When Nabila was a judge in Afghanistan’s Supreme Court, she granted divorce to women whose husbands sometimes went to jail for assault or kidnapping. Several of the men threatened to kill her after serving time, she said.
In mid-August, as the Taliban poured into Kabul and seized power, hundreds of prisoners were released. According to the judge, among them were men who had been sentenced once in the courtroom of Nabila. Like other women interviewed for this article, her full name has not been released for her protection.
According to Nabila, after a few days she began receiving calls with death threats from former prisoners. She moved from her home in Kabul and went into hiding while trying to leave Afghanistan with her husband and three young daughters.
“I lost my job and now I can’t even go out or do anything freely because I’m afraid of these freed prisoners,” Nabila said over the phone from the safe house. “A bleak future awaits everyone in Afghanistan, especially women judges.”
According to the International Association of Women Judges, over 200 women judges remain in Afghanistan, many of whom are threatened and hiding. According to several former judges, Taliban officials have recovered their personal information from court records, and some have frozen bank accounts.
“These are women who had the audacity to judge men,” said Susan Glazebrook, president of the Association of Judges and a New Zealand Supreme Court Justice.
“Afghan women judges are under threat from the law,” she added. “They are under threat because they have made decisions in favor of women under 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 destruction of the gains made by women over the past two decades. Women judges and lawyers have left the courts under Taliban pressure, abruptly erasing one of the most significant achievements of the United States and the Allied nations since 2001.
Women not only lost their jobs, but also live in constant fear that they or their loved ones could be hunted down and killed.
“Afghanistan is an open-air prison for these women,” said Kimberly Motley, an American lawyer who has worked in Afghanistan for several years. She said she represents 13 women lawyers and judges who are trying to leave the country.
Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi said there was still no decision on the future role of women judges and lawyers.
“They are now on hold,” said Mr. Karimi.
But judges and lawyers say they were effectively fired because it is too dangerous for them to continue their jobs, given the Taliban’s disapproval of women who try men.
“Women judging men are a curse for the Taliban,” Judge Glazebrook said.
Prior to the Taliban’s rise to power, more than 270 female judges worked in Afghanistan’s corrupt, male-dominated justice system. Special courts with female judges, as well as special police and prosecutorial units, have been established in many places to deal with cases of violence against women. According to a 2008 US Institute for Peace study, just over a decade ago, nearly 90 percent of women experienced some form of domestic violence during their lifetime.
These judges have helped carry out some reforms in many courts, especially in urban areas, by bringing justice to the growing number of women and girls who have been beaten and abused by their husbands or male relatives.
Women challenged a legal system that favored husbands by granting divorce to Afghan wives, who in many cases had previously been doomed to remain in abusive marriages. Those currently in hiding include former lawyers and judges who have defended abused women or prosecuted men accused of beating, kidnapping or raping women and girls.
Many former judges and lawyers now claim that their relatives or neighbors have been beaten or attacked by men demanding to know the whereabouts of the women.
“We’ve lost everything – our jobs, our homes, our way of life – and we’re terrified,” said Wahida, 28, a former judge.
Behista, 25, a former lawyer who represented victims of domestic violence, said she did not leave her home in Kabul after the Taliban seized power on August 15. She is trying to leave Afghanistan with her mother and two brothers, one of whom is a former government soldier, she said.
“I lost my job and now my whole family is in danger, not just me,” Behista said.
Nabila said she continued to receive threats even after replacing the SIM card in her mobile phone.
Even before the Taliban came to power, women judges and lawyers were sometimes threatened or attacked. In January, two female Afghan Supreme Court judges were shot dead on their way to work in Kabul.
Understand the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid unrest following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. They used harsh public punishments, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more details on their origins and their track record as rulers.
Male judges and police officers often resisted reforms in the justice system and forced women to withdraw their complaints to court. A Human Rights Watch report released in August said the system failed to ensure accountability for violence against women and girls and undermined progress in protecting women’s rights.
The report found that an important law passed in 2009, the Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women, was frequently sabotaged by male officials, despite some progress in ensuring justice for victims in accordance with the law.
According to US lawyer Ms. Motley, now many of the women former judges and lawyers who are responsible for this progress cannot be evacuated because they do not have national IDs or passports. According to the World Bank, more than half of all Afghan women do not have a national identity card, compared with about 6 percent of men. And for many women who have documents, escape attempts are complicated by a husband or child who does not have them.
To help Afghan women, Ms Motley proposed reviving Nansen’s passports, first issued in 1922 to refugees and stateless persons following World War I and the Russian Revolution.
Several women judges and lawyers managed to escape from Afghanistan. According to Judge Glazebrook, Polish authorities recently helped 20 women and their families leave, and 24 women judges have been evacuated to Greece since August, according to the Greek Foreign Ministry.
Friba, 40, was an appellate judge from Mazar-i-Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan, before fled to Greece. She has condemned scores of men for domestic violence and also presided over the trial of two Taliban members found guilty of a suicide bombing of a terrorist attack at the German consulate in November 2016 by a suicide bomber.
“I’ve received threats for the past five years,” Friba said.
In 2014, she secured a divorce for her sister, who was forced to marry the Taliban at the age of 17 during the first regime of the movement. Since then, her sister fled to Egypt with her three children. “He’s still after her,” she said.
Mr. Karimi, a member of the Taliban Culture Commission, denied that former judges and lawyers were at risk. He said they were covered by a general amnesty for all Afghans who served under the previous government.
“To those people who live underground: we tell them that they should feel free, we will not do anything with you,” said Mr. Karimi. “This is their own country. They can live very freely and easily. “
Judge Glazebrook denied this.
“These women believed in their country, believed in human rights and believed in the importance of the rule of law and their responsibility to uphold it,” she said.
As a result, she said, “they risk losing their lives.”
Niki Kitsantonis provided reports from Athens and Ruhullah Hapalvak from Vancouver.