and headscarf or chador (long black sheet)).

But, the inescapable truth is they are in prison. And cannot leave. And it has severe social consequences.

Our girls perform their show about domestic abuse, specifically centering on conflict between a mother-in-law and her young daughter-in-law.  Domestic abuse is rampant in Afghanistan and not only from the husband but often from his entire family (mother-in-law, brothers, uncles, etc.), and the young bride is sometimes treated as a slave. Many of the young women at the prison are there because they ran away from home – from an abusive husband and/or abusive mother-in-law. Running away from home – whether your parents’ or your husband’s -- is a crime in Afghanistan.  A so called moral crime. Some have fled to escape the fate of an impending forced marriage, or to marry the one that they love, others to get away from an abusive home. The brutality of abuse, physical and mental, is beyond the imaginable.  It is so severe that young girls and women, married off as slaves to an older man and his family, burn themselves to death.  In the Herat area last year there were about 100 recorded self-immolations. That’s two a week! And yet, if these women run away, they are the ones who go to jail. Given their circumstances, prison is a better place for many of these young women. Indeed, having shamed the family by running away, they may very well get killed once they leave prison.

And yet, they are in prison, when they have done nothing wrong but eloping with their lover whom they wish to marry, or escaping an abusive home!  They have been deprived of their freedom for nothing.  This is so wrong and deeply upsets my sense of justice.  But most everything involving women in Afghanistan will upset one’s sense of justice and fairness.

Our show is very well-received. The women laugh a lot and break out in applause, spontaneously at certain dialogue. For instance, when a character speaks to the mother-in-law in a dream and talks about how it is possible to change. This is when I wish I understood exactly what was being said when (the show is in Dari) – what prompted them to clap? After the performance, we ask for feedback from the audience. The women say we should bring the show out to the villages. One woman advocated fiercely and enthusiastically for this. Afterwards Joanna and I go to shake hands with some of the women in the audience. I hunch down to say hello, “Tashakor, khob bud”? I can’t say much more, but smile with my hand to my heart. One woman who is further back in the audience calls out: “What is your name?” Another says: “My friend says thank you very much!”

 Two little children kiss my hand with a ritual of placing their cheek, then the other cheek, then their forehead on my hand (and then kiss).  An old woman kisses my cheeks and forehead and hugs me closely and strongly.

The women disappear behind the prison door manned by two female guards in uniform. Some then appear behind the bars of a window, and our girls gather to talk to them. “Where are you from? Are you married? Children?” And eventually the question – “Why are you here in prison?”

One says she killed her husband. Or rather that is what she was put in here for. She didn’t actually do it, but was accused by the husband’s brother. And that’s all it takes. A woman has no voice to defend herself. And even if someone did kill her husband she may have had cause, considering how horribly many women are treated.  But most of them are in prison simply for running away (as described above).

The women behind the bars of the window told the girls they can’t speak further about why they’re there because they’ll cry if they do, and the guards are there (they don’t feel comfortable to speak, or cry, in front of them).

The children sing us a song. They are lined up neat and tidy in a little square. We think, “Oh, how sweet that they sing for us.” But as we learn later the song they’re singing is about being abandoned and homeless! I decide to give the children the balloons I had bought the other day and I still had in my bag.

Our girls are really affected by this visit and especially because of the children. They are visibly taken and somber on the ride home. “The children…” one girl starts to say and breaks down crying. Another girl is crying silently all the way home. This whole experience touched her, I realize, on a very personal level. She’s facing an arranged marriage, and here are all these women who have escaped forced marriages either by killing the husband or running away. She sees herself in these women, her own future perhaps. Or at the least she acutely understands and feels their plight. Her parents want her to marry someone she doesn’t want to marry, but they insist and are not listening to her. She’s been very sad the last few days. I’m told she’s asking to join us a lot on our excursions, because she wants to get away from home. She’s 17, she’s not ready to lose her freedom. That’s it, her life will completely change. And there’s nothing we can do, to help her. I wonder what’s going to happen.

Our play about a mother-in-law who treats her son’s young wife badly has a happy ending. The mother-in-law in the end understands the error of her ways and reconciles with her daughter-in-law. They find a way to live happily together. Later I learn that one of the women in the prison came up to one of our girls and expressed how much she wished her mother-in-law had seen this play. She was in prison because she had killed her mother-in-law.

The girl in our troupe facing a forced marriage got a happy ending too. So far. Her parents relented and she did not have to marry. She has been able to continue with the theater. And she’ll be joining us on this new project in the prison!

Back to Afghanistan

I’m in Afghanistan again! It is now four years since I was here. About time for a return! I am going back to Herat to work with members of Simorgh Theatre for a project in the women’s prison.

Based on our first experience presenting a show in the prison back in 2011, Bond Street Theatre is now developing a creative program specifically for the women in prison – a physical theater-based psychosocial empowerment program! This year-long initiative to bring creative workshops to the women will use theater as a rehabilitative tool to process and heal traumatic experiences, encourage self-expression, build self-esteem, develop communication and leadership skills and the motivation and ability to better manage their lives both inside and outside prison. This kind of program has never before been done in prison in Afghanistan. It's an exciting venture. We will discover and develop as we go! 

Everyone we’re in contact with (including the authorities) are very positive to the proposed program, and based on our prior experience, the women welcome this activity.

Together with Joanna Sherman, I will help get things started for a month and after that the girls of Simorgh take over to keep the program going. The goal is to establish a self-sustaining, continuing drama group and lay the groundwork for similar programs in other prisons. 

We will see how things go! Stay tuned for updates!