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Afghanistan: EU Suppresses Its Film on Afghan Women's Prisons

Publication Date: 
November 15, 2011

 - One woman is doing 12 years in prison for being the victim of a rape. The second is in jail for running from an abusive husband. Both say they want to tell their stories, and yet a film about their plight has been scrapped, sparking controversy about how committed the international community is to fighting for women's rights in Afghanistan.

The documentary, "In-Justice: The Story of Afghan Women in Jail," was commissioned by the European Union, which has now decided not to release it. The EU says the two women in the film would be in danger if it were shown. But critics say politics is also at work and accuse the EU of abandoning a women's rights project for fear it could damage its relationship with the Afghan government.

The film tells a disturbing tale. One of the women profiled is a 19-year-old who was raped and impregnated by a cousin. She was not married and got a 12-year sentence for having sex out of wedlock, a crime in Afghanistan. The judge told her she could get out of prison if she agreed to marry her rapist, who bribed his way out of jail. She refused. She gave birth to her daughter in prison and now expects that she will have to raise her there.

"There's a huge number of these cases coming into the prisons," said Heather Barr, a Human Rights Watch researcher working on a report on women in prison in Afghanistan.

Some of the most severe restrictions women faced under the Taliban, like a ban on attending schools and have to have a male escort to venture outside the home, were done away with when the radical Islamic movement was driven from power in 2001. But Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative and male-dominated society, meaning women are still sold to husbands and rights enshrined in law are often ignored in practice.

About half of the 300-400 women jailed in Afghanistan are imprisoned for so-called "moral crimes" such as sex outside marriage, or running away from their husbands, according to reports by the U.N. and research organizations, even though the latter is not even a crime under Afghan law.

Legal reforms do not appear to have helped, Barr said.

"It's really emblematic of the promises that Afghan women thought were made to them in 2001 and which they're discovering over recent years either weren't promises at all, or are broken promises," Barr said.

The other story in the film reveals the judicial perils for women. The 26-year-old ran away from a husband who regularly beat her. She ran off with a young man whom she says she loves but has never had sex with. Regardless, she was arrested and imprisoned for adultery, also a criminal offense in Afghanistan.

Police said she was guilty because she was not a virgin, ignoring the fact that she was already married. She was sentenced to six years. Her boyfriend is locked up in an adjoining men's prison. A wall keeps them from seeing each other, but they pass messages through prison guards.

The EU commissioned the film in late 2010 as a project to address women's rights in Afghanistan, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. The filmmakers suggested women imprisoned for so-called "moral crimes" as the subject, and the EU agreed, fronting about 70,000 euros, or $96,000, in production costs, according to someone close to the film who spoke anonymously to disclose confidential conversations.

Then in February, the EU changed course, arguing the film would endanger the two women. Negotiations between the production company, Development Pictures, and the EU dragged on for months.

An email sent by an EU official to the filmmakers and a number of EU staffers in March gives two concerns: the security of the subjects and a suggestion that it could create problems with the Afghan government.

"The (EU) delegation also has to consider its relations with the justice institutions in connection with the other work that it is doing in the sector," according to the email from Zoe Leffler, the EU official overseeing the project, obtained by the AP.

In June the EU decided against showing the film.

"The EU decided to withdraw the film only because there were very real concerns for the safety of the women it portrayed. Their welfare was and continues to be the paramount consideration in this matter," the EU said in a statement provided to the AP. EU representatives declined requests for further interviews.

The AP obtained transcripts of the interviews in which the women gave consent to take part if the film were only shown outside the country. The EU maintained there was still a risk the film could end up on the Internet, making it available inside Afghanistan.

The filmmakers argue the matter should be left to the women to decide.

"Any potential risk to the women must be balanced against their clear and express wish to tell their stories, and we have obtained their informed consent to do so," said the director, Clementine Malpas.

"... Ultimately, it is their decision, and we admire their clear-eyed courage to speak out. It is not for us to veto their voices," she said.

Malpas and others involved in the production declined to comment further because they are contractually bound not to discuss negotiations with the EU.

Similar security concerns generated controversy with the movie version of the best-selling novel "The Kite Runner" because of worries a rape scene would offend Afghans. Four Afghan child actors were moved outside the country for their safety before the film's release in 2007.

The 19-year-old rape victim in the EU-funded film told the AP that she had hoped the attention might help her get released. Now she said she is losing hope and considering marrying her rapist as a way out.

He is pressuring her to stop giving interviews, she said, explaining why she did not want her name or photo used in this article.

She would not directly answer a question about the possibility of the film showing up on the Internet, but did say she wouldn't want her brothers to hear the interviews she gave, in which she explained how an uncle allowed her cousin to force himself on her. She said she was afraid her brothers would harm her.

Meanwhile, there is a feeling in the human rights community that an opportunity to draw attention to an important issue is being lost.

Georgette Gagnon, who directs human rights policy for the United Nations in Afghanistan, said it's particularly urgent to raise the issue of women being wrongly imprisoned now, before international resources directed at Afghanistan dwindle as foreign troops draw down.

"It's now or never. We've got a couple of years until the money and the leverage and the support are greatly reduced," Gagnon said.