Is the United States Detaining Women in Afghanistan?

There is a vast amount of information that has become available about detainees at the Detention Facility in Parwan (DFIP) and the conditions that they face. However, if you are wondering whether or not the United States is detaining women at the DFIP or elsewhere, you will likely find that this information is not easily ascertainable. It is unclear if there are any confirmed cases of women currently being held by the U.S. at the DFIP or in other locations. Much of the information relating to the conditions faced by detainees at the DFIP uses very gender specific language that would indicate that there are only men housed there. There are a variety of conclusions that can be inferred from the very minimal amount of information that is currently available. Of course, it is entirely possible that there is no information because the U.S. has not encountered any females whom there was any reason to detain. Some of the other possibilities include media lack of interest in women as detainees, decisions not to detain that are effects of gender, U.S. handover of women to Afghan facilities, and even possible attempts by the U.S. to conceal instances of female detention.

It is very likely that U.S. troops are coming into contact with women on a regular basis. The U.S. is currently said to be running around forty night raids per night in Afghanistan.[1] These raids often involve the interrogation of those found within the home, with those deemed to be suspicious taken into custody. On occasion, these raids must involve encounters with women who may raise suspicions. Often, the men who are considered a threat eventually end up at the DFIP. Uncertainty still remains: Do U.S. forces ever detain women and, if so, where?

The first possibility is that the absence of reports pertaining to women detained in Afghanistan reflects a lack of interest rather than a lack of information. An article published by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) raises a general theory that women often become the forgotten population in times of war:

The issues raised by the detention of women rarely feature in public discourse or articles on women and war. Media images of detainees usually portray men languishing behind bars or barbed wire. . . . The perception by public opinion of women in detention was once eloquently summed up by an ICRC doctor: “There is one category of detainees seldom mentioned – women.”[2]

While this assertion is not specific to Afghanistan or the DFIP, it does shed light on the general proposition that the media may neglect to focus their attention on the stories of women in times of war.

A second possibility is the role that gender may play in the decision of whether or not to detain. If the U.S. does not have any women detained on suspicion of terrorism, the reason might be based on biases and a paternalistic feeling that women are harmless and are to be protected. It is likely that there are females who play a role in terrorism in Afghanistan (this theory is supported by the fact that there are women detained in Afghan jails who have been charged with failed suicide bombings).[3] Could it be that the U.S. chooses not to detain females even if they objectively appear suspicious, solely as a result of preconceived notions about gender? Gender based detention decisions may also be affected by the gender roles that surround Middle Eastern women. U.S. troops may feel a hesitation to detain and interrogate these women for fear of public or political outcry. It may be that there is fear of backlash for the detention of women, so the U.S. chooses to handle women differently than they do men.

A third possibility is that the U.S. chooses to hand over suspicious females to Afghan authorities. While there does not seem to be any evidence indicating that females are now being detained by the U.S. at the DFIP, Afghanistan does hold female inmates in its own prisons, such as a prison (not part of the DFIP) in Parwan province.[4] It is unclear how these women end up in Afghan custody (whether by Afghan arrest or possible U.S transfer) or for exactly what crimes they are being detained.

At one time, there were women held at Pul-e-Charkhi prison in Afghanistan. Pul-e-Charkhi is an Afghan-run prison that the US contributed to renovating in 2001.[5] After the renovations, the U.S. began transferring detainees from the DFIP to Pul-e-Charkhi because of lack of space.[6] Again, it is unclear how the women ended up at Pul-e-Charkhi in the first place – whether by Afghan arrest or U.S. transfer. More recently, many of these women were transferred to Badam Bagh, an Afghan prison in Kabul built specifically for women.[7]

Afghanistan currently seems to have a prison system that is capable at its best of handling female inmates in a way that respects gender differentiation. Women at Badam Bagh are held for a variety of reasons including “moral crimes” and failed suicide bombings.[8] (While there is a link between some of these women and acts of terrorism [e.g. failed suicide bombings], it is unclear how they ended up at Badam Bagh.) It seems that the prison conditions are relatively decent for the women in this particular prison as it is specifically designed to house women. The women are able to remain with their young children and are given the opportunity to take certain skills classes.[9] Where Afghan facilities provide a well-designed system for handling female prisoners, such as at Badam Bagh, it would not be unreasonable to think that the U.S. hands over females to Afghan custody.

The fourth possibility is that the U.S. is keeping the detention of females a secret. It seems that there has been at least one confirmed case of a woman housed at the DFIP (formerly known as Bagram) in the past, but her identity, as well as the length and location of her holding, remain a mystery. Former Bagram detainees claim to have been kept awake at night by the shrieks of a woman inside the prison for many years.[10] The woman became known as the “grey ghost lady of Bagram” and “prisoner 650.”[11]

Some believe that the shrieks that were heard were those of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. Siddiqui is an American-educated neuroscientist who went missing in 2003 and did not reemerge until the U.S. brought her to New York in 2008. Siddiqui’s supporters claim that she was detained and tortured at Bagram from the time she went missing to the time that she reemerged in U.S. custody.[12] “But every major security agency of the U.S. government – army, FBI, CIA – denies having held her. Last year the U.S. ambassador to Islamabad, Anne Patterson, went even further. She stated that Siddiqui was not in U.S. custody ‘at any time’ prior to July 2008.”[13]

The criminal complaint against Siddiqui alleges that Siddiqui was:

stopped by Police on July 17, 2008 outside a government building in Central Afghanistan’s Ghanzi province . . . . Police searched her handbag and discovered documents containing recipes for explosives and chemical weapons and describing “various landmarks in the U.S., including New York City,” according to the complaint, which did not identify the landmarks. . . . The next day, as a team of FBI agents and U.S. military officers prepared to question her, Siddiqui grabbed a rifle, pointed it at an Army captain and yelled that she wanted blood, prosecutors said. An interpreter pushed the rifle aside as she fired two shots, which missed, they said. One of two shots fired by a soldier in response hit her in the torso.[14]

Rejecting allegations that Siddiqui was transferred to U.S. custody after arrest in Pakistan in 2003, the U.S. asserts that Siddiqui was only briefly brought to Bagram to obtain medical attention before she was brought to New York to stand trial on charges of attempted murder and assault of a U.S. officer, for which she was eventually sentenced to 86 years in U.S. prison. Despite much opposition to the U.S. position relating to Siddiqui, the U.S. maintains that Siddiqui was not housed at the DFIP for an extended period of time. If what U.S. officials assert is true and Siddiqui was only briefly held at the DFIP, then does the identity or even the reality of prisoner 650 remain a mystery?

Some believe that the theory that the U.S. secretly held Siddiqui is an attempt by Al Qaeda to create propaganda.

By focusing on Aafia Siddiqui’s case, al Qaeda is clearly trying to tap into deep anti-American sentiment, as well as widespread discontent with the Pakistani government. Aafia Siddiqui has become the subject of popular mythology. In the Pakistani public’s imagination she is not an al Qaeda operative who evaded American authorities for years, but instead a victim of the American-led “war on terror.”[15]

Still, others believe that the U.S. secretly held Siddiqui for years and that she may not be alone. Yvonne Ridley is a British journalist who converted to Islam after she was released from Taliban captivity. She implies that Dr. Siddiqui is Prisoner 650.[16] In 2008, she stated that the U.S. held at least four or five women at Bagram in a dark prison, though it is unclear what evidence, if any, she has to support this claim.[17] In the documentary “In Search of Prisoner 650,” Ridley traveled across Pakistan and Afghanistan searching for answers about the identity of Prisoner 650.[18] People whom she spoke to in her travels claimed that there are many women in the Middle Eastern countries who have gone missing and who are believed by the locals to be in U.S. custody.[19]

There are many inferences that can be made based on the lack of information relating to females detained by the U.S. on suspicion of terrorism. While there could be an element of secrecy relating to this information, that may not be the case at all. It is possible that there are no females in U.S. custody either because they are not of interest or because they are immediately turned over to Afghan authorities. With so little concrete information, however, we cannot be certain about the status of female detainees.


[1] Mark Benjamin, US Staging 40 Night Raids in Afghanistan Every Night, Time, Sep. 19, 2011, available at http://battleland.blogs.time.com/2011/09/19/u-s-staging-40-night-raids-in-afghanisan-every-night/.

[2] Charlotte Lindsey, Women and War: The Detention of Women in Wartime, 83 Int’l Rev. Red Cross 505, 505-06 (2001), available at http://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/other/505-520_lindsey.pdf.

[3] Oliver Englehart, Exclusive: Inside the KabulJjail Where a Battered Wife Serves a Longer TermTthan a Suicide Bomber, The First Post, Nov. 16, 2010, available at http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/71545,news-comment,news-politics,15-years-jail-for-fleeing-from-a-cruel-husband.

[4] Ramesh Nabizadah, Parwan Prisoners Protest Dismal Conditions, Institute for War & Peace Reporting, Mar. 2, 2010, available at http://iwpr.net/report-news/parwan-prisoners-protest-dismal-conditions.

[5] Ernesto Londono & Joshua Partlow, Afghan Prison an Insurgent Breeding Ground, The Washington Post, Mar. 6, 2001, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/05/AR2011030504109.html.

[6] Id.

[7] Golnar Motevalli & Hamid Shalizi, Children Play Free at Humane Afghan Women’s Jail, Reuters, Mar. 2, 2009, available at http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/03/02/us-afghan-prison-women-idUSTRE52112I20090302.

[8] Englehart, supra note 3.

[9] Motevalli & Shalizi, supra note 7.

[10] Suzanne Goldenberg & Saeed Shah, Mystery of ‘Ghost of Bagram’ – Victim of Torture or Captured in a Shootout?, The Guardian, Aug. 5, 2008, available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/aug/06/pakistan.afghanistan?INTCMP=SRCH.

[11] These names are used in many sources. See, e.g.,, Syed Saleem Shahzad, Is Aafia Siddiqui Bagram’s Prisoner 650?, Tehran Times, Aug 2, 2008, available at http://old.tehrantimes.com/index_View.asp?code=174301.

[12] Declan Walsh, The Mystery of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, The Guardian, Nov. 23, 2009, available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/nov/24/aafia-siddiqui-al-qaida.

[13] Id.

[14] The Associated Press, Pakistani Woman Charged With Soldier Attack to be Arraigned in New York, New York Daily News, Aug. 5, 2008, available at http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/pakistani-woman-charged-soldier-attack-arraigned-york-article-1.315848.

[15] Thomas Joscelyn, Lady al Qaeda’ in Propaganda, Dec. 16, 2010, The Long War Journal, available at http://www.defenddemocracy.org/media-hit/lady-al-qaeda-in-propaganda/.

[16] Yvonne Ridley, Prisoner 650, Information Clearing House, May 7, 2008, available at http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article20439.htm.

[17]IRNA, Muslim British Journalist Slams US for Illegally Detaining People in Afghanistan, Muslim World News, Oct. 31, 2010, available at http://twocircles.net/2008oct31/muslim_british_journalist_slams_us_illegally_detaining_people_afghanistan.html.

[18] In Search of Prisoner 650 (Press TV, 2009) can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TxHJ0IyKZ2Q.

[19] Id.