The 21-year-old Afghan woman said she fled her abusive husband only to be raped at gunpoint by a stranger who was supposed to help her.

The man then settled in front of a TV set, putting the gun on a table by his side. Choosing her moment, Mariam grabbed it and shot her assailant in the head, then turned the gun on herself.

"Three days later I woke up in the hospital," said Mariam, shyly removing a scarf from her head to reveal a partially shaved head and a long jagged scar that ran almost the length of her head where the bullet grazed her scalp.

From the hospital, Mariam was sent to a police station and from there to Afghanistan's main women's prison, Badam Bagh, which in Pashto means Almond Garden. She is one of 202 inmates in a jail mostly filled with women serving time for so-called "moral" crimes. Many had sought justice for domestic violence or tried to run away from an abusive situation.

Under international pressure, Afghanistan has made some progress in advancing women's rights after years of repressive Taliban rule that banned girls from going to school and forced women to wear all-encompassing burqas and leave their homes only when accompanied by a male relative. But the country remains a deeply conservative society run by men who most often turn to tribal jirgas that routinely hand down rulings offering up girls and women to settle debts and disputes.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the Badam Bagh prison, built by the Italian government six years ago to house female inmates from the Kabul area. The Associated Press recently was given rare access to the facility.

More than two-thirds of the 202 inmates are serving sentences of up to seven years for leaving their husbands, refusing to accept an arranged marriage, or leaving their parents' home with a man of their choice, according to the prison's director, Zaref Jan Naebi. The rest face theft, assault or narcotics charges. Two women are in jail on murder.

Some of the women were jailed while pregnant, others with their small children. Naebi said 62 children are living with their imprisoned mothers, sharing the same gray, steel bunk beds and napping in the afternoon behind a sheet draped from the upper bunk, oblivious to the chatter and the crackling noises from the small TV sets shoved off to one side of the rooms.

Before the two-story prison, named for the sprawling almond orchard across the street, was built, female prisoners were held in rundown cement cellblocks in the center of Kabul in a jail that predated the Taliban. Others were locked up in the notorious Pul-e-Charkhi jail, which also houses 1,300 male inmates.

At Badam Bagh, six inmates live in cells originally intended to house four.

Mariam has spent the past three months in one of them, without any idea of why she was imprisoned, what charges she faces or when she can leave.

"I haven't gone to court. I am just waiting," Mariam told the AP, hugging a ratty brown sweater to protect her from the damp cold of the prison.

While it might not be against the law to run away or escape a forced marriage, the courts routinely convict women fleeing abusive homes with "the intent to commit adultery," which are most often simply referred to as "moral crimes," says a United Nations report released last month. It also said most cases of abuse go unreported.

The director-general of prisoners, Gen. Amer Mohammad Jamsheed, said about 650 women are jailed nationwide, and "most are in jail for moral crimes."

It was not possible to determine whether this represents an increase from previous years, though Georgette Gagnon, director of human rights with the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan, said that more women are now reporting abuses and that many wind up being charged as a result.

Zubaida Akbar, founder of the volunteer Haider organization, which fights for women's rights and sends lawyers and other representatives to the women's prison to defend the inmates in court, said women often risk being jailed themselves if they seek justice against the violence.

"Perceptions toward women are still the same in most places, tribal laws are the only laws followed and in most places nothing has changed in the basics of women's lives. There are policies and papers and even laws but nothing has changed," Akbar said.

In the overwhelmingly male-dominated legal system, Akbar said even when a female inmate gets in front of the judge, "He says 'it is her husband, she should go back and make it work. It is her fault and not her place to leave him — not in our society.'"

Surrounded by a high fence topped with razor wire, the children being kept with their mothers at the Badam Bagh prison play in a single small open space. Nearby women hang out their laundry. On balconies obscured by mesh and steel bars women sit and smoke.

Naebi, the jail's director, said inmates attend a variety of classes during the week, ranging from basic literacy, to crafts and sewing, so they will have a skill after they are released.

The women interviewed by AP agreed to tell their story on condition that only their first names were used for fear of being stigmatized after their release from prison.

Nuria, dressed in maroon from head to toe, quieted her infant boy as she told of going to court to demand a divorce from a husband she was forced by her parents to marry. "I wanted to get a divorce but he wouldn't let me go. I never wanted to marry him. I loved someone else but my father made me. He threatened to kill me if I didn't," Nuria said.

"When I went to court for the divorce, instead of giving me a divorce, they charged me with running away," she said. The man she wanted to marry also was sent to jail.

When she went to court Nuria said she didn't know she was pregnant. Her son was born in jail. After he learned he had a son, her husband offered to drop the charges if she returned home. Nuria, who has eight months left to serve, refused.

"He wants me to come home now because I have his son but I said no," she said.

Adia, who is now seven months pregnant, said she left her drug-addicted husband, then ran away with another man when her parents insisted she go back — though she insists it was a platonic relationship.

"I was desperate to get away and he said he would help me," said Adia, 27. "But he didn't, he just left me. I went to the court. I was angry. I wanted him charged and my husband charged, but instead they charged me and sentenced me to six years. I went back to court to appeal the conviction and this time I was sentenced to seven and a half years."

At 60, Fauzia is the oldest inmate in the facility. She stared out of the prison bars. Already seven years in jail, Fauzia is serving a 17-year sentence for killing her husband and her daughter-in-law. Expressionless as she told her story, she rolled up her sleeve to display a mangled elbow that she said her husband smashed with a stick. She was his fourth wife.

"I was in one room. I came into the next room and they were there having sexual relations. I found a big knife and killed them both," she said in a voice empty of emotion.

Naebi, the prison director, confirmed the charges against the prisoners who spoke with the AP, but she did not provide details.

Zubeida, the women's activist, said despite what she calls a veneer of progress in Afghanistan, little is different for most Afghan women.

"We have the appearance of everything, but when you dig deep down below the surface nothing fundamentally has changed. It has been tough. It has been really tough," she said.


Kathy Gannon is AP Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan and can be reached at www.twitter.com/kathygannon