Gul Bibi pulls back her light blue scarf to reveal faded tribal tattoos and sad, almond eyes. She has not seen any of her three children, or any other family members, in the five months she has languished in prison. Her "crime": running away from a husband who viciously beat her throughout their nine-year marriage, which was arranged by her parents when she was 16 to end a land dispute. She finally fled to Kabul from her home in eastern Khost province this summer with a neighbor named Ajmal. They'd fallen in love and planned to get married, she explains, until her husband took several of his relatives hostage, demanding that she turn herself in to police. Her insistence that she never had sexual relations with her companion doesn't matter to an Afghan justice system that deems her desertion tantamount to adultery. "It's difficult when a man and women really love each other here," says the 25-year-old ethnic Pashtun. "Now I'm trapped."
Most of the nearly 200 inmates at the Badam Bagh women's prison are runaways like Bibi, confined alongside a smaller number of murderers and drug traffickers. Many of the runaways were forced into marriage as teenagers, in some cases to men three times their age, enduring regular beatings and verbal abuse from their husbands or in-laws. Some fled to be with other men; others, simply to find peace. Most expected to eventually be caught and face the consequences, but their lives at home had become intolerable. "When a bird is sitting in a tree, if no one throws a stone, it will not leave its nest," laments a sympathetic prison guard. "The same can be said of the women here."
To be sure, the Taliban's alternative is far worse, as an Aug. 9 TIME magazine cover image of a disfigured Afghan girl, Aisha, so jarringly illustrated. Having fled an arranged marriage to a militant, the 18-year-old was sentenced to have her nose and ears sliced off by in-laws with the approval of a local Taliban mullah. Afghan authorities have since arrested the father-in-law. But rights organizations say the Taliban is not the only problem; violence against women is a national phenomenon driven by norms deeply embedded in Afghan culture, and a weak government often turns a blind eye or prosecutes victims for breaking taboos. Runaway brides are almost always imprisoned on charges of having sex outside of marriage, regardless of evidence of lack thereof.
A recent report by the United Nations mission in Afghanistan concluded that the government has not done enough to uphold women's rights since the Taliban's ouster. The report, based on 150 individual and group interviews in 29 provinces, found that violence against women remains prevalent, to varying degrees, across the country's regional and ethnic divides. Nationwide, more than half of all girls are married before they turn 15, usually to settle disputes. And authorities' reluctance to incur the wrath of conservative communities by enforcing laws against domestic violence has led to an increase in "honor killings" and abuse. When women flee family violence, they risk the ire of both their families and the government.
Trouble also awaits those who try to help women in caught in violent marriages. Abdul Wahid Zhian, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Organization of Afghanistan, a nonprofit that provides free legal assistance, had to leave his native Ghazni province a year ago after taking on two controversial runaway cases that resulted in his receiving death threats. The first case involved a father who had raped and impregnated his daughter but was acquitted of charges. In the second, two girls were raped by their father and brother. Yet the men were pardoned, in the interest of resolving an interfamily dispute, by a tribal jirga that ultimately decided that matters could be made right by executing the lawyer and the girls. (They are now in hiding.) "We have a cultural problem here that undermines the law," says Zhian, who is now seeking asylum abroad. He remains adamant that "running away is a right, not a crime."
In this climate, serving time in the Kabul women's prison offers temporary relief for some women. Inmates are given the right of refusal should they not want to see their relatives. They are free to move around the grounds for much of the day, cook meals and speak candidly with one another about their hardships. A fully equipped day-care center is open throughout the day for the almost 50 children living on-site. And for the women who have never spent a day in school a majority of them courses in English conversation and computer skills are offered by volunteer teachers to help give them an outside chance at a fresh start, even though a stigma will follow them as long as they remain in Afghanistan. It's a compromise that Gul Bibi is prepared to live with in exchange for her freedom, provided that her husband grants her a divorce.
Others, like 18-year-old Gulwari, who uses only one name, refuse to accept the status quo. An ethnic Hazara originally from Bamiyan province, she fell in love in the capital with a young man, Muhammad, whom her father rejected, prompting the couple to abscond. Her boyfriend is now serving time in Kabul's Pul-e-Charki prison while she waits for an appeals court to grant her a hearing on her two-year sentence, of which she has served seven months. Her older brother has repeatedly threatened to kill her if he ever sees her again, and she's planning to avoid such an encounter. "Me and my [boyfriend] have promised each other that if we get out together, we'll move to Iran for good," she says with a defiant smirk. "We're still in love." In the end, serving the rest of her sentence may be the hardest part: her boyfriend's last job was on the Iranian border, smuggling people across.