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Lebanon's women prisoners find freedom behind bars

By Catriona Davies, CNN
January 18, 2012 -- Updated 0900 GMT (1700 HKT)
Women inmates of Baabda Prison, Beirut, Lebanon, talk about their life experiences in a drama therapy session. Women inmates of Baabda Prison, Beirut, Lebanon, talk about their life experiences in a drama therapy session.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Drama therapy helps Lebanon's women prisoners tell their life stories
  • Therapist Zeina Daccache is also a well-known actress and comedienne
  • Documentary about similar project in men's prison won international awards

(CNN) -- In an otherwise smart suburb of Beirut is a small prison housing some of the women Lebanese society would rather forget.

Some of the 70 inmates of Baabda Prison are accused or convicted of murdering their husbands, others of drug trafficking.

Many of the women have themselves been victims of circumstance all their lives and are now for the first time discovering they have a voice, according to Zeina Daccache, an actress and drama therapist working with the inmates.

Several times a week for the past six months, Daccache has spent an afternoon with the women encouraging them to talk about their experiences.

In February or March, the project will culminate in a performance called "Scheherazade in Baabda," named after the fictional Persian Queen and narrator of "One Thousand and One Nights," and based around the women's own stories.

The real crime was that they were born women
Zeina Daccache

Among the 20 prisoners involved is Fatme, now 26, and awaiting trial for a murder she denies.

In video footage of the project, Fatme said: "I never learned to say no. I was always obedient, saying yes to my very early marriage, saying yes to my parents who forbid me to get divorce. Now I'm learning that I have a voice and it can spell no."

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Daccache, who has a weekly political satire show on Lebanese television and also runs a drama therapy center Catharsis, said the project -- funded by the Swiss-based Drosos Foundation -- had empowered the women and for the first time gave them an opportunity to express themselves.

She said: "You would be amazed how many are there for murder and it's mostly for killing their husbands. They were married at 12 or 13 years old to someone they had never met before.

I never learned to say no. Now I'm learning that I have a voice
Fatme, Baabda inmate

"They were pregnant at 13 and had husbands who beat them or had psychological issues. If they went to their family or to the police for protection, they would just be told it was a domestic issue.

"They ended up protecting themselves with their own hands. They are not saying their crimes were the best solution, but in some ways they had no other choice."

Daccache said several other inmates were in jail for drug trafficking and their young children were left on the streets.

"If the woman and her husband are both in prison, there is no protection for their children if they don't have families who take them," she said.

Other inmates who are serving shorter sentences for adultery have joined the project for a limited period but will be released before the final production.

Daccache said: "For many of them, the real crime was that they were born a woman. There's this underlying patriarchy to everything in this country."

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The play will be performed in the prison in front of invited guests, including government ministers, prison authorities and the women's families.

Daccache said: "They are in prison, but many of have said they feel free for the first time because it's the first time they can talk about anything they want.

"The play is giving them the space to do things they have never done before and to convey a message.

"It's a message to protect women's rights and to protect women from domestic violence."

Another of the inmates is Maryam, 40, who was married by her family at the age of 15 to a cousin and had three children. She is accused of murdering her husband.

If I hide my face I'd be only contributing to hiding myself
Nisrine, Baabda inmate

Maryam is taking part in a flamenco dance for the production. In film footage she said: "For the first time I learn how to move this body of mine, as if I was imprisoned in a body that didn't belong to me."

Four years ago, Daccache began a similar project with male inmates in Lebanon's largest prison Roumeih. A documentary film she made about the work, called "12 Angry Lebanese," won several international awards.

This is the first time she has worked in a women's prison.

Daccache is filming the work in Baabda for a similar documentary about the women involved.

She said the women were initially reluctant to show their faces on camera, but eventually realized it was an opportunity to tell their stories.

"At first they wore disguises to cover their faces when we were filming, but eventually decided to take them off," said Daccache.

"People tell me they can't believe the women agreed to be filmed because of the stigma, but they had been hidden away all their lives and didn't want to be suppressed anymore."

One of the inmates, Nisrine, a 28-year-old woman serving a three-year jail term for fraud, said in film footage: "I was so worried about appearing in front of the camera, then after thought if I hide my face I'd be only contributing to hiding myself, my voice, the women and human being within me.

"I'm taking off my mask and showing (myself) as I wish to."

Respected American drama therapist Amand Volkas joined Daccache to run workshops with her in January.

He said: "In Lebanese society, she is a visionary. She is able to use her prominence as an actress to have a very powerful impact."

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