Life Inside an Afghan Women’s Prison

— Parisa, an inmate at Herat Women’s Prison

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The Iranian-Canadian photographer Kiana Hayeri spent close to two weeks getting to know some of the 119 inmates at Herat Women’s Prison in Afghanistan. She photographed them for The New York Times Magazine, along with their children, some of whom had never seen life beyond the prison’s 15-foot walls.

There was no interpreter. (Hayeri speaks Dari, a dialect of Farsi, which is her first language. Dari is one of the two main languages spoken in Afghanistan.) And even the guards after a day or two left the photographer to her own devices.

What we see in Hayeri’s photo essay is quite simple: women going about their daily lives. Here is a woman bathing her young daughter in a plastic tub. Here is a woman suited up to play volleyball. And here, a woman blows bubbles for a gaggle of children. It looks almost homey.

But it’s dark, too.

The subjects of Hayeri’s story are inmates who’ve murdered their husbands. For them it was the only way out of an abusive marriage in a country where domestic abuse is so commonplace nearly 90 percent of women experience it in some form in their lifetime, according to a 2008 study from the United States Institute of Peace.

Their stories are harrowing. Yet the photos are beautiful. And the juxtaposition of the two … well, it bore some investigation.

I asked Hayeri to share insights from her experiences getting to know the women and shooting the piece. The project certainly wasn’t what she expected.

You chanced upon the Herat Women’s Prison while you were doing a separate piece for Harper’s on single mothers in Afghanistan. Tell me how that happened.

While reporting the story on single mothers (a concept that exists and yet has no word to describe it, neither in Dari nor Pashto), I learned of children living with their mothers inside prisons because they didn’t have anyone outside to take care of them.

I was very keen to see it for myself. The day I visited the prison, I was sent in with a male escort, which made it difficult to work. But as I was leaving, the prison manager whispered in my ear to come back alone after lunch so that I could work without the male escort.

When I went back, after half an hour, she left me as well and I was able to wander around on my own. I was fascinated by the structure of the prison, the decoration, the lives of the inmates and the extent of the access I was given.

Once I was on my own, women came forward to speak, sharing their stories and making radical and, at times, dirty jokes. It was there that I met a woman who had murdered her husband. This woman who had an aggressive tone, said, “I’ve lost my children, I’ve lost my dignity, and I’ve murdered my husband, do you think I have anything else to lose?”

That really struck me and stayed with me.

The photos of the prison reveal a place that’s surprisingly … normal. Mothers watch their children at play, they chat, they share meals. Was this what you were expecting?

Not at all. I had only scratched the surface when I first visited the prison in 2016, so I knew how things looked, but when I went back for this story and got a chance to spend time and embed myself with the women, that was a very different experience. Life was so normal. I struggled at times to see the place as a prison, and not a dormitory.

Tell me something about prison life that isn’t captured in your photos.

The smell is not something I want to remember. The smell of each room was different, depending on the level of hygiene, but it was always heavy, damp and unpleasant.

Also, the fights that occasionally broke out between inmates. I knew they were happening, I could see signs of them every time I returned: the wounds, scratches, a wrapped-up wrist, inmates who’d been moved from one wing to another. But it never happened in front of me or my camera.

Let’s talk about your process. To what extent did the prison let you participate in daily life? Were you able to spend some time there?

Like any story, time buys you trust, and trust buys you intimacy and access. My first days were shorter and more limited. I took fewer photos and just participated in the activities, mostly chit-chatting about random things with my camera on my lap, or watching TV. One time, I played volleyball with them as well. I had a female guard following me for the first two days, which I was told was for my own safety.

But with time, I made friends with the inmates and guards, gained their trust, and I was able to move around freely.

Eventually some of the inmates, not even my direct subjects, started watching after me and my gear, which was very sweet. They also made sure I was fed, and offered me tea or water. It was a luxury to have as much time as I wanted for this story. In total, I spent about two weeks inside the prison — although I was never permitted to stay overnight — over three separate trips to Herat.

Of course, Herat Women’s Prison is just one of many women’s prisons in Afghanistan. How does it stack up against others that you know of?

Herat Women’s Prison is a very well-kept one, relatively speaking. It’s organized, clean, not too corrupt, and the feel of it is more like a community. This is not the case with most other prisons across Afghanistan.

As you were documenting life in the prison, what moments of hope did you witness? And what of despair?

Every time Foroozan [one of the subjects] talked about her children and how successful they have become, her face glowed in a way that no photo can illustrate. It gave her 16-year sentence a meaning. Her son made it to Germany on-foot after he was released from a juvenile corrections center (he was incarcerated from 12 to 14 years of age, after he told the police he helped his mother to beat his father to death), and he is doing well in boarding school. Her two daughters are also doing well in school while living in an orphanage; the youngest has even received a scholarship.

On my last day, actually in my final hour in the prison, one of the young inmates, barely 20, learned that her father had died and she couldn’t go to his burial. The girl dropped on her knees and collapsed in Foroozan’s arms. I still hear her shriek and weep every time I look at my photos from that moment. It was heartbreaking.

Here are five articles from The Times you may have missed.

  • “13 quotes, 12 from men.” The current U.S. passport design, unveiled in 2007, was meant to represent the breadth and history of the country. It features the words of just one woman. [Read the story.]

  • “I did this, so you can, too.” More than 450 women are racing in the U.S. Olympic Trials in Atlanta Saturday — including hundreds of amateur runners who are running faster than ever, pulling each other along via communal networks online. [Read the story.]

  • “We are able, each of us, to manipulate the circumstances.” An interview with Laurene Powell Jobs, the 35th-richest person in the world, who is funding efforts on immigration, education and independent media. [Read the story.]

  • “Even if I don’t fat shame others I cannot stop fat shaming myself.” A woman tells her story of being caught up in the diet industrial complex and why, at 50, she still obsesses over her weight. [Read the story.]

  • “There were no rules when it came to me.” Kate Wilder, in 1980, was the first woman to complete the roughly yearlong Army Special Forces qualification course. But her superiors wouldn’t let her graduate with her peers and later changed Army regulations, explicitly barring women, until 2016. [Read the story.]

Today’s In Her Words is written by Francesca Donner and edited by Lauren Katzenberg. Photo editing by Amy Kellner and Sandra Stevenson.

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