Kabul. 4 a.m. The city is silent. There is a strange purity to the lack of sound. No birds chirping. No machines humming. Nothing. As the minutes tick by, and the clock strikes 5, a sound: voices, impassioned, eerily beautiful. This is the first of five calls to prayer that echo through the city each day. And so dawn begins for our group. I say "our group" as though I am physically present in it. I wish I were.
I am writing this blog post based on detailed dispatches from a group of activists who have traveled to Afghanistan to help women imprisoned for so-called moral crimes. (See my post on this last week.) I was supposed to be with them, until the government said it was too dangerous for me to travel there in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death.
I see my friend Karen's hands, covered in intricate, traditional Henna designs, holding her newfangled iPhone as we chat. The future truly seems to have arrived. And it is allowing me to do my job, writing for all of you, and being present for the group, from anywhere. I can have a pre-production meeting for One Tree Hill in the morning, and by afternoon be transported to Kabul, just like that.
But I digress. Our group, as I shall refer to them, met soon after arriving at the Gandamack Lodge for a dinner of pizza and beer in the garden. Cold beer is quite a luxury in Kabul, and the history of the lodge only makes it taste that much more spectacular. The historic bar, called the Hare & Hound lounge, is filled with the feeling of war-zone romances, traces of cigar smoke, and markings of daring and drunken journalists who have toasted near misses and perfectly captured photographs since the early 1800s. The storied sentiments found within make it feel cozy, and make patrons feel safe. Almost. As warnings from the locals in our group of aid workers begin, the harsh reality of the risks associated with being outsiders in this place set in.
There's word that one of our prison advisors in Jalalabad just lost an entire busload of Afghan soldiers who guard the facility to a suicide bomber. And these Taliban fighters have a terrifying new tactic: They are stealing Afghan Army uniforms and posing as soldiers. Just as people begin to feel protected by the military presence, these terrorists in costume board a bus, or walk into a crowded town square, anywhere that they think they can do the most damage to foreign "infidels," and blow themselves up. There is no regard for human life, foreign or national, adult or child, man or woman.
But we knew that already. Human rights here are elusive. We are here, after all, to try to create a new option for women imprisoned simply for being women. Each of us is outraged by the practice of punishment for "moral crimes" in this country.
The day begins with the first of many trips to see them. The women in our group are covered head to toe, with only their ankles exposed. The pulsing heat is already pushing past 99 degrees by midmorning, and the air filling the taxi cab with a mixture of thick dust and the smell of roses. The female passengers are each struck by the fact that in Afghanistan, women do not drive. Ever. And the men who do are not required to have licenses. Thus, the avenues are filled with a constantly shifting chaos of sheep herds, donkey carts, little children, and legless men swinging incense pots into cars' open windows, all dodging vehicles like bullets as they whiz by.
Fortunately our group keeps moving. Finally we end up at our first prison. The location and name will not be mentioned here, as we need to keep the women jailed there, and those working to help them, safe. Under Afghan custom, these women are "shamed," and thus have brought humiliation on their families. Through the Afghan Women's Justice Project, we hope to create a future for them when they are released. They can never return home, nor can their children—who often serve jail time with their mothers—so providing education and means of trade is our priority.
Entering the prison is quite a process. There are a number of security checks, screenings, and patdowns, many of which are repeated more than once, all at the hands of guards armed with enormous guns. I get snippets in short videos and photos from Karen's iPhone. Even halfway across the world, it feels daunting. The group will meet with incarcerated women once inside, and tour the juvenile section.
Currently there are more than 800 children ages 9 to 17 in prison in Afghanistan. Some are sent with their mothers when the women are convicted of "moral crimes." Others are jailed to prevent them from being murdered by the Taliban for refusing to be suicide bombers. Three babies have been born behind bars this month alone, to three 15-year-old girls who are each accused of running away from abusive husbands. In this facility alone, the group will be meeting with 165 women.
One of the new inmates here is a girl of only 19: She entered the jail with her 6-month-old baby, and together they will serve a five-year prison sentence. All because she attempted to leave her 68-year-old husband, who was beating her every day. In this society, this woman is considered a criminal. She has no rights. She cannot make any of her own choices. Where to walk. Whom to love. But to the AWJP, she has a voice. And she matters. So how do we give these women a future? Education. Teaching them to read. To write. To get a job and balance a budget.
This is where a heroic Afghan woman named Shima comes in. Shima is a member of the Afghan Women's Business Association, and a skilled jewelry maker. She has spent the last 20 years training more than 1,000 Afghan women to do the same. She believes in women's rights, and she is a shining example of the progressive gains that empowered women are making in countries like Afghanistan. Shima counts her blessings, and wants to lend her success to the most disenfranchised women in the region, those in prison. As she tells her story to the 165 captive ladies, who hang on her every word, she offers to train each of them. This is unheard of. The idea that these women could work while in jail, earn money, and have a network of women to work with after their release, charges the room with an electric excitement. Women who, moments ago, were sure that they had no future, suddenly have an opportunity.
For many, it is the first opportunity they've ever been given. As Shima asks who is interested in her offer, hands fly up into the air, and in the end, 142 women sign up for our job-training program. Suddenly inside the crumbling walls of this dingy prison, the future looks brighter.
More to come, readers. And trust me, it keeps getting better.
Much Love, Sophia