HBO releases searing Afghan women’s stories in ‘Love Crimes of Kabul’

Lisa A. Phillips – WNN Reviews

Woman prisoner Kabul
An incarcerated Afghan woman looks wistfully out the window of the Badam Bagh Women’s Prison in Kabul, Afghanistan in an insider’s look through the film “Love Crimes of Kabul” by HBO. Image: HBO

(WNN) Kabul, AFGHANISTAN, SOUTHERN ASIA: Of the 125 prisoners in Kabul’s Badam Bagh Women’s Prison half are there for what Afghanistan’s calls ‘Moral Crimes’.


In the opening scene of “Love Crimes of Kabul,” a documentary premiering on HBO this Monday night, July 11, director Tanaz Eshaghian asks two prison guards, “What kind of women are in this prison?”

“They’re not good women,” one answers. “If they were good women, they wouldn’t be here. They would be home with their families.”

Since the U.S. war in Afghanistan began, the plight of women in Afghanistan has erratically flashed into view. The much touted steps forward – better education, increased female representation in government, successful women-run businesses – have been shadowed by the many ways women’s lives are still severely constricted. Most women are forced into arranged marriages, illiteracy rates are high, and, in areas under Taliban control, women are punished severely for wearing anything short of a a full body veil.

What “Love Crimes of Kabul” illuminates is the extent to which women’s hearts are also constricted. Half of the inmates in Afghanistan’s notorious Badam Bagh Women’s prison are there for the “moral crimes” of premarital sex, running away from home, and adultery. Granted what HBO calls “unprecedented access” to the Badam Bagh Women’s Prison and the Kabul Men’s Prison, Eshaghian profiles three women awaiting trial for moral transgressions.

At times the women have the air of romantic heroines, willing to risk all for love and liberty.  Sabereh is a soft-spoken and preternaturally calm 18-year-old who was imprisoned after her father caught her in a back room with a 17-year-old boy. She describes her beloved as “my soul, my faith, my life.” Aleema, 22, ran away from an abusive home and found refuge with Zia, who tried to sell her into slavery. Kareema, 20, is a forthright Hazara, an oppressed ethnic minority group of Shiite Muslims. She glows and strokes her neck as she describes her lover Firuz. “I liked his height, his body, his hair. Everything!”

Kareema’s adoration mingles disarmingly with hard-edged scheming. Fearful that Firuz would not marry her after she got pregnant, she reported their crime of premarital sex to Afghan authorities, who imprisoned both of them. Once Firuz’s family agrees to marriage, Kareema is a forceful negotiator, unwilling to settle for a low dowry even though her marriage value is threatened by the fact that she is no longer a virgin. Her memorable final bargaining point is petitioning Firuz’s family for more money to buy sweets for the wedding party she’ll throw for her fellow inmates. Her wrangling comes across as nervy and opportunistic, but her circumstances require her to stand firm. She has everything at stake. Not only will marriage get her out of prison, it will also redeem her. She must marry and stay married – so she bargains hard to make herself too expensive to abandon.

Marriage has always been a subject of great interest to Eshaghian. As an Iranian-American Jewish woman, she grew up in a culture that pressured women to marry by age 25. In her autobiographical documentary Love, Iranian-American Style, she reveals how she, a product of a New York City upbringing and an Ivy League education, at first found humor in this convention and then came to feel oppressed by it. The longer she remained single, the more ostracized she felt from her community.  In Be Like Others, her documentary about Iranian transsexuals, marriage is, for one couple, a problematic holy grail of sexual authenticity.

Women's prison Kabul from HBO film "Love Crimes of Kabul"
A woman walks through the halls of Afghanistan’s Badam Bagh Women’s Prison in the HBO Monday night film release “Love Crimes of Kabul.” Image: HBO

In Love Crimes of Kabul, Eshaghian explores the fallout of a society that sees marriage as the remedy for wayward human passion and the main measure of a woman’s worth. Like Kareema, Sabereh seeks to marry her boyfriend and be released from Badam Bagh. She insists on her innocence, and a medical examination confirms that she is a virgin. Yet prosecutors continue to build a case against her with Kafkaesque relentlessness: No matter what, she was alone with him. The doctor’s report indicated she may have had anal sex, a far worse crime than vaginal intercourse. As the case against Sabereh tightens, her boyfriend’s family begins to balk at the prospect of marriage. Her prospects fade at each unjust turn of events.

But for Aleema, a dramatic and moody woman, Badam Bagh serves as a refuge from a far worse prison. She is terrified that if she is released, she will be at the mercy of her abusive family. “I am completely alone,” she says, chain smoking, her hair in disarray. “I can’t go home. My parents plan to quietly drown me. Very quietly, they will kill me.”

Zia, the woman who tried to sell her, begs Aleema to marry her son. Zia insists that Aleema owes them because she brought shame into the house and landed them both in jail. “Her bottom was naked when she came to my house!” Zia accuses. Yet Aleema does not believe that marrying into Zia’s family will improve her lot. She is wary that all Zia is looking for is a cheap bride; as an imprisoned runaway, her price on the marriage market has fallen.

The viewer sees too the possibility that marriage can be a brutal prison in itself, as Kareema’s parents bemoan their daughter’s future: “She’ll be like their dog,” her father says of her new life in her husband’s home. “She’ll have to cook and clean for them. She has no choice but to be their servant.”

Eshaghian’s skillful filmmaking makes the oppressive circumstances of the prisoners’ lives abundantly clear, but not at the expense of compelling, intricate visual storytelling. She trains her camera on the smallest telling details, such as the garish green high heels Kareema wears to her trial in hopes the outcome will allow her to marry. The film captures every aspect of prison life, showing the inmates cleaning, eating, caring for each other’s children, and, most importantly, in conversations that range from dark to humorous to catty. A woman convicted of murdering her husband describes in stark terms why he deserved it. One woman, after seeing the photos of a fellow inmate’s boyfriend, exclaims, “You’re a cradle robber!” The fellow inmate quickly retorts, “So? Your husband’s a drug dealer.” They both break out in laughter. When Kareema moans about her lot, Aleema scoffs like a petulant adolescent, “Congratulations on your pain.”

These exchanges suggest that prison, for all its oppressiveness, offers these women a space where they can be speak forthrightly about their lives. They are all outcasts together. This shared status gives them a liberty of expression they are unlikely to enjoy outside the prison walls, where their lives will be governed by parents or husband, quite possibly with a far stricter hand than the prison guards.


HBO Documentary Films Monday Night Summer Series goes inside the Badam Bagh Women’s Prison with Iranian-American director/producer Tanaz Eshaghian to present an intimate portrait of three young Afghan women accused of committing ‘moral’ crimes.


Love Crimes of Kabul premieres on HBO on Monday, July 11 at 9 p.m. EST.


WNN reviewer Lisa A. Phillips is a freelance writer, journalist, and the author of “Public Radio: Behind the Voices.” She’s written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Time Out New York Kids and other publications. A former award-winning radio reporter, she has also done audio production work for The New York Times online multimedia. Phillips currently contributes film and book reviews for a nationally syndicated women’s issues show and has reported stories for “All Things Considered” and “Marketplace.” She teaches journalism and radio reporting at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

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