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“The female prison population in Afghanistan overwhelmingly consists of individuals who are serving 5-to-15-year sentences for moral crimes,” Gabriela Maj writes in Almond Garden: Portraits from the Women’s Prisons in Afghanistan, out next month from Daylight Books. After first traveling to Afghanistan in 2010 on assignment, the Polish Canadian photographer returned six times during the following four years. Her monograph is named for Badam Bagh penitentiary outside of Kabul, which translates to “almond garden.” Quiet portraits reveal the faces of women often in prison for extramarital sex, known as zina, or running away from abusive husbands wed in arranged marriages.
“Almond Garden aims to bring awareness to the connection between gender equality and basic human rights via the personal stories and images of individuals who have been effected by the lack of both,” Maj told Hyperallergic. Photographs are followed by the women’s stories, as told to Maj, although these aren’t linked up to any specific portrait, creating instead a sense of the restrictive gender imbalance through their accumulated experiences. For example, Golbegam, age 18, convicted of the moral crime of running away has this story:
Golbegam had been physically abused in her home for her whole life. She escaped with a young man whom she loved. They both ended up turning themselves in. He received a 10-year sentence for kidnapping. Golbegam said that she would return to her family home after her release, despite the fact that she would probably be killed. “What choice do I have?” she asked. Her mother visited her in prison on occasion. Golbegam spoke about education. She said that her only wish in life was that she would be allowed to study.
Some women hold children brought with them or that they had while in prison after arriving pregnant. Maj explains in the book that as a foreigner with a Polish passport, sharing a history of Soviet rule with Afghanistan, and a woman, she was able to get access that allowed her to visit the prisons multiple times, gaining trust. She points out that some women are in for crimes like murder and drug trafficking, such as Shirin Gul, notorious for her sentence of serial murder. All of these convictions bring women to the same facilities, where they are confined together regardless of their mental state or violent past.
“Monitoring women for moral crimes perpetuates a system of legitimized violence,” she writes in the book. “If women were free to choose their intimate partners, it would no longer be the responsibility of the state to safeguard virginity. As long as men and women are denied the freedom to choose their spouse, there will be suffering and violence as a result. And as long as women’s bodies are regarded as property to be owned, bought, and sold, a war against them in the name of morality will continue.”
Gabriela Maj: Almond Garden: Portraits from the Women’s Prisons in Afghanistan is available June 23 from Daylight Books.