Granted unprecedented access to Badam Bagh Women’s Prison and Kabul Men’s Prison, as well as several Afghan courtrooms, Tanaz Eshaghian weathered dangerous and unpredictable prison conditions to craft intimate profiles of three subjects imprisoned and awaiting trial for alleged sexual transgressions, as well as their families and prison guards. If convicted, each could face up to 20 years in jail, although the sentence could be greatly reduced if the men in question agree to marry them, which is considered the only morally acceptable outcome.
Some of the young women’s modern ideas about attraction and relationships conflict with more traditional Afghan ways. They giddily describe their boyfriends as having desirable attributes (good looks, intelligence, etc.), yet marriage in Afghanistan is traditionally a set of financial agreements and transactions between families or tribes. Since marriage is the only way to avoid prolonged jail time, much pre-trial time is spent negotiating terms of marriage between their otherwise reluctant families.
Kareema, 20, is a tenacious and fearless Hazara whose striking beauty belies a strong survival streak. When her boyfriend Firuz got her pregnant and refused to marry her, Kareema voluntarily confessed their behavior to authorities, knowing her only hope of avoiding ruin as an unwed mother was to leverage conservative laws to her advantage. By getting Firuz as well as herself imprisoned, she has more chance of securing him as a husband, as marriage is his only chance of release. If he won’t comply, she faces years behind bars.
Aleema, 22, a fiercely independent woman with a quick temper and acid tongue, ran away from an abusive home and took refuge with a stranger named Zia. When Zia tried to sell Aleema to an undercover cop, both women were arrested. Forced to share a trial, they’re now involved in a bitter power struggle. Zia demands Aleema marry her son as retribution for getting her locked up. Aleema knows Zia could never afford the dowry of a virgin bride, and only wants her because a “shamed” woman like Aleema will be the ultimate cheap deal.
Sabereh, 18, is a wide-eyed, innocent young woman who was turned in by her father, who found her in a closet with a 17-year-old boy. Though her virginity is proven intact by court doctors, accusations against Sabereh build in intensity, and it is obvious that her boyfriend’s resistance to marriage will consign her to the cruelest fate.
A female guard at the Badam Bagh Women’s Prison in Kabul observes disdainfully that the prison is full “because these days women are given too much freedom.” The reality of women’s rights in the country is much different. With courtship, marriage and sex strictly controlled by an ideology of honor, a young girl can be arrested and jailed simply for falling in love, or running away from home, both of which are seen as akin to adultery.
Though transgression can bring ruin to an entire family, and both men and women can be arrested, women are seen as particular threats to the fabric of society, and must be punished if they stray. As a social worker explains to Aleema, “A bad husband is better than no husband...None of this would have happened if you had a husband and a nice home.”
Love Crimes of Kabul concludes as the three subjects receive Afghan justice for their “crimes,” along with explanations for the rulings. Asked what will happen if people in Afghanistan are allowed to act on their desires, one judge replies, “Society’s order will be ruined.”
“I often look to tell stories about what it is like to live in the Middle East,” explains Tanaz Eshaghian. “I feel it is important for Western audiences to understand the logic that governs these societies as they make decisions.”
Iranian-American filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian’s debut feature documentary, Be Like Others, premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and debuted on HBO in 2009, receiving an Emmy® nomination. Her other documentary credits include Love Iranian-American Style, I Call Myself Persian and From Babylon to Beverly Hills: The Exodus of Iran’s Jews. Love Crimes of Kabul was an official selection at HotDocs 2011.
Love Crimes of Kabul is produced and directed by Tanaz Eshaghian; co-produced by Christoph Jörg; director of photography is Kat Patterson; music by Florencia Di Concilio; edited by Jay Freund. For HBO: supervising producer, Sara Bernstein; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.