Beaten, abused, chained. This is one Afghan woman's 'liberation'
The Taliban's fall was supposed to bring freedom for women. But for many, life is still a misery - and for one, jail is the safest place to be.
Mina rests on the earth floor of a Kandahar jail. Now eight months pregnant by a man she says raped and tortured her for seven years, she is in the Afghan prison for fleeing the marital home.
She is 28 but wears the lined, sad face of an old woman. Wet eyes glimmering through her burqa, she rocks gently as she talks of her coming baby as a bleak and loathsome prospect.
'I was abducted,' she says. 'This man [the father of her unborn child] is not my husband. I have a family and I want to go back to them. But if my parents see I have a new baby, they may kill me.'
Mina's nine-year-old son Jonahmat rests his head on her knees and then runs into the prison yard to play with other children living inside. For now, they are safe with 11 other mothers and stray siblings who have made it to safety behind metal bars and a barbed-wire fence.
When the Taliban fell from power in the capital, Kabul, the Western media celebrated the liberation of Afghan women; unveiled faces were photographed smiling proudly in a brilliant blue sea of burqas. The voice of US First Lady Laura Bush blasted out on satellite TV: the women of Afghanistan had suffered, but American liberation had ended their incarceration.
The message spread slowly, however. The few women who dared to show their faces were in relatively cosmopolitan Kabul; others waited for greater reassurance. Girls went back to school, but around the provinces, especially in the conservative Pashtun south, a woman on the street remained a rare sight. The few who venture out still wear burqas or black head-to-toe garb. The sizeable Kandahar University still has only six women.
Mina's jail houses 12 women. Most are there for running away from their husbands, or for living as prostitutes because they somehow wound up without a man.
A delegation of women from the Kandahar-based Afghans for Civil Society travelled to Kabul last month to discuss the new constitution with President Hamed Karzai. Delegates from the regions are to meet in December to decide whether the country's new law will be secular or follow the Islamic sharia doctrines. Rights for women, strictly limited since 1977, remain a contentious issue.
Sarah Chayes, the American director of Afghans for Civil Society, said: 'We have told the women: if you want rights, you have to take them. But the basic underpinnings of society are not on their side. Women are chattels. If they don't have a male family member to argue their case, they don't exist.'
In tribally run district courts and within families, decisions that rule women's lives are a matter of obedience, convention and saving face. For those who fall through the net, there is no mercy. 'Incarceration is what marriage means in Afghanistan. A woman is allowed out only for weddings and funerals,' says Chayes.
Kandahar province's Attorney General, Haji Muhamad Issa, sneers at those who have been imprisoned for leaving their men. 'Ask these women this,' he says: 'There are hundreds of thousands of women who are still in their homes and happy. What is wrong with you that you ended up here?'
When the Taliban swept into Kabul in 1996, Mina's deck was already stacked. At 18, she was married off to a man who gave her her son, but spent his time pursuing wine, dog fighting and young boys. Seeing Mina as a waste of his family's resources, his father kicked her out.
'I said I was willing to go with another brother of my husband,' she said. 'But no one wanted me, and my father told me not to come home because I was a disgrace.'
Mina and Jonahmat, then two, went to live with her married sister, who worked as a laundry woman to soldiers waging war for Afghanistan's north.
One day Mina was washing clothes. 'I ran out of soap and wanted to get more. Outside, a man dressed in a government uniform approached me. There was a fight going on. He said: "Be careful. You are a Farsi-speaking woman, [referring to the linguistic split between the Pashto-speaking Taliban forces from the south and the Persian north they wanted to conquer]. "Don't let the Taliban hear you, or they will kill you and take your son. Come with me. I will show you the way".'
This was Zarif, the man she claims sold her for a stack of Afghan notes worth £130.
Mina sobs bitterly over the success of the ruse. Zarif later delivered her to Burmamat, a former fighter in Kandahar province, who lost his hands disarming a Soviet mine. Crippled and scarred, Burmamat was willing to take this 'widowed' mother as his wife.
For the next seven years, Burmamat beat Mina with bricks, raped her, five times forcibly impregnated her, kept her in chains and repeatedly expelled her first son from the family home.
'Each time I bore a child, when I finished breast-feeding, he took it from me and gave it to his mother. He knew better what to do with the children and knows better what to do with them now.'
Three months ago, Burmamat went out leaving a door unlocked. Even though she was five months pregnant, Mina seized her chance to escape. She and Jonahmat were picked up at a police checkpoint down the road and taken to the jail. 'I'd rather commit suicide than go back to him,' she says.
The village of Loya Munara - 'Big Tower' in Pashto - runs along a dry riverbed that serves as its only road. Orange sand erupts from a brittle desert in a maze of flying buttresses connecting ruin to ruin. Razed by Soviet bombs, the architecture speaks of loss. The Observer is here to meet Burmamat, who appears gentle, welcoming, thin. He offers tea in the immaculately spartan room he shared with Mina.
Their youngest child, Hanifa, not even a year old, hurtles towards him for attention, and he welcomes her with cooing and the caress of his handless wrists. His memory of his arrangement with Mina is different from hers. His brother-in-law Zarif rang from Kabul to say a poor widow was willing to marry him. Burmamat claims the £130 went to Mina herself, money for things for their matrimonial home.
'I considered her my wife and the owner of this house,' he said. 'Look at all these mattresses she made.' He points to a neat stack of stuffed mats. 'How could she not have been happy? She gave birth to my children. I thought she would be with me for 100 years.'
Told of Mina's claim that he kept her prisoner, Burmamat laughs: 'I told her it is our custom a woman stay home. Sometimes I became fed up. She didn't know how to cook well and keep the house clean. Sometimes I advised her in a serious way that she should not be like this. Sometimes I beat her slightly. Actually, she was such a coward. Sometimes I threw a teacup or a shoe at her and she would get so afraid. But she was stronger than I was. I still love her; she broke my heart.'
Burmamat saw Mina's life with him as normal. 'She was not forced to be with me,' he said. 'This was simply her duty.'
Last week Kandahar's legal officials proclaimed that Mina and two other women no longer faced criminal charges, but Mina refused to leave the jail, saying: 'I have no one to support me. I don't want to leave because I am safe here.
'I will give birth to the baby here,' she explained, 'and then leave it behind and go back to Kabul with Jonahmat. My father is a respectable man. He would not accept the new child.'
For Mina and other Afghan women like her, their new freedom is a dubious one.
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