Afghan Domestic Violence Survivors Forced to Return to Abuse or Live in Abandoned Prison

In the wake of the Taliban takeover, 20 women in a domestic violence shelter who had escaped abusive households and marriages found themselves entering a new kind of captivity.

When the Taliban came to the shelter in northern Afghanistan, they gave the women the options to return to their abusive homes, some of which threatened death for leaving, or be taken under the care of the Taliban.

While most of the women chose to chance their luck at returning home, and one survivor who chose to go with the Taliban said she knew at least one woman who was killed, likely by an angry family member

The survivor, who identified herself to the Associated Press as Salima, went with the Taliban, ignorant to what her fate would become and with nowhere else to go. The Taliban placed her in the women's section of an abandoned prison, where she said she is safe so far.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Afghanistan Women
Afghanistan women who were residents of a women's shelter were forced to either return home or go under the care of the Taliban. This picture taken on September 22 shows members of the national taekwondo academy talking at a house in Herat province. HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP/Getty Images

Whether under Taliban rule or not, women in Afghanistan's deeply conservative and often tribal society are often subject to archaic codes of behavior that hold them responsible for the honor of their families. They can be killed for simply marrying a man of their choice. They are often married at puberty. Fleeing even an abusive husband is considered shameful. Hundreds of women are jailed for so-called "morality crimes," including adultery or running away from home, even though they are not officially crimes under the Afghan penal code.

Over the past two decades, activists set up dozens of women's shelters around Afghanistan. But even before the Taliban takeover, conservative Afghans, including government officials, viewed them with suspicion, as places that help women and girls defy their families or abet "moral crimes."

Women's shelters are just one of a myriad of social changes that became more prevalent in the past 20 years or didn't even exist when the Taliban last took power in 1996—everything from social media and the internet to businesswomen and women judges. Now since overrunning Kabul and sweeping into power on August 15, the hard-line militant group is wrestling with how to deal with the changes, with the Taliban leadership at times uncertain and fighters on the ground acting on their own.

Salima was taken to Kabul, along with another woman, Razia, who had lived in the shelter nearly a year after fleeing a predatory brother-in-law.

With nowhere to put them, the Taliban put them in the abandoned women's section of Afghanistan's main prison, called Pul-e-Charkhi. The prison was empty because when the Taliban took over Kabul, they freed all the inmates, including thousands of men, 760 women and more than 100 children, according to the prison's new Taliban administrator, Mullah Abdullah Akhund.

The Associated Press was given rare access to the women in the prison. Now there are only six women there, including Salima and Razia.

A massive steel gate leads to the women's prison. Rolls of barbed wire are strung atop the 20-foot-high walls. Inside, the women move freely with their children. Salima's 5-year-old daughter Maria and son Mohammad, 6, spend most of their day in a main, large, carpeted room. There is no school and just a giant red teddy bear and a few small toys for their amusement.

"We mostly pray and read the Quran all day," said Salima.

Salima said that she has no idea what the future holds, but for the present, with no money and no family, she said she feels safe here.

But Mujdha, another woman in the prison, said she wants her freedom. She had been pregnant by a boyfriend but her family refused to let her marry him, and instead forced her to marry a relative. She ran away. "I told them I would never stay with him" she said. The family reported her to the Taliban, who arrested her and her boyfriend.

Mujdha gave birth in prison to a baby daughter 15 days ago, soon after her arrest. She hasn't seen her boyfriend, jailed elsewhere in the prison, and he has yet to meet his infant daughter.

"I want to leave, but they say I can't," she said.

Akhund said a court will decide whether to charge her, adding, "It is wrong that she left her husband. She has no right."

Since taking power, the Taliban's response to women's shelters has varied. In the western city of Herat, several have been shut down, said Suraya Pakzad, a women's rights activist from Herat who opened several shelters.

Pakzad said Friday in text messages from a place in hiding that she faces threats from all sides—from the Taliban and from the families of the women who found refuge in her shelters.

For the past several years, Pakzad and other women pressed for a voice in the negotiations between the U.S.-backed government of the time and the advancing Taliban. They hoped to ensure rights for women in any final arrangement. Now, in one fell swoop, they are scrambling for their own safety.

Pakzad shared an arrest warrant for her and seven other activists and journalists from western Afghanistan, issued by the new Taliban police chief in Herat. The warrant accuses the eight of "spreading propaganda against the Islamic Emirate" and accuses Pakzad of "involvement with Western countries to spread prostitution."

But Mahboba Suraj, who runs a shelter for 30 women in Kabul, said the Taliban have come and investigated the shelter and let the women remain there unharmed. She said she was visited by various departments of the new Taliban government, including senior officials.

"The higher ups were absolutely the best. They want to protect us...and understand that they have problems within their own people" who may not be as supportive of women's shelters, she said.

For now, "they want to have protection for us," she said. "Thank God, I do believe that. I honestly do."