‘I Felt More Free In Prison Than In My Own Home’

Afghani Sara Sangin talks about living without fear – and the joy of taking off her burqa – in online documentary No Burqas Behind Bars


by Sophie Cullinane |
Published on

Sara Sangin was 16 years old when she was sentenced to three years in jail for running away from her family with her boyfriend. In Afghanistan, where Sara is from, it was considered a ‘moral crime’ – and she was sentenced to time in one of the country’s most squalid prisons. But, according to a documentary that’s gathering pace online No Burqas Behind Bars, Sara (and the other 40 women and 34 children she shared a cell with) actually felt more liberated in prison than outside.

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‘I was young, confused and very afraid,’ Sara tells The Debrief of being imprisoned eight years ago. ‘Then, slowly something started to occur to me. It was filthy, overcrowded and the food was terrible – but was it any tougher than how I’d be living outside? In prison, nobody was going to hurt me, nobody was going to force to do anything I didn’t want to do and nobody was going to follow me around every step that I took. We were locked up, but in many ways me and the other women who were incarcerated alongside me were freer now than we’d ever been. I wore a burqa on my way into prison, but there were no burqas where I was now. It felt strange but nice to take it off.’

Sara’s crime had been falling in love with a man of whom her family didn’t approve – and running away to escape being forced into an arranged marriage. ‘My parents are both dead, so I lived with my uncle and cousins in a small town in Afghanistan, who were all incredibly strict,’ she remembers. ‘One day when I was walking to school, I met a boy, Javid, and we instantly fell for each other. He began to write me love letters asking me to meet up with him and over weeks, we both fell in love.’

Sara knew that her family wouldn’t allow the union. ‘I was 16 when I went to jail – a child, really – but in my culture we’re not really viewed as children and girls as young as 10 marry,’ explains Sara. ‘But why would I marry someone I didn’t love when I already had someone in my life who I cared about? I knew my only option would be to run away with Javid – even though I was aware that came with the risk of being jailed or killed by my family for “dishonouring” them.’

'In my culture we’re not really viewed as children and girls as young as 10 marry’

Sara and Javid fled to a nearby town, assuming that her burqa would keep them hidden from view and safe when her family reported her missing. ‘Jovid was soon sighted and somebody called the authorities. He was followed by the police and he lead them straight to me – I was charged and given three years to serve in prison,’ she remembers.

In a way, Sara was one of the lucky ones. Afghanistan has long been known for its poor record when it comes to defending women against violent attacks from their families – so-called ‘honour killings’. Human rights watchers are saying this situation could get even worse given new laws that have just been passed in the country allowing men to attack their wives, sisters and children without fear of judicial consequences. The small but significant change to Afghanistan’s criminal prosecution code, which has been passed by parliament but is awaiting a signature from the president Hamid Karzai, would also ban relatives of a perpetrator from testifying against them - meaning that prosecuting a husband or father for domestic violence will be nearly impossible.

So if the proposed changes become law, it’s not a stretch to say that Afghanistan’s prisons might soon be full of even more desperate women. Does Sara really believe they’d be safer inside than out? ‘It might be difficult to believe, but I was more worried about returning to my family than I was about being imprisoned,’ she says of her release on good behaviour after a year. ‘Me and the other girls had become like a family – there was a real sense of community we looked after each other because most of us were going through the same thing. And because we were all women we didn’t have that hourly fear of being attacked.’

‘It might be difficult to believe, but I was more worried about returning to my family than I was about being imprisoned'

However, in a way that temporary respite made returning to the outside world all the more terrifying. ‘In Afghanistan, if you go to prison as a woman you have no future when you leave. You can’t get a job and there’s a strong chance that you will be killed by your own family for bringing shame upon them,’ she says.

What happened to Sara illustrated that: ‘Javid had married someone else by the time I was released so I had to return to my family. I was devastated but I understood – he was under as much pressure to marry as I was. My uncle and cousins at first tried to throw me out of the house for bringing shame on them, but they then locked me in a room and my cousins started to plan how they were going to kill me.’

Luckily, Sara had met Maryam Ebrahimi and Nima Sarvestani, the documentary makers who had been filming No Burqas Behind Bars while she’d been in jail – and, worried about her safety, Nima had given her a mobile phone and charger before she left. Desperate Sara called them and Maryam and Nima was able to persuade the prison guard to rescue her on the grounds that they had a democratic duty for her welfare, having sent her back to an almost certain death.

With the help of film crew Sara was able to get a passport and now lives in Sweden under the watchful eye of Maryam – who is documenting her assimilation into one of the most modern and egalitarian places to live. ‘Now that I am in Sweden I am very happy – I can’t explain how different my life is now. Who knows if I’ll find love again, but for now all I’m concerned with is dealing with the change in culture and enjoying finally living freely as a young woman.’

You can buy No Burqas Behind Bars here.

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Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophiecullinane

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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