For five years, Naima * presided over cases of violence against women in Afghanistan. She heard harrowing accounts of untold violence from battered women and their families. She even saw a man kill his wife in front of his own eyes during a court hearing.
But in the two months since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, she says she regrets the 10 years she spent as a judge and the years she took to study law.
âSometimes you think to yourself: Why did I do this? Why didn’t I choose another discipline, âshe told Al Jazeera from an undisclosed location in the capital Kabul.
Like hundreds of other judges, Naima went into hiding shortly after former President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on August 15 and the Taliban took control.
The judges had reason to be afraid.
During their 11-day rampage across Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, the Taliban freed thousands of prisoners from the country’s jails. Among them were perhaps men whom judges like Naima had personally convicted, and who might have ended up joining the Taliban government.
In fact, the Taliban leaders themselves have made several inferences that criminal elements impersonated them or joined their ranks with bad intentions.
Last month, Acting Defense Minister Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob specifically addressed these concerns in an audio message, saying, “There are bad and corrupt people who want to join usâ¦ bad.”
Naima says her suspicions were confirmed when she walked into a bank last month and one of the guards, clearly a member of the Taliban, kept staring at her. Things only got more tense when one of the bank employees called out his name and the guard tried to take his bank card, presumably to verify his name.
Naima quickly made her way through the crowd of dozens of other women awaiting their turn, but just before she did, she managed to spot the guard trying to keep her eye on her.
“It all came back to me in a flash, he had only been in my courtroom eight months before for the murder of his wife,” she said.
‘To return to!’
Naima’s story is not uncommon. Other female Al Jazeera judges have spoken of surprisingly similar stories. Like Naima, all of them are in hiding in Kabul.
Immediately after the Taliban takeover, tens of thousands of civil servants were unemployed across Afghanistan. The group took weeks to establish its interim government, including any form of justice system.
It also failed to regain access to the more than $ 9.5 billion in assets and loans stranded by the United States, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, meaning the Taliban are largely unable to pay the salaries of civil servants, including judges.
Women have been particularly affected by these developments. Shortly after taking power, the Taliban told officials not to return to work until they could guarantee that their fighters would not harass or mistreat them.
However, some judges have tried to return to work.
Wahida, a female judge from the northern province of Balkh, was among those who believed their line of work could be seen as too essential to hold back. At the end of August, she tried to return to a court in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
When she arrived at the court, she approached the armed Taliban guarding the entrance to the building. At first, their response confused her: âGo back! We still don’t have orders on how to handle the situation here.
When she saw that men could enter the building, Wahida’s confusion turned to anger, but the Taliban’s response was clear:. “
The words confirmed what Wahida and thousands of other educated Afghan women in their 20s and 30s feared – that the Taliban would return to the types of practices their mothers had to endure during the group’s five-year rule in the years. 1990.
The response to Wahida was in line with what educators, NGO workers and government workers in Kandahar, Herat and Kabul told Al Jazeera in recent weeks. But legal experts say the situation goes beyond the usual Taliban misogyny and has now turned into a dismantling of Afghan justice.
“There is no longer a legal system in Afghanistan,” Saeeq Shajjan, a lawyer who ran a well-known law firm in Kabul, told Al Jazeera.
Shajjan said that not only are the female and male judges out of work, they are all in hiding. Other sources Al Jazeera spoke to agreed with Shajjan’s assessment of the situation.
âThey decide everything on the spot. Everything a commander or elder says is now the law, âShajjan said.
“The streets are courtrooms”
This sentiment was shared by residents of central Daikondi province, who said the Taliban evicted thousands of families from their homes based on claims of land disputes or decisions made by anonymous local councils, known as shuras. .
“There are no more courtrooms, the streets are courtrooms,” Shajjan said, citing the recent Taliban appointments to their interim administration as proof that the judiciary has shifted from one of the major branches of government to, at best, an afterthought.
This has left hundreds of judges unemployed and scared.
Najiba, who only gave her first name for security reasons, presided over the case of a former Taliban member who brutally tortured his sister for messaging a boy online.
The 37-year-old wanted to see the girl for herself. When she arrived at the hospital, she couldn’t believe what she saw.
“Her whole face, her eyes, her nose, everything was broken and beaten,” she told Al Jazeera.
Standing there, she turned to the mother who was still in shock at the violence her son had inflicted on her daughter.
âI can’t believe this. I don’t know what prompted my son to do something so inhuman and animalistic, âNajiba recalls, telling him the distraught mother.
After finding him guilty, Najiba sentenced the man to 10 years in prison. She still remembers what happened immediately after the verdict was delivered.
âHe started shouting in front of everyone, ‘When I go out, I’ll do to you what I did to my sister,’â she recalls.
It was in 2018.
âI didn’t take him seriously at the time. In my 10 years of service, I have received so many death threats from angry criminals, âshe said.
This year, the man convicted by Najiba was among thousands of criminals freed by the Taliban.
âHe found my information at the provincial court registry and threatened me with unknown numbers. Every time I received these calls, the face of this poor girl with no eyes and a broken nose came back to me.
To her fears was added the ânotorietyâ she had acquired through the media.
âI was famous in my city. Every Thursday I went to a morning show to discuss women’s rights and answer questions asked by women.
Shortly after the Taliban takeover, she fled her home in northern Afghanistan and headed for Kabul, where she now lives in hiding.
“I fled the city in a car wearing a chadari [burqa], so that no one recognizes me.
“Everything changed in a second”
Over the past two decades, women judges like Najiba have presided over hundreds of cases of violence against women, including rape, murder, torture and domestic violence.
According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, a total of 3,477 cases of violence against women were recorded by the watchdog in the first 10 months of 2020 alone.
Zarghona, a 32-year-old judge, also from Balkh province, was among them. She still remembers the incidents of August 13, the day the Taliban arrived in Mazar-i-Sharif.
âIt was the last semester of graduate school. Everything changed in a second. I left my house, my university and everything behind me. I dug a hole in the garden and buried all of my documents. Each of my accomplishments, my whole identity was underground. I felt I was crying over my own body, âshe told Al Jazeera.
After having hidden everything, she fled to Kabul where she took refuge with her brother-in-law. Now she is also waiting for a way out.
But so far, aid to members of the judiciary, who are threatened as much by random criminals as by the Taliban, has been slow and limited.
Greece welcomed 26 female lawyers last month. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis raised the issue in a recent speech, saying these women âcannot be seen as a pull factorâ.
Other than that, however, judges and lawyers have been left largely to their own devices as they struggle to live their lives in anonymity.
Sitting in some nondescript and secret house in Kabul, Naima reflects on her life – how the job she loved so much, especially the ability to help desperate women in the most difficult times, forced her to sink into the dark. ‘shadow.
“It’s as if the last 20 years never existed,” she told Al Jazeera.
In the last days of the Ghani administration, there were more than 250 female judges in Afghanistan. Most were in Kabul, but there are also dozens in Panjshir, Baghlan, Maidan Wardak, Herat, Balkh, Parwan and Kapisa provinces.
In some of these provinces, women judges have been appointed to head courts. But it all came to an end under the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban.
âWe have all taken decades to study, to work. Now that is all gone, âsays Naima, who has gone from her legal expertise trying hundreds of cases to using a false name to speak to the media, from a secret location.
“As if this was all a dream and we all woke up one day in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.”
* Names changed to protect identity