please note this review of love crimes of Kabul contains spoilers with some adult themes
by S. Esapzai
I watched this documentary recently called Love Crimes of Kabul (if any of my readers are interested in watching it – and I strongly recommend that they do). Anyway, as I was watching this film, I could not help thinking just how utterly obsessed everyone was when it came to sex, but most importantly of all, girls keeping their hymens intact to ensure purity and inviolability. Now, before my readers jump to any conclusions, I want to make it very clear here that I am not, in anyway, condoning pre-marital sex. Not at all, actually. However, in Afghanistan, premarital sex is not only religiously forbidden, as per the country’s Islamic beliefs (Shar’ia Law), but it is also illegal. Young women and men who do happen to engage in sexual relations before marriage are punished severely. So, while some are simply thrown into prison — given sentences that go up to ten years — others, on the other hand, especially when they commit adultery, are blatantly stoned to death.
Love Crimes of Kabul follows the stories/lives of three young women in the Badum Bagh Women’s Prison in Kabul, Afghanistan. And I have to say that while I was expecting to watch yet another extremely depressing documentary about the ways in which women are oppressed, especially behind bars; this documentary, however, pleasantly surprised me! It was nothing like what I’d expected; the stories that were shared were sad, distressing, and troublesome. Yet, at the same time, they were very fascinating and sort of sexy in a way. And their life in prison did not seem so bad either. They ate amazing food; were allowed to have their children live/stay with them; and they were always gossiping, laughing, and just having a lot of fun, even with the guards (who were also women, mind you)! But then things always seem peachy on the surface, don’t they? And it would be unfair of me to simply judge “prison life” on what I see in a documentary, which could also be staged, for all I know.
The first woman we are introduced to, in the documentary, is Kareema – a pretty dimpled, bold and outspoken 20-year-old Hazara woman whose crime was that she hadd fallen in love with a man, had pre-marital sex with him, and was now carrying his child. During her interview in the film, she did mention that they were engaged to get married, that she loved him very much, and that she hoped to marry him soon. I personally thought that the most interesting part about her story was that she was not caught and turned in by outsiders/relatives; but rather, she, herself, went to the authorities and turned herself in! Brave much? And her reasoning: well, her fiancé had refused to marry her partly due to her “loose” character, but mostly due to pressures from his parents, who disapproved of their relationship all along, simply because they did not want their son marrying a Hazara. Her fiancé was a Pashtun and it appears that in Afghanistan, if a Pashtun marries a Hazara, it is looked down upon (not all the time, but most of the time). It’s a sad reality but it’s the truth, it seems. So, as a result of her fiancé’s family disapproving of her (as well as her fiancé admitting in an interview that he’d wished that he’d never met her and that he didn’t love her), Kareema retaliated by turning herself in to the authorities (for having had premarital sex), which also lead to her fiancé’s arrest. And the only way he was to be released was if he married her. Her wish to marry her fiancé, of course, does come true eventually, as the film progresses. But I thought that the way she went about getting what she wanted was extremely brave, especially for a woman living in a country like Afghanistan; albeit she practically forced the man to marry her (which I am against, of course, for no one should be forced into doing something they don’t want/desire). She also admitted that she was not afraid to get divorced, yet she also made sure that she demanded enough money so that in case they did get divorced, she would be able to fend for herself. Here, I admit, I was pretty impressed with the way she handled the whole situation.
Anyway, the thing I fail to comprehend is why has peoples’ personal lives become such a concern of public authority? It’s almost like a Big Brother kind of scenario, where peoples’ every move and every action is monitored, especially when it comes to their sexual relations. There seems to be so much obsession with sex – and the control of it – that when stories of pre-marital relations and conceiving children out of wedlock arise, people become utterly barbaric and do not know how to deal with such situations. And, again, I am not saying that I condone such behaviours nor am I saying that I support/encourage them, but I just feel that there is no need to throw young couples into prison on account of it, nor even murder (not kill) them, just because society believes it to be wrong. We are all humans at the end of the day. We all have desires. We are not perfect beings. And mistakes happen. But punishment and death is not the answer! It’s never the answer. The fact of the matter is that, no matter how much we try to suppress such behaviours and scream that it’s wrong, it’s immoral, and that it is forbidden, the more young people will be lured towards it and will do it, in hiding; thus throwing all caution to the wind. Force and suppression is never the way to go about these things. Rather, it’s better to educate young people about sex and about the consequences of it, instead of brushing the whole issue under the carpet because any talk of sex and what happens between men and women in the bedroom is forbidden, for it is not something to be discussed with kids (that are old enough to understand) so openly and freely.
Further, I’ve come to realize, both through personal experience (especially on my recent trip to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) and also through other peoples’ experiences, that our women more often like to gossip, joke, and tease other women when it comes to sex (and would do so for hours on end), but they will never discuss it with their children – especially those who are old enough to comprehend it. Sex is so taboo; so wrong; yet the desire to engage in it is de rigueur. Men marry more than one woman, and while they claim that it is for other reasons besides satisfying their sexual appetites, I somehow never buy that claim. No man is saintly enough to take on a virgin wife, who happens to be 25 years younger than he, just so that he can care for her. While “care”may be one of the reasons, it is never the only reason!
Oh, and speaking of virginity, there also appears to be this whole other obsession with virginity and chastity. And absolute deep importance is often given to it, for to be a virgin is to be “holy”; and the longer a woman, especially, preserves it, the better she is off: personally, socially, morally, psychologically, and most importantly of all, maritally. This obsession with virginity is depicted in the documentary through the second young female: 18-year-old Sabereh, who also belongs to the Hazara tribe. She is a pretty little petite young woman, whose crime was that she, too, like Kareema, had fallen in love with a boy and was caught kissing him at her house. However, it is emphasized repeatedly that she is a virgin (yes, they do medical tests on her in order to prove that!), so her case seems to be a little uncertain. For according to the law, since Sabereh was still a virgin, she did not really commit any “moral” crimes.
Nevertheless, the outcome of her so-called crime did not turn out to be too positive, as compared to Kareema’s, despite the fact that it was proven that she was “pure” and all. Instead, they start to accuse her of engaging in sodomy, which according to Islamic law is far worse than anything imaginable. I do not want to spoil it for my readers, who do intend to watch the film, so I won’t delve any more into her story. But, I just find it troubling that medical tests were done on Sabereh in order to determine whether she was a virgin or not. And even that wasn’t enough; it’s like if a man and a woman remotely meet, then that must mean that they’ve had sex or at least engaged in some form of sexual activity. Everything is always assumed, and hardly proven (unless it is deemed absolutely necessary; otherwise, it’s all solely based on assumptions). What if her hymen had broken without sexual penetration, but through other inexplicable means? Of course, in our society, a broken hymen automatically means that the girl is not a virgin, regardless if she has had sex or not.
The hymen, hence, is the sole determinant of a young woman’s chastity and virtue.
Whatever she does, whomever she speaks to, and wherever she goes, her hymen is the first thing she has to protect and put into consideration before anything else. She has to guard her hymen with her life; and if she doesn’t (for example, if she gets raped), then that simply means that she failed to protect it, hence making it all her fault. So, yes, her whole world basically revolves around her hymen; as a matter of fact, her life is her hymen!
Anyhow, the last woman we are introduced to in the documentary is 23-year-old Aleema – a divorced woman who lives at home again with her parents. But because she had a curfew and found her living conditions to be rather abusive and controlling, she decided to run away from home and sought refuge with a woman (as old as her mother) named Zia. However, when she gets caught, not only is she sent to jail but Zia is also blamed and sent to jail with her. And one of the reasons that Zia is sent to jail is because it was claimed that she tried to sell Aleema, hence exploiting her for sexual favours. Of course, they (the authorities) have no proof whatsoever to make such a blatant claim against her. Further, they also blame Aleema for having had some sort of a sexual relationship with Zia’s son – who’s married already and has a wife. And it is proclaimed that the only way that they both (Aleema and Zia) would be released from prison was if Aleema married Zia’s son, hence becoming his second wife. I guess the fact that Aleema was living with Zia, knowing very well that her son lived with her too and the possibility of sexual relations could develop is, in my opinion, the main reason for her arrest. The people who arrested them were probably wondering why Zia would allow a young, un-married (divorced, in this case) woman to live with her, knowing very well that she had run away from home (and possibly with her son?). The funny thing is that the person who turned in Aleema to the authorities was actually Zia’s son’s first wife, which hence makes it even more flagrant that something must have been going on between Aleema and Zia’s son. Yet, again, there is never any concrete proof provided; it’s all based on assumptions and assumptions alone.
Hence, in the film, we see how Zia tries her very best to convince Aleema to marry her son, so that she could be released. But, Aleema, bold and outspoken, like Kareema, refuses to budge for she knows very well that Zia can’t afford the dowry she feels she deserves. She also knows her son can’t provide the lifestyle she yearns. Aleema further thinks Zia wants her for her son only because she can get her cheap because she’s a divorcee and hence not pure (a virgin) any more. (Virgins, when getting married, are granted much more expensive and lavish weddings that cost around $7,000 to $8,000!) As a result, Aleema feels insignificant and refuses to partake in anything that will make her feel even more cheap and worthless, than what society already thought of her.
Here, I must say just how incredibly sickening I find the way divorced women are perceived in our society – making it seem like being divorced is some sort of a disease; a pestilence! And that those women who walk away from marriages, for being abused (either physically or emotionally), are worse off, as this one woman worker told Aleema, in one scene: “A bad husband is better than no husband.” And as much as I do not agree with this statement at all, this is what most, if not all, women believe and strongly abide by. Anyway, there is much to say on this and I am currently working on a piece dedicated to this “issue” of divorce among Pashtuns. It's an important topic and much light needs to be shed on it.
I realize this post contains lots of spoilers, but I am sure I must have missed out some parts from the film; so again, I would strongly urge my readers to check out this documentary and form their own opinions and conclusions from it. There is indeed much to learn from this, and while it was entertaining and not as depressing as I expected it to be, it definitely depicts a side of Afghanistan that we don’t often see; if ever. I commend these three extremely brave women for coming forth and sharing their fascinating, yet distressing, stories – stories of passion, love, desire, lust, and deception. And yet, despite the hardships, the pain, and the loss each and every woman endured, they managed to brighten up the cameras with their colourful laughter and beautiful bright smiles. And while the Love Crimes of Kabul comes off as entertaining, simply because the stakes don’t seem as high, and the situations come off as light-hearted and rather humorous instead of distressing, it might just not be the worst kind of oppression.
Yet, it is still oppression. And that we cannot deny.