THEY KILLED THEIR HUSBANDS. NOW IN PRISON, THEY FEEL FREE.
Violence against women is rampant in Afghanistan. For some, murdering their husbands was the only way they could escape their abusive marriages.
Photo Essay by Kiana Hayeri, Text by May Jeong
The 15-foot wallsthat surround the Herat Women’s Prison are common to government properties in Afghanistan, as is the corrugated-metal gate, which is guarded by security personnel day and night. The concertina wire that encircles the walls gives the compound a cagelike feeling, but the barriers are meant to keep intruders from getting in as much as they are intended to keep inmates from getting out.
One hundred nineteen inmates and their 32 children live behind the robin’s-egg blue walls of the prison, located in the northeast sector of Herat city in western Afghanistan, just off the main road. First opened in the 1990s, before the Taliban took power, the facility is now run by the provincial government with some support from local nongovernmental organizations. At least half the women in Afghan prisons have been charged with so-called moral crimes like drug use, running away from home and sex outside of marriage — including in the case of rape, evidence of which may be uncovered through forced virginity tests. Despite pressure from Western governments and human rights groups to change these laws, such offenses continue to be recognized as serious crimes under Afghanistan’s Constitution.
In Herat Women’s Prison, as many as 20 women have been charged with and in some cases found guilty of murdering their husbands. Many have similar stories: As teenage girls, their families forced them into marriages with much older men who were known criminals, insurgents, drug addicts or all of the above. The girls were subjected to physical and verbal abuse with no access to money, no legal protection and no means of initiating divorce proceedings. There is little legal consequence for violence against women — in a country where nearly 90 percent of them will experience some form of domestic abuse in their lifetime, according to a 2008 study by the United States Institute of Peace.
In 2019, Kiana Hayeri, an Iranian-Canadian photographer based in Afghanistan, visited Herat Women’s Prison. The images she captured there stand in stark contrast to the essentializing portraits of the women in blue burqas common in Western news coverage of Afghanistan. Having spent years photographing women who had endured abuse but chose to stay with their husbands, Hayeri wanted to understand how far someone could be pushed before she did something to protect herself.
She found that many of these women’s lives were dominated by fear, but years of physical and verbal abuse had transformed that fear into anger. They were so tired of being afraid that their instinct to survive drove them to kill. By the time Hayeri met them, imprisoned and facing lengthy sentences, they had become different people entirely. “All these women were full of emotions, resilience, life and most importantly hope,” Hayeri says.
Behind bars, they have found a semblance of peace — or at least a place less violent than the one they killed to escape. The prison grounds are a quiet world of cement walkways, courtyards carpeted in artificial turf and overgrown gardens of trees and weeds. Barefoot children play on what remains of a playground. Mothers watch as their sons and daughters play and grow, as if this were a backyard in any ordinary neighborhood.
The inmates’ lives are confined to a pair of buildings. Inside each are big rooms lined with bunk beds covered with brightly patterned blankets. Bedsheets hang in the doorways as decoration and to keep out the dust. Daylight hours are spent mostly outdoors, where laundry hangs to dry from pine boughs and inmates chat casually with one another as they scrub aluminum cooking pots and stainless-steel tea thermoses. Those not on cooking or cleaning duty can usually be found lounging across felt-carpeted floors, watching soap operas or doing needlework.
Other women’s prisons in Afghanistan have fallen under scrutiny for sexual harassment and assault, a lack of access to female medical providers and poor construction and upkeep, leading to dangerous living conditions, but the Herat facility, which is run and staffed by women, has become a kind of refuge for the prisoners. Despite the overcrowding, many inmates told Hayeri that they felt freer in prison than they had in their marriages.
Among the incarcerated is Parisa, 20, who arrived at the prison in 2018. She was married for about five years, during which time she was repeatedly beaten and stabbed by her husband. She said he would tie her up and beat her hands and feet with a thick piece of wood. At one point, she said, he even tried to sell her kidney, going as far as finding a buyer and then taking her to the hospital to get a blood test. “When they determined that my kidney was not a match, he beat me,” she said. Her husband threatened to kill her parents if she filed for a divorce. “I would pray for my death,” she said. “I would say, ‘God, either kill me or him.’ ”
Parisa went to her in-laws for protection, but they had little influence over their son. One night, she locked herself in a room in which she found her husband’s rifle and loaded it. She says she fired a shot through the door after her husband started screaming on the other side. The bullet struck him in the chest, and he died minutes later. Police took Parisa into custody, and after a brief investigation, she was tried, convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Her 1-year-old daughter, Fatima, and her 3-year-old son, Mohammad Irfan, were incarcerated with her. “I accept this imprisonment,” Parisa says. “I was not able to live another day with him, so this is what happened to me.”
Another prisoner, Fatima, 39, told Hayeri that she was married off to her cousin and bore him five children, the first when she was 13. He was a violent man, prone to punching Fatima in the head; once, he even shot her. “Even your bones cannot leave this house,” he would say when she begged him to stop. On several occasions, she tried to kill herself in halfhearted ways, eating food that had gone bad or exposing herself to cold weather. In the end, she choked her husband to death in his sleep. The court sentenced her to 20 years in prison. She has already served eight.
In 2009, the Afghan government passed the Elimination of Violence Against Women law. Legislated with the help of local organizations and international partners, it was the first to establish protections for Afghan women against child marriage, forced marriage and 20 other acts of violence — but only on paper. Like so many other Western-backed initiatives in Afghanistan, the law’s greatest feat was creating the illusion of progress.
Natasha Latiff, a lawyer who has represented defendants accused of killing their husbands, says the assertion of control over women by men is considered a cultural norm of masculinity. Men are often forgiven for crimes of violence against their spouses, so long as they’re still seen as providing for their families. In the years after the law’s implementation, the United Nations has continued to find that most acts of violence against women, including sex trafficking, rape and forced suicide, never make it into a courtroom. Instead they are mediated by local elders or by the police — usually against the women’s will, and against their interests. This applies even in the case of murder: The United Nations found in 2018 that just 18 percent of documented murders of women in Afghanistan led to legal action against the perpetrator.
According to a local saying, “A woman enters her husband’s house wearing white and leaves his house wearing white,” referring to the shroud that wraps the dead before burial. That very well could have been the fate of some of the women in Hayeri’s photographs. Instead, they left in handcuffs.
Parisa’s husband tried to shoot her on two different occasions. “He was sitting right in front of me,” she says. “He aimed at me and fired, but the bullet missed me. … He would say he was teaching me. On another occasion, he opened fire, but by order of God, the gun fell off his hand and the bullet fired in the air.”
Parisa’s 3-year-old son, Mohammad Irfan (above), came to the prison with her. One weekend she let her in-laws take him for a visit and then they refused to give him back. Parisa petitioned the government and her son was eventually returned to her in prison.
Parisa’s mother visits her on Saturdays, during the visiting hours for women. Families that travel from far away have to come twice if both male and female relatives want to visit the prisoners.
Nahid, 35, spends most of her time on her bunk, alone, watching television and smoking cigarettes. She was married for 15 years to a heroin addict who beat her regularly, stabbed her on a few occasions and shot her once. He also abused their children. “I knew he was going to seriously harm me or my children at some point,” Nahid says. “One day when we were fighting, it got out of hand, and I shot him.”
Her arms are covered with cuts that appear self-inflicted. Her fingers and palms are dyed with henna. “I am regretful despite how he tortured me,” she says through tears. “I wouldn’t have done this if he had gotten better. He was the father of my children.”
As a girl, Nafas, 20, was promised to a drug-addicted relative, a man 17 years older. Before they married, he beat her, leaving her with scars. She protested the union for a year, appealing to her parents and brothers. “Even if you die, you have to marry him,” they told her. When they wouldn’t relent, Nafas took her brother’s gun and shot her husband. He died from the wound. “I had to do it,” Nafas says.
Foroozan was born into a poor family and married off to a man 25 years her senior. “He never allowed me to go outside,” she says. “In the 15 years of our marriage, I didn’t leave my house more than 15 times.” For years, Foroozan took the beatings in stride, until one early morning she saw her husband attempting to molest one of their daughters, who was fast asleep in the other room. Foroozan grabbed a shovel and hit him repeatedly with the blade until he died.
Foroozan and her three children were all imprisoned for her husband’s death. Her son served 2.5 years at a juvenile detention center, and he fled Afghanistan on foot when he was released. He is now 17 and lives in Germany. Foroozan’s daughters, Mozhdah, 14, and Mahtab, 12, were moved to a safe house after they were released from prison.
Mina, an inmate’s daughter, examining a scar on Fatima’s arm. Fatima says she doesn’t remember how she hurt herself, but other women told her she picked up some broken glass and intentionally cut herself.
Fatima says she was forced to marry her cousin, who beat her so severely that he left her with a traumatic brain injury. She experiences chronic pain from the physical abuse, and the younger inmates offer to wash her clothes for her, but she refuses their help.
Kiana Hayeri is an Iranian-Canadian photographer and a senior TED fellow. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times from Afghanistan, where she has been based since 2014. May Jeong is a fellow at the Type Media Center and a contributing writer for Vanity Fair magazine. This is her first article for the magazine.
Reporting by Kiana Hayeri.