EU censors own film on Afghan women prisoners

In an Afghanistan prison, one woman is serving a 12-year sentence for being the victim of a rape. Another woman is serving time for running away from 10 years of abuse from her husband. These women want to tell their stories, and in late 2010, they were given the chance to speak out in an EU funded film. But post-production, the film has been blocked by the EU, leaving these women with the weight of their stories, and no forum for them to be heard.

With the help of the European Union, London based film maker Clementine Malpas set out to expose the plight of women convicted of “moral crimes” in Afghanistan. After working on the film for three months, gaining the trust and support of the Afghan women interviewed, Malpas was told the film “In-Justice: The story of Afghan women,” would never be released.

50 per cent of women imprisoned in the country are there for moral crimes, namely running away from home, or having sex outside of marriage, including rape as well as adultery and consensual sex outside wedlock, and Malpas wanted to broadcast this issue to the world.

Initially, the partnership between Malpas and the EU was to create a documentary film which followed a female politician through her election campaign, right up to the election date, but this plan fell through. Malpas presented the EU with other options, and the concept for the film on moral crimes was approved.

Malpas said: “I got into documentaries to show human rights abuses, to shine a light on awful situations, and tell the world what is going on, so I was glad to do the film about the women in prison. It’s something I feel passionately about.”

In the film, two women, imprisoned for moral crimes explain how they ended up in prison. 19-year-old Gulnaz, who was particularly passionate about having her story told, was arrested after her cousin’s husband tied her hands and feet together and raped her.

26-year-old Farida fled from an abusive husband who had chased her around their house with an iron rod, and threatened to urinate in her mouth. She was arrested whilst staying with the family of another man. Police said they could tell she had committed adultery, because she was not a virgin — but Farida had been married for ten years, and had a baby.

Both women gave their consent for the documentary to be made, both on film, and in writing. Gulnaz said “I have no other option, you have to tell my story. I want everyone to know that I am innocent.” But the EU have cited concerns over the safety of the women as their reason for blocking the film.

Malpas said: “After making the film and beginning distribution, I was told this film is never going to be broadcast. It’s such an important story. I really wanted to get the message out. It would be even more powerful if the story comes from these women, rather than from me talking about them.”

Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch, agreed that it was essential to give these women a chance to discuss what has happened to them.

“It sounds to me like an overwhelming majority of these women in prison haven’t committed crimes under the penal code. These women are invisible. People don’t know that this issue exists. It’s important to talk about this – these women are imprisoned for being victims of abuse.”

She added: “These imprisonments tell a story about how little progress has been made since the fall of the Taliban, and it shows the terrible state the justice system is in.”

Malpas explained that the EU’s decision not to release the film had been a blessing in disguise — the film, and therefore the subject, is getting more press coverage and interest than it would have, had it been approved.

“For me, it’s not about the EU blocking the film, it’s about the story getting out there,” she says

An EU representative told Associated Press:

“The EU decided to withdraw the film only because there were very real concerns for the safety of the women it portrayed. Their welfare was and continues to be the paramount consideration in this matter.”

Malpas explained that since the press coverage began, she has received widespread support. MP’s and MEP’s from around the country have written to the film-maker advocating the documentary, and the issue has been discussed in European Parliament.

But despite that, Malpas doesn’t believe the film will ever be released. She said:

“There’s a hold on this film – and it’s never going to be let go.”