Afghan women judges and lawyers now fear for their lives
When Nabila was a judge on the Afghan Supreme Court, she granted divorce to women whose husbands were sometimes jailed for assaulting or kidnapping them. Some of the men threatened to kill her after serving their sentence, she said.
In mid-August, as the Taliban flocked to Kabul and seized power, hundreds of prisoners were released. Men formerly convicted in Nabila’s courtroom were among them, according to the judge. Like the other women interviewed for this article, her full name was withheld for her protection.
Within days, Nabila said, she started receiving calls of death threats from former prisoners. She left her home in Kabul and went into hiding as she looked for ways to leave Afghanistan with her husband and three young daughters.
âI lost my job and now I can’t even go out or do anything freely because I’m afraid of these released prisoners,â Nabila said by phone from a safe house. âA bleak future awaits everyone in Afghanistan, especially women judges. “
More than 200 female judges remain in Afghanistan, many of whom are threatened and in hiding, according to the International Association of Women Judges. Taliban officials have recovered their personal information from court files, several former judges have said, and some have seen their bank accounts frozen.
“These are women who have had the audacity to judge men,” said Susan Glazebrook, president of the Judges’ Association and Justice of the Supreme Court of New Zealand.
“Women judges in Afghanistan are under threat for applying the law,” she added. “They are at risk because they have ruled in favor of women according to the law in cases of domestic violence, custody and divorce.”
The plight of women judges and lawyers is another example of the Taliban’s systematic erosion of gains made by women over the past two decades. Women judges and lawyers left the courts under pressure from the Taliban, brutally erasing one of the landmark achievements of the United States and allied nations since 2001.
Women have not only lost their jobs, but also live in a state of perpetual fear that they or their loved ones may be found and killed.
âAfghanistan is an open-air prison for these women,â said Kimberley Motley, an American lawyer who worked in Afghanistan for several years. She said she represented 13 women lawyers and judges who were trying to leave the country.
Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi said no decision has been made on the future role of women judges and lawyers.
âAt the moment, they are on hold,â Mr. Karimi said.
But judges and lawyers say they were effectively fired because it is too dangerous for them to continue their work, given the Taliban’s disapproval of women who judge men.
âWomen judging men is anathema to the Taliban,â Judge Glazebrook said.
Before the Taliban takeover, more than 270 female judges served in Afghanistan’s corrupt, male-dominated justice system. Special courts with female judges, as well as special police units and prosecution offices, have been set up in many places to deal with cases of violence against women. Just over a decade ago, nearly 90% of women experienced some form of domestic violence in their lifetime, according to a 2008 study by the United States Institute of Peace.
These judges have helped reform many courts, especially in urban areas, delivering justice to a growing number of women and girls who are battered and abused by husbands or male relatives.
The women challenged a legal system that favored husbands, granting divorce to Afghan women who in many cases would previously have been sentenced to remain in abusive marriages. Among those in hiding today are former lawyers and judges who have defended abused women or brought charges against men accused of beating, kidnapping or raping women and girls.
Today, many former judges and lawyers said their relatives or neighbors were beaten or accosted by men demanding to know the whereabouts of the women.
âWe have lost everything – our jobs, our homes, our way of life – and we are terrified,â said Wahida, 28, a former judge.
Behista, 25, a former defense lawyer who has represented victims of domestic violence, said she had not left her home in Kabul since the Taliban took control on August 15. She is trying to leave Afghanistan with her mother and two brothers, including a former government soldier, she says.
âI lost my job and now my whole family is in danger, not just me,â Behista said.
Nabila said she continued to receive threats even after replacing her cell phone’s SIM card.
Even before the Taliban took power, women judges and lawyers were sometimes threatened or attacked. In January, two female Afghan Supreme Court judges were shot and killed on their way to work in Kabul.
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as leaders.
Judges and male police officers often resisted reforms to the justice system and pressured women to quash their complaints in court. A Human Rights Watch report released in August said the system had failed to report on violence against women and girls and had undermined progress in protecting women’s rights.
The report says landmark legislation passed in 2009, the Elimination of Violence Against Women Act, has often been sabotaged by male officials despite some progress in victim justice under the law.
Now, many former judges and lawyers who were responsible for this progress cannot evacuate because they do not have national identity cards or passports, said Ms Motley, the US lawyer. According to the World Bank, more than half of all Afghan women do not have a national ID card, compared to around 6% of men. And for many women who have papers, their efforts to escape are complicated by a husband or child who does not.
To help Afghan women, Ms Motley suggested reviving the Nansen passports, first issued in 1922 to refugees and stateless persons after World War I and the Russian Revolution.
Some women judges and lawyers have managed to escape from Afghanistan. Polish authorities recently helped 20 women and their families to leave, Judge Glazebrook said, and 24 female judges have been evacuated to Greece since August, according to the Greek Foreign Ministry.
Friba, 40, was a judge at the appeal court in Mazar-i-Sharif, a town in northern Afghanistan, before fleeing to Greece. She has convicted numerous men of domestic violence and also presided over the trial of two Taliban members convicted of the November 2016 suicide bombing against the German consulate.
“I had been receiving threats for five years,” Friba said.
In 2014, she obtained a divorce from her sister who had been forced to marry a talibÃ© at 17 under the movement’s first regime. Her sister has since taken refuge in Egypt with their three children. âHe’s always after her,â she said.
Mr. Karimi, a member of the Taliban’s cultural commission, denied that the former judges and lawyers were in danger. He said they were covered by a general amnesty for all Afghans who served the previous government.
“To those people who live in hiding: we tell them that they must feel free, we will do nothing to you,” Karimi said. âIt’s their own country. They can live very freely and easily.
Judge Glazebrook rejected this.
âThese women believed in their country, believed in human rights and believed in the importance of the rule of law and their duty to uphold it,â she said.
As a result, she said: “They risk losing their lives.”
Niki Kitsantonis has contributed reporting from Athens and Ruhullah Khapalwak from Vancouver.