Mention the extreme conservatism of Afghan culture and we automatically cue media-fed images of women covered in blue burqas, men-only public gatherings and, the customary, long-bearded men holding guns and spewing anti-Western hate. So when a film titled 'Love Crimes of Kabul' comes along, you'd be tempted to expect similar images. But director Tanaz Eshaghian’s film, set to premiere on HBO on July 11, steers clear of those images. It is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the prisoners in Kabul's Badam Bagh women's prison whose only crime was to assert their right to take control of their own lives. These are women whose thinking falls on the wrong side of Afghanistan's stringent moral codes but they are strong, unapologetic and most importantly, deeply in love. As a result, they are jailed for it.
Love Crimes... had its US premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York last month. As the film tells us, of the 125 women imprisoned in Badam Bagh, approximately half are there for drug smuggling, murder and attempted suicide bombing. The rest are there for "moral" crimes, which range from running away from home, premarital sex and adultery to merely socializing with a man "with the intention of having sex." They face long jail terms unless the male partner involved agrees to marry them, which is seen as the only way to correct the moral misstep.
Eshaghian, whose last film Be Like Others peered into the world of Iranian men undergoing sex change surgery, seems to enjoy uncovering the fringes of conservative Islamic societies. With Love Crimes..., Eshaghian gets intimate access to the women in the prison, as well as their families and prison guards. She even manages to get to the Kabul Men's Prison, where the male partners of the erring women are being held. And it is this intimate access that makes the film so engaging and makes the viewing experience almost personal for those of us watching this story from thousands of miles away.
The film follows the stories of three women in particular. Kareema, 2o (pictured above), turned herself (and her boyfriend Firuz) in to the authorities when she discovered she was pregnant and Firuz had refused to marry her. Instead of having to live with the social ramifications of being an unwed mother, Kareema uses the conservative laws of her society as leverage to get what she wants - she and Firuz can only be freed if he agrees to marry her. Kareema's story is juxtaposed with that of Aleema, 22, who ran away from an abusive home and sought refuge with a stranger, Zia. Both women were arrested when Zia attempted to sell Aleema to an undercover cop. In captivity, the two women constantly tussle with each other, blaming one another for their condition. Their dynamic also unravels an intriguing generational divide in Afghan society where Zia refuses to support or understand Aleema's plight despite also being a woman subject to the same austere laws.
This is illustrated further when a social worker reprimands Aleema for running away from her abusive husband, telling her, “A bad husband is better than no husband...None of this would have happened if you had a husband and a nice home.”
Kareema and Aleema's more complex situations are countered by the painfully arbitrary case of Sabereh. Aged just 18, Sabereh was turned in by her own father when he discovered her with a 17 year old boy. Even though court doctors prove her virginity is still intact, the boy and his family's resistance to marriage signal a harsh fate for Sabereh.
The Afghanistan that Eshaghian shows in her film is still the repressive society it is known to be, but inside the walls of the prison, the fiercely independent personalities and unwavering spirit of the women gives the film an oddly positive tone. This keeps the film from constantly vying for viewer pity and instead introduces us to incredibly colorful characters who are thoroughly enjoying the feeling of being in love, sometimes giddily so, even if society is telling them it's wrong and severely punishable.
However, beneath the romantic optimism of the characters lies the defeated acceptance of a society that is still incredibly oppressive towards women. Several details of their individual cases repeatedly assert the negligible rights and power these women have in their own country, where their freedom is seen as a threat to the societal core. Just ten years after the end of Taliban rule, Afghanistan has still a long way to go before the dismantling of the social and moral codes that have been so heavily imposed onto the people. Until then, the "love crimes" like those committed by Kareema, Aleema and Sabereh will probably keep happening and be punished. As the female prison guard at Badam Bagh comments disapprovingly, the prison is quickly filling up “because these days women are given too much freedom.”
Photo courtesy of HBO.