Afghanistan: female judicial activists are like defectors on the run

An Afghan woman passes by the building of the former Ministry of Women Affairs which is now replaced with the conservative Ministry of Vice and Virtue, which will oversee the implementation of hardline Islamic rules in the country, in Kabul, Afghanistan, 18 September 2021. (Keystone/EPA/Stringer)

Ayesha* was a prominent attorney in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. At 26 years old, she had been juggling her job with a part-time master’s in Criminology at the local university until the Taliban took control of the area on 14 August. She has since been forced into hiding, like many other prominent female lawyers and judges across the country who fear for their lives under Taliban rule. Once leaders of the fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan, many of these women face the terrifying prospect of being pursued by the criminals they convicted. Ayesha tells her story from a number of secret locations across Afghanistan.

Ayesha is the second oldest of eight siblings. When she graduated from school in 2010, Ayesha set her mind on studying law but her mother, a teacher, wanted her to study medicine like her older brother.

“Addressing my mother, my father said, ‘If Ayesha chooses her favourite field, then she can progress well, otherwise she will lose motivation,’ ” says Ayesha.  “So then I joined the law faculty of Nangarhar University.”

Ten years later, Ayesha is an attorney, who was established until recently in Nangarhar, an eastern province of Afghanistan, which is located on the border with Pakistan. The area came under the control of the Taliban the day before the fall of Kabul on 15 August.

“I went to the office in the morning as usual,” says Ayesha. “There was a card on my table inviting me to a gathering on women’s rights. After two hours of working, I left the office at 10am to join the gathering, which was held by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs at a nearby hotel.”

“It was around midday when my fiancé called me,” she continues. “He said in a hurry, ‘You have to go back home as soon as possible, there is a rumour that the Taliban have entered Jalalabad city.’ I felt afraid. I hid my face so that no one could recognise me, and I went back home quickly.”

Female judicial workers were the trailblazers of women’s rights in Afghanistan. They had been defending the law and seeking justice for Afghan women across the country. But now they have to go into hiding, because their lives are in danger.

“I was working in the area of ​​elimination of violence against women,” Ayesha explains. “I investigated cases of rape, murder, domestic violence, and so on. Throughout my career as an attorney, there had always been threats against me –it's clear that when a decision is made between two persons, one of them will be dissatisfied and angry, especially if the case is in favour of a woman and the man feels himself a loser. ”

On the day when the Taliban took control of Kabul, almost all the prisoners were released from Pul-e-Charkhi prison in Kabul. The released prisoners have become a major threat to those judges and attorneys who processed their cases in the courts.

“I am afraid of those people I prosecuted and who went to jail but are now released,” says Ayesha. “For example, last year I was working on a case where the husband had forced his wife into prostitution to make money. The woman appealed against her husband. I received many threatening messages from the perpetrator during the case, but I did not take them seriously. That man was sentenced to several years in prison. On the day he was convicted, he expressed his hostility by looking at me angrily and then left. ”

While the Taliban's control has been growing across Afghanistan in recent months, employees and activists associated with the judiciary have been killed in a string of assassinations also targeting journalists, human rights defenders and other political figures. In January 2021, two female judges who were working for the Afghan Supreme Court were killed on their way to work in Kabul.

“I feared the Taliban because, based on their rules, women do not have the right to work in the judiciary,” says Ayesha. “But how is that possible? I have visited women's prisons and detention centres, I have been speaking to female prisoners and trying to get justice for them. There are testimonies and issues in the women's cases that they can share with a woman attorney but not a man. ”

According to a report by the BBC, 270 women have sat as judges in Afghanistan in the past 20 years. But now, more than 220 female Afghan judges are in hiding due to fear of punishment under Taliban rule.

“I have been on the move from one location to another and changing my contact number,” says Ayesha. “My family is also at risk of persecution. I used to believe that the law could protect me but now everything is different. There are some people who have given themselves the right to kill me and no one would ask them why. ”

* Ayesha's real name has been changed for her safety

The series is authored by Tooba Neda Safi, an Afghan journalist, poet and women’s rights activist now living in Switzerland after being forced to leave her country in 2014. Every week she will share stories from other women in her home country whose lives have been upturned since the Taliban took control.

Geneva Solutions reports on the activities of organisations in Geneva, many of which bring aid to conflict-hit countries like Afghanistan.  It’s also important to hear from the people living in the affected countries, which this series aims to do by telling stories like Ayesha’s.