Burqa Babes in the Big House: Romeo and Juliet in Kabul

Forced, arranged marriage is a heartbreaking and soul-crushing Islamic reality. Yes, I know: tribal concepts of family honor and Arab desert customs take pride in the fact that they are able to break each individual’s will in the service of the larger good of the family, the clan, the most brutal patriarch, the historical past, and ultimately Allah himself.

Nevertheless, marrying a ten-year-old to her thirty-year-old, illiterate first cousin or to a man old enough to be her grandfather and who already has two wives and grown sons is barbaric and inhuman. Forcing a girl or a boy to marry someone against their will and preventing them from marrying the person of their choice is a crime against the heart. Often, such arranged marriages (and almost all marriages are arranged) include normalized wife-and daughter-in-law beating. The few shelters and jails for battered women and for the intended victims of honor killings in the Muslim world are filled with such stories.

I recently watched an HBO documentary with the catchy title Love Crimes of Kabul. The film takes us inside a woman’s prison in Kabul. The film is surprisingly “light,” given how dark its subject really is. The women in the Badam Bagh prison are commendably feisty. They are surprisingly tough babes in the Big House and their pants-wearing rather butch chief female warden is tougher still. And yet, she still functions as their respected and protective mother figure.

There is much gruff and playful tenderness among the women who bond with each other and fight with each other as if they are “family”; they eat and sleep together in the same room, communally. The all-female and informal atmosphere is that of a harem, a prison, a brothel.

The Burqa Babes are surprisingly, refreshingly brash. They are not ashamed of what they have done. They are also funny; they see the comic dimension in their essentially Kafkaesque situations. They are clowns, ironic, as self-deprecating as they are aggressive. They make us laugh. They are ethnically and racially gorgeous in their diversity. They are from every tribe, every region, and they bear the genetic legacy of every conquering army. The women are hard on each other. Just as I’ve discussed in my book Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, women internalize the same sexist beliefs that men do and are highly judgmental of other women, often without compassion.

Iranian filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian (kudos to you dear lady!) miraculously managed to get a camera and a crew inside the prison and inside some of the legal hearings. What crimes have the women committed? Apparently half the prison population have dared to fall in love, or are suspected of having done so, or they have dared to have sex before marriage, have run away from home, or rejected an arranged marriage. These are crimes in Afghanistan. (The other half of the prison population are thieves, smugglers, or murderers).

Among the “moral” criminals: One woman was sentenced to four years for having run away with the boy she loved.  Another woman, the very spunky Kareema, who looks like an innocent child (many of the inmates do), fell in love, had sex, became pregnant — but the scoundrel who had courted her refused to marry her, which would have doomed Kareema to certain death. What did Kareema do? She turned both herself and her boyfriend in to the police. The only way this cad can now get out of jail is if he marries Kareema, who is very pleased that she has managed to turn her potential murder into an inevitable marriage.

Some husband. His name is Firuz and he says, on camera, “I wish I never met her.”

Kareema is the one who proposed marriage to him. She is a Hazara; Firuz is a Pashtun. The Pushtuns view themselves as a superior caste or tribe—although many Hazaras do not believe in marrying out either. In this case, a “love crime” trumps the internal tribal caste system. Firuz must marry Kareema. How will Firuz and his family punish this upstart Hazara? Kareema’s father says that “she will be their dog, their servant.”

Kareema wants to apologize to her father, whose only concern is himself. He believes that Kareema should have married a suitor who could have supported him, the father-in-law, in his old age.

Kareema is now refusing to marry Firuz in jail unless he pays a dowry. She is that spirited. And yes, they do marry in jail but are still found guilty of the crime of premarital sex. They receive a three-month sentence, but the judge says that Islam believes in the family, and thus he decides that the newly married couple will be better off at home than in jail.

And so we see that the scurrying, silent figures beneath the blue burqas are also brash, canny, high-spirited, and daring. They may be oppressed, but they are also incredibly good natured and realistic. And they know exactly what they are up against. A lawyer advises: “A bad husband is better than no husband.” The women understand and accept this as their lot in life.

Their female-female conversations are frank, spontaneous, unrestrained, assertive, and sharply to the point. Kareema’s mother tells her: “Everyone knows you screwed up.”

Another mother-in-law/daughter-in-law-couple, Zia and Alia (or Aleema), are in for rather mysterious reasons. They fight bitterly. Did they run away together from a dangerously violent home? Did Zia save the younger woman by hiding her from Alia’s murderous family of origin? Did Alia have an affair with Zia’s son—whom she now refuses to marry? Or did Zia try to pimp out Alia? These women say that in their family “people speak with knives.” Alia is clear that if she is ever released from prison, her family will “quietly drown” her.

Then there is Sabera, so young, so pretty, so charming, who dared to fall in love. She does not think this is a crime. Although she has been accused of having had premarital sex, a medical exam in prison proves that she is still a virgin. However, she admits to having engaged in anal sex — something that is quite common in Afghanistan both among men and as a birth control device. For this crime Sabera was sentenced to three years.

Courtesy of Amnesty International and Frontline/PBS, everyone now knows about the “dancing boys” of Afghanistan and about the Taliban and Kandahari penchant for young boys, who are often orphans, always poor boys, who are taught to dress and dance like women and with whom the older, dominant man has both anal and oral sex.  There is no question that sodomy is a “happening” thing in Afghanistan.

Back to the Badum Bagh prison: One woman on camera admits that she finally killed her husband. Naseema is 45 years old and has no regrets. “Men like my husband should all be murdered. He had sex with boys and other women and with a seven year old girl. I did the world some good. But it’s considered a crime. I have no pain or remorse. I’m glad.”

Unbelievably, but comically, the chief female guard says that “women have been given too much freedom.” Another prison guard says: “If they were good women they would not be here. They would be home with their families.”

No, sir. With their fighting spirits, defiance, open-heartedness, and philosophical minds these are very, very good women indeed.