Haunting Photos Show The Mothers & Children Locked Up For "Moral Crimes"

Photo: Courtesy of GABRIELA MAJ.
Fatima fell in love with her English teacher. Leili had an affair. Rai Hanna divorced a husband who forced her into sex work. Shabona ran away from her abusive husband, a seventysomething man she had been forced to marry at 13.

Instead of support from family, friends, or social services, all four Afghan women received prison sentences for allegedly committing zina, or a "moral crime."

Sadly, their experiences are not unique. Human Rights Watch estimates that half of all women imprisoned in the country are serving time for so-called moral crimes, which can range from adultery to running away from an abusive parent or spouse. Even being a victim of rape can land a woman behind bars.

Photographer Gabriela Maj first began photographing female prisoners accused of moral crimes while on assignment in Afghanistan in 2010. During that trip, she visited Badam Bagh, a prison outside Kabul. Hearing the stories of the women incarcerated for what seemed like unimaginable offenses, she said, was a "powerful experience."

"I met a handful of young women, who were in most cases much younger than myself, who had been through lives of tremendous trauma and who were living with a horrendous amount of uncertainty," she said. "They were also caught…in a justice system that was a fun-house mirror of what the justice system should be."

She returned to take more photographs — and hear more stories — over the next four years. The result of her visits is Almond Garden, a book of portraits that takes its title from the English translation of the prison's name.

Maj spoke to Refinery29 from Dubai about what she learned from the project and how being a woman helped her tell these powerful stories. Ahead, are powerful images that capture life inside Almond Garden's four walls.

For more information about Almond Garden, or to purchase the book, visit Maj's site here.
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Photo: Courtesy of GABRIELA MAJ.
Maj had never been inside a prison before she set foot in Badam Bagh, which she calls Afghanistan's most notorious penitentiary for women. She was immediately struck by how many babies and children were living alongside their mothers behind bars.

"The sound you hear coming up to the building is the sound of kids," Maj said. "It sounds more like recess time than... a penal facility."
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Photo: Courtesy of GABRIELA MAJ.
Moral crimes cover a wide range of circumstances, including "women who have run away from the homes of their husbands or fathers…women who are raped, women who have been accused of adultery, women who have run away from their home, and women who have refused partners that their families have chosen to them from marriage," Maj said. Men can also be incarcerated for zina.
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Photo: Courtesy of GABRIELA MAJ.
"If you’re raped, for example, or if you run away, these are all perceived to be situations that you as a woman are putting yourself in," Maj said. "Even if you’re an unmarried woman, you can be accused of committing adultery. Any sort of relations — even rape — it's understood that you have brought this on yourself."
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Photo: Courtesy of GABRIELA MAJ.
Maj deliberately separates the portraits from the prisoner stories in her book in order to project the safety of her subjects. The names of all the women featured in her book have been changed to protect their identities.
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Photo: Courtesy of GABRIELA MAJ.
Badam Bagh was one of several prisons for women built with foreign funding and aid after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Before then, separate facilities for women didn't exist. Each cell is shared by five to 10 women.

But during the day, the doors open and the inmates are allowed to socialize and spend time in public spaces. "It’s relatively new," Maj said. "It sort of feels like a very, very basic cinderblock brick-and-mortar structure; like a very, very basic elementary school in an area that that was struggling with funding."
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Photo: Courtesy of GABRIELA MAJ.
The law allows sentences for moral crimes to be anything between five and 15 years. And because judges in Afghanistan hold a great deal of discretion on their cases, sentences of individual women may vary widely. A woman who comes from a family that is well-connected or can afford to pay bribes can sometimes receive a much lighter sentence, Maj said. Efforts are underway to update the laws for more clarity and better treatment for women in the justice system, but it is an uphill battle.
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Photo: Courtesy of GABRIELA MAJ.
For many women, a prison sentence is just the beginning of the punishment they'll face for their so-called crimes.

Often, they will be shunned or disowned by their families and communities upon release. "Once you’re imprisoned, you encounter all the struggles, difficulties, and injustices that apply to women there," Maj said. "And then, of course, your community knows, which destroys your life. It's a whirlpool of a situation."
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Photo: Courtesy of GABRIELA MAJ.
Parenting behind bars is a reality for many of the women in Badam Bagh and other Afghan penitentiaries.

"On the one hand, a lot of women experience a really beautiful sense of community….Many of the women who had experienced abuse in the homes of their husbands or the homes of their fathers — there was a kind of a freedom in that all-female space in the prison that they never had before," she said.

But women convicted for moral crimes — and their children — also had to live alongside inmates serving time for more serious offenses. "It's an environment that can be and is often violent, volatile, and aggressive, which makes for very difficult conditions for the children," she said.
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Photo: Courtesy of GABRIELA MAJ.
"One of the things that struck me in the heart right from the beginning that I kept hearing was that what these women wanted for themselves was an education," Maj said. "It wasn't a big house, it wasn’t a loving husband, a career, whatever the ideas or concerns that we as women in North America are thinking of for our futures when we’re 21 or 20. These girls, they don’t take education for granted. It's not something that’s available to everyone. They spoke about it almost like an unattainable but highly desired luxury. And that was something that’s really inspiring, really beautiful."
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Photo: Courtesy of GABRIELA MAJ.
Inside the prisons, "there’s a lot more color than you would expect," Maj said. "That’s something that was so juxtaposed obviously with what had filled so much of this woman's life," she said.

Tapestries and even flowers decorated the living areas. Many women would smuggle in small Tupperware containers full of makeup. Those small details helped the women "maintain a connection to everyday concerns" and life, she said.
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Photo: Courtesy of GABRIELA MAJ.
Maj credits her gender — and her Polish passport — for helping her gain access and trust inside the prison. "This book would not be possible for a man to make happen," she said.

In addition to being able to win the trust of her sources, "working independently as a woman in Afghanistan was beneficial," Maj said.

"The gatekeepers to these places, from wardens to guards to ministers, they’re all men, and I think, as a woman — especially as a woman [who] wasn’t associated with any organization or government or military — working independently, I think they gave me the access because they perceived me through this lens. I wasn’t a threat to them via their perception of gender."
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Photo: Courtesy of GABRIELA MAJ.
Maj's advice for young women interested in impacting change is simple: "Pick an issue and stick with it."

"There are so many battles to be fought in this world. I think it’s very easy to stop and think and feel bad and maybe donate some money or spend an hour volunteering time, or two, but the real work is when you stay with an issue," she said.

That message is especially crucial given how many campaigns and advocacy efforts young people are inundated with each day online.

"Really sticking with something has the potential of affecting some kind of change, of bringing change into another person’s life," she added. "Just clicking a 'like' on a social-media platform or buying a T-shirt with a logo or whatever really doesn’t."

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