Thankfully, many women judges have escaped Afghanistan with the help of the International Association of Women Judges and other organizations and governments. Sixty-eight women judges still desperately need sanctuary.
I am deeply concerned for the safety of women who, like me, worked in the justice system in Afghanistan and remain in the region. They are among the brave women who sent the Taliban, terrorists and criminals to prison. Since the Taliban regained power and released thousands of prisoners, women who once delivered justice have been hunted by cruel men committed to seeking revenge. The Taliban stripped all women from judgeships in the country, stopped their salaries and froze their bank accounts.
Facing frequent death threats and constant fear of violent reprisals, the judges and their families often move from one hiding spot to another to evade attack. Some of the judges have children. They have nothing left — no income, no safety, no security, no support. Some can’t afford a passport application. Some have waited more than a year for processing of asylum documents. Some have made it only as far as neighboring Pakistan and face steep fines and other trouble for overstaying their visas while awaiting asylum elsewhere.
Perhaps no single country can take all the judges at once. But I won’t give up helping them leave until one by one they all get out. We are grateful to people like Dr. Elizabeth Biok, secretary-general of the International Commission of Jurists, in Australia. I helped keep lines of communication open between three judges and her group while they successfully got visas for Australia.
As I write this, from where I live in Manchester, England, there are 49 women judges in Afghanistan and 19 stuck in transit in Pakistan who urgently need help to survive and escape.
Let me share a surprising and disappointing response we received from a request to the UN Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund Safety Net, which provides financing for “individual women human rights defenders who face risks that threaten their safety or ability to sustain their work,” it says. The judges were turned down because the risks must be “due to the activism that they did outside of their work,” we were told.
In their work, the judges fought for justice and helped women. Their activism was intrinsic. We humbly suggest reconsideration of the Safety Net policy to help the judges in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
When I was a family court judge in the 1990s in Afghanistan, there were 22 women jurists in the whole country. There were 10 times as many by the time the Taliban returned to power, after two decades, in August 2021.
Last September, one woman judge was killed and her body was put outside her brother’s house. All the judges were terrified and told me, “Don’t tell the media, don’t tell the media.” I kept silent, but then I said: “Why should keep I silent? This is a big deal. Silent for what?” I started sharing what happened and the judges agreed with me. It is so upsetting for all of them. I ask Allah to give me patience. Patience, patience, patience. Patience can help me to carry on with this campaign.
I am in touch with all of the women judges, mostly through WhatsApp. I cry with them. I try to make them laugh, but they can’t laugh with me. They have no energy left for laughing. These women who have spent their careers fighting for justice for others are begging now for justice themselves.
This is an opinion essay.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts on the plight of Afghan women judges?
Marzia Babakarkhail (@marziababakarkh) was a family law judge in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Now in England, she campaigns for evacuation and resettlement of women Afghan judges and their families trapped in Afghanistan or stuck in transit in Pakistan since fleeing the Taliban return to power in August 2021.