‘Say to the Whole World, They Don’t Let Us Talk’: Women Held for ‘Immoral Behavior’ at a Taliban Prison Speak Out

August 9, 2022

When the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan amid the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021, the hardline group told the world that its government would respect women’s rights.

A FRONTLINE documentary filmed on the ground in Afghanistan over the past year uncovers a different — and harrowing — story.

As the above excerpt from Afghanistan Undercover shows, correspondent Ramita Navai secretly recorded inside a Taliban prison courtyard, in the provincial capital city of Herat, capturing firsthand accounts from Afghan women who said the regime had jailed them for what it considered moral crimes, such as traveling without a male relative or leaving their husbands. Many women were held without trial, Navai found, their fates sometimes unknown to their families.

They don’t look after us here, but we can’t say anything,” said one woman, who told Navai her arrest three months prior was for “immoral behavior.”

“I have a 7-month-old baby at home,” the woman added.

“Eight children at home, hungry and thirsty,” the woman next to her chimed in.

When Navai asked if the first woman’s arrest and offense had been officially recorded, another woman spoke.

“There is no court,” she said. “There’s been no court for three or four months.”

Navai’s road to secretly filming at the prison began when she started hearing allegations that the Istikhbarat, the Taliban Intelligence Service, was jailing women without trial — including a young woman the film team agreed to call Maryam, who had recently disappeared. Maryam’s distraught family had no firm information about her whereabouts until they received a letter from her, smuggled out of Herat’s central prison.

The letter said that some of Maryam’s friends had been arrested for riding in a taxi without a male relative, and that when she and a father of one of the friends went to find them, Maryam, too, was arrested for traveling without a male relative.

Maryam’s mother had shown Navai pictures of her daughter, who had graduated from university shortly before the Taliban takeover. As Navai filmed at the prison, she saw a familiar face.

What happened next unfolded with urgency. Navai rushed over to Maryam, asking how she was doing and why she had been taken.

“They don’t let us speak to journalists, they … big punches, OK?” Maryam responded. “So just say to the whole world, they don’t let us talk.”

Then a female prison guard told Maryam to stop speaking English, and the young woman began praising the Taliban.

“They treat us really well, and, thank God, everything is great, and our brothers, the Taliban, are good,” Maryam told Navai.

Maryam, who was eventually released, is just one of the women whose experiences are featured in Afghanistan Undercover. In addition to finding women jailed without trial or charge, Navai met with a group of female lawyers banned from working in Afghanistan, as well as with protesters who risked imprisonment for speaking out.

She uncovered accounts of Taliban soldiers forcing young girls into marriage, despite the regime having declared the practice forbidden. A Taliban spokesperson told Navai the regime would “never allow our people to commit such indecent acts.”

She met with doctors treating women in abusive marriages who had attempted to end their own lives since the Taliban takeover. She accompanied an underground network of female activists on a dangerous mission to help a female journalist who said she had been targeted by the Taliban reach a secret safehouse with her family.

And she confronted Taliban officials about what she found.

In an interview appearing in the documentary, Bilal Karimi, the Taliban’s deputy government spokesperson, called claims of the regime’s mistreatment of women “baseless.”

“Other countries should not impose on us what is good for them,” he said, after requesting that he and Navai not be filmed in the same shot. “We have our own culture, interests and values. The international community must allow us to build our own government.”

For the full story, watch Afghanistan Undercover, a Quicksilver Media production for GBH/FRONTLINE in association with ITV. It premieres Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, at 10/9c on PBS stations (check local listings) and will be available to stream at pbs.org/frontline, in the PBS Video App and on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel. The documentary’s producer and director is Karim Shah. The correspondent is Ramita Navai. The executive producers for Quicksilver Media are Eamonn Matthews and Ramita Navai. The executive producer and editor-in-chief for FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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