Kabul © Antonio De Lauri

The Judiciary and the Evacuation: Interview with Afghan Judge Tayeba Parsa

Antonio: Would you like to share your personal trajectory and the experiences that led you to become a judge?

Tayeba: On the eve of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, my parents fled to Iran, fearing what would happen if they remained, and determined to avoid my father being conscripted. My siblings and I learned tailoring to help to support the family. As newcomers to Iran, we were able to attend school, but access to university was restricted. I did so well at school, however, that my family returned to Afghanistan so that I could attend university. When it proved difficult for my father to find work in Kabul, he returned to Iran and supported the family from there, so that I and my younger siblings at least could go to university. I have five sisters and one brother. A family made up largely of girls is regarded as weak in Afghanistan. My father saw the possibility of overcoming that weakness if the girls were educated and were able to stand on their own two feet.

I was interested in law and wanted to become a lawyer to prevent people’s rights being violated, but I did not want to be a judge because my image of being a judge was only as a criminal judge. The judicial system in Afghanistan was corrupt, and the judicial and educational systems were imperfect and not modernized, so I did not want to be a criminal judge and put people in jail without sufficient evidence. But after I received the highest score on the entrance examination for the judiciary, I decided to use the opportunity to become more familiar with the laws and regulations of Afghanistan. After graduation we had the opportunity to choose which court we were interested in. I still did not want to become a judge in a criminal court, so I chose commercial court in order to gain experience working as a judge for just a few years (because I did not want to remain a judge, I wanted to become a lawyer). When I started working as a judge, I observed that laws and people’s rights were clearly being violated as a result of corruption, and I realized that I had the ability and even the authority to prevent it, to protect people and implement the rule of law and justice. That was my ambition, so I decided to remain a judge.

Antonio: Can you describe your career as a judge?

Tayeba: I was a judge in the commercial division of the appeals court of Kabul province. I assessed the court decisions of the primary commercial courts of Kabul province, determining whether to affirm or reverse them. Cases included contracts between national and foreign companies and individuals, intellectual property cases, foreign exchange cases, transport contracts, disputes between companies and their employees, and others. I have worked in several different courts, including:

Judge in the Civil Division of the Primary Court of Kabul Province, Fourth District, June 2019–May 2021: Determining the applicable facts and law and issuing rulings on property, tort, and civil cases, and suits for damages.

Judge in the Public Rights Division of the Primary Court of Kabul Province, Fourth District, December 2017–June 2019: Analysing and ruling on lawsuits where one of the parties was the government, including property cases, administrative law cases, and disputes between employees and the government as employer.

Judge in the Primary Commercial Court of Kabul Province, June 2012–December 2017: Analysing and ruling on bank loan cases, contracts between national and foreign companies and individuals, intellectual property cases, foreign exchange cases, transport contracts, car businesses, and disputes between companies and their employees.

Judge Assistant in the Civil and Public Rights Division of the Supreme Court of Afghanistan, July 2011–June 2012: Studying the complete case files and drafting summaries for each primary and appellate court decision on property law and civil law cases for the judges.

I am a member of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) and have been in touch with them for about a year. I have been collaborating with IAWJ judges and expanding the international relations and communication efforts of the Afghanistan Women Judges Association (AWJA). Thanks to my outreach efforts, the IAWJ has registered the AWJA as a member organization. As part of that effort, I provided and translated the AWJA’s founding documents for registration with the IAWJ and provided a list of Afghan women judges and their contact information so they could obtain IAWJ membership. As a result, about 250 Afghan women judges are now IAWJ members and their membership dues have been waived. I also arranged to bring approximately 30 Afghan women judges to the biennial conference of the IAWJ. I gave a speech at the regional meeting of the conference on the security problems and Taliban threats faced by Afghan women judges, detailing our concerns over the peace negotiations with the Taliban. 

I also translated the news about the assassination of two women judges by the Taliban in January in Kabul, as well as the judges’ biographies, for the IAWJ. The IAWJ then issued a statement about the problems faced by Afghan women judges and called on the international community to support us. I rendered the statement to the Chief Justice in person and he published it on the website of the Supreme Court at my request.

I am also in touch with women judges from the UK. Working with my UK colleagues, I established a mentoring programme for ten Afghan women judges. Each of them has a mentor from the UK with whom they meet regularly online. 

In addition, I am a participant in the Alliance for International Women’s Rights (AIWR), which is dedicated to enhancing women’s rights in Afghanistan. I have been trying to include more Afghan women judges in AIWR’s mentor programme, and I have asked Judge Anisa Dhanji from the UK to establish connections for all the Afghan women judges. 

I have worked as an instructor in the judicial training of the judiciary of Afghanistan, as a lecturer on Commercial Law and Administrative Law, and in courses with the Hamida Barmaki Institution (Max Planck).

Before becoming a judge, I worked for the Legal Aid Organization of Afghanistan (LAOA) as a legal counsellor and instructor in advocate courses. I prepared draft defense statements; advised clients in family, criminal, and juvenile law cases; and taught inheritance law, the defense lawyers’ code, juvenile law, evidence, and legal research.

I was Assistant Director of the Cultural Committee of the AWJA from 2012 to 2016. We conducted law seminars and training sessions for women judges in capacity building.

Antonio: What would you consider to be the major obstacles and challenges for a woman judge in Afghanistan?

Tayeba: As you know, for the Taliban, simply being a government judge is enough reason to be killed without trial. Recently two male judges were murdered by the Taliban the moment the Taliban discovered the men were judges. Often, for women judges the danger is even greater than for men. The Taliban believe that women are forbidden from being judges by the rules and regulations of Islam. So, it was common to receive multiple letters from the national security agency warning us about imminent risks, and also threatening phone calls from the parties themselves. Threats against women judges were always more acute and came from those who were opposed to women being judges, and even worse, from those not wanting women to be a part of the workforce at all.

The threats sometimes went beyond letters and calls. In western Afghanistan, a group of attackers took over the entire courthouse and massacred every single employee. In a suicide attack in front of the Supreme Court in Kabul, two newly graduated female Afghan judges, Mina and Zarghoona, were killed. We are still grieving the loss of two of our sister judges, Zakia and Qadria, who were killed in January. At one point the Taliban changed the forms of their attacks and started shooting directly at government judges and putting mines under their cars instead of using bomb attacks. Some women judges quit. Most continued, despite their families’ fears, knowing that when they left home each morning, they might not return. Some started to carry guns to protect themselves.

The problems I personally encountered might be recognized by women judges all over the world—of not being taken seriously, of being humiliated, and also, I was passed over when there was an opening for a new head of my court although I was clearly the best qualified. A young male judge was appointed instead, and then I was asked to help him. Women were symbolically appointed as the heads of family and the elimination of violence against women courts. On a more threatening level, I was once pressured by some corrupt judges to change a decision and feared that if I did not, I would be relocated to the provinces, as had happened to some of my colleagues. Despite feeling intimidated, I held my ground.

As you know, in Afghanistan a panel comprising three judges makes the decision in each case. Once there was a judge who shouted at me and insulted me only because I disagreed with him in a court decision. These things can happen, especially to women judges.

Antonio: When the Taliban took over in August 2021, you decided to leave the country. Can you describe that moment and what it meant for you?

Tayeba: When the provinces were falling one by one, we decided to escape. My mother and my sister secured visas. My fiancé and I got married, without a wedding party, and the plan was to fly with them after receiving our marriage document. However, while driving in the city we observed that all the roads were closed and realized that the Taliban had taken Kabul. My father called me and told me not to come home because there were Taliban members at the checkpoints. He told me they might search my car and discover my identity. He said do not drive yourself, because you driving may make them angry. I told my mother, do not miss the flight, at least you can save my sister. My mother and my sister ran to the airport. As I watched them running away, I thought it was the last time I would see my mother and it made me cry. Their flight was delayed by 12 hours, but finally they were able to depart. I stayed in the car until night. I saw that the soldiers and police had taken off their uniforms in order to disguise their identity. I felt I was trapped and I was afraid, not only of the Taliban but also of criminals and thieves who might take advantage of the situation. A judge from the IAWJ had called me and told me to be careful because the Taliban had opened the prisons and released all the prisoners. Finally, my husband drove me home. We did not leave the house for three days. During those three days I was in touch with the IAWJ and I was collecting information on Afghan women judges for them, because they were trying to start an evacuation programme.

After Kabul fell, as I said, I was at home for three days. I was gathering up documents in order to hide them and destroying case notes to hide my identity. I was the first judge to receive a call from a Polish lawyer about evacuation because of an interview in which I had spoken out against the Taliban. I had never wanted to leave the country or my job. But I was a female judge from the Hazara ethnic and religious (Shi’a) minority, and I had been in touch with foreigners, something the Taliban would consider an unforgivable crime. If I had remained, I am certain I would have been killed. But leaving was painful. I felt I had lost all I had achieved.

We did not want the Taliban to find out we were leaving so we did not carry any luggage. I only took my documents and some legal books that I love and could not leave behind. It was so crowded in front of the gate. The Taliban were shooting and beating people. I stood at the gate without food or sleep for 24 hours. Finally, I was able to enter the airport. My father and my husband waited a further 48 hours for their flights. We left Afghanistan on separate flights. They had nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep for three days. Then they joined me in Poland.

Antonio: What is the situation of the judiciary now in Afghanistan?

To my knowledge, most judges who worked in the previous government have been fired and are being called to account. The judiciary has lost all its professional judges and is now conducted by illiterate and inexperienced people, and the society at large will bear the cost. Moreover, women have been eliminated from the judiciary. Having women in the judiciary was a great achievement that was lost so quickly.

Antonio: What are your personal plans now?

I believe no one can endure the cruelty of the Taliban and the lack of democracy and rule of law. So, one day, Afghans will take back their country and again democracy will govern. And I want to prepare for that day by learning and studying to rebuild our society. I believe many adversities in Afghanistan come from lack of knowledge. So I hope to get a scholarship and be able to study and work in legal areas, and to gain international experience that I will be able to use for my country in the future. I have worked and studied in the field of law for 16 years and do not want to abandon my career. I hope to use this opportunity of living in Europe to improve my qualifications and serve the international community. I hope one day I can return to Afghanistan and help improve the rule of law and democracy for my nation. Until that day I want to continue to support the rule of law through international entities and to pressure the Taliban to uphold the rule of law.

I will probably try to stay in an English-speaking country because of the advantage of knowing the language. It would be difficult to become proficient in another language for use in the legal sector.

As all my family members are scattered (some of them escaped to Iran, some to Poland, and soon I will need to leave my parents and go to an English-speaking country, which will not issue a visa for my parents), my hope is that one day we will be able to live together in the same country again.

Photo: Tayeba Parsa in her courthouse.

Here you can read an interview with judge Anisa Rasooli.

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