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The Law, the Taliban, and the Women Judges of Afghanistan

Andie Linker

Hon. Lida Kharooti Sayeed has known she wanted to be a judge since she was a young girl growing up in Afghanistan.

Throughout her 14 years of schooling, she studied and worked hard to ensure she reached her goal—and she did. For two years, Hon. Kharooti served as a judge in Afghanistan's court system. While she served, Afghanistan was free from the influence of the Taliban. Their court system was based off Islamic law, with a high supreme court interpreting and applying the law, as well as a number of civil, criminal, and special interest courts underneath. There was a clear, universally applied legal system, and everyone had the right to a lawyer at the beginning of their case. Hon. Kharooti loved her time as a judge.

As the United States continued to pull troops out of Afghanistan, and the Taliban began to regain control over the state, everything changed for Hon. Kharooti. On August 15, 2021, her security detail told her they needed to leave because the Taliban was near and they were going to take over the courts:

It’s a very painful story I will never forget. I was in my office, busy reading a case, and suddenly, there was a knock at my office door. It was my security guard who said, “Please, let’s go home.” I said, “But it’s only 10 o’clock.” He told me that the Taliban was close to Kabul City and that they would kill us because I was a judge who sent the Taliban to jail. I was in shock. I went to our chief judge; he was also worried. He was collecting his papers, and he said, “Please hurry up and leave the court.” After I got to my house, my security guard and my driver told me, “After this, we cannot take care of you; you must take care of yourself.”

This is the story that Hon. Kharooti told to a crowd during her session at Relativity Fest 2023. Alongside Relativity's David Horrigan, Master Victoria McCloud of the High Court of England and Wales, and Hon. Toni Clarke of the Circuit Court of Prince George County, she courageously shared her experiences and helped teach Fest attendees about the dire situation of judges in Afghanistan today—and how our industry can help.

The Current Status of Afghanistan’s Legal System

Hon. Kharooti shared with us that the rule of law in Afghanistan has crumbled under the Taliban. Those in power rule as they like, without regard for a particular order or system that would be recognizable to others.

Thus, under Taliban rule, the Afghani court system no longer has a universal law to follow—and according to Hon. Kharooti , they don't even seem to be following Islamic law. Decisions seem arbitrary, judges have no formal training, and there is no accountability within the system.

The UN has reported that the Taliban has suspended the country’s 2004 Constitution, exercises an “extreme exclusion of women from the legal system,” and that those who seek to prosecute members of the Taliban according to their democratically elected system are regularly put at “grave risk.”

The system that Hon. Kharooti knew and loved is no more, and when her safety—as well as her family’s—was directly threatened by incoming powers, she had no choice but to leave.

Ultimately, she was able to come to the United States, where she has begun her training over: learning English, a new legal system, and establishing a new home for herself. She is currently a visiting scholar at William & Mary Law School, and actively advocates for fellow legal professionals in Afghanistan and the threats they now face.

International Support from Sister Judges

Master McCloud and Hon. Clarke are both leaders in the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ). When Master McCloud heard of Hon. Kharooti’s story (and the many others like her), she immediately knew more needed to be done.

“If we care about women judges, then none of them should be unemployed,” Master McCloud noted. She noticed that a lot of the Afghani judges she encountered were not being given equal job opportunities, as employers underestimated their skill sets and weren’t willing to invest in retraining them.

Hon. Clarke felt similarly, stating that “There is no manual for this situation,” but she knew she needed to do something. So, the International Association of Women Judges got to work, coordinating across time zones to make sure that the women judges could both safely flee Afghanistan and establish a network in their new homes to rebuild their lives and careers with security and dignity.

What the Global Legal Community Can Do to Help

“This is not a charity situation,” said Hon. Clarke. “These are highly trained individuals who could be a great help to our legal system, and we just need to get them in the right jobs.”

If you’re inspired by Hon. Kharooti’s story, you can help.

First, learn more about what’s happening in Afghanistan via this on-demand webinar from the National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ).

Then, consider making a donation to the IAWJ or the American Bar Association in support of their rescue and reaccreditation programs. You can also get involved in the NAWJ’s efforts to help lift up and empower sisters across the world by joining the organization and getting involved in mentorship programs and other initiatives.

At Relativity, we’re incredibly grateful to have had these guests at Fest this year to educate our community on this crisis and open the floor for support. It was easily one of the most important session we’ve hosted over the years, and we hope it inspires you to help as much as it inspired us.

Graphics for this article were created by Sarah Vachlon.

Watch the 2023 Judicial Panel On Demand

Andie Linker is a member of the product marketing team at Relativity.

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