For five years, Naima* presided over cases of violence against women in Afghanistan. She heard harrowing accounts of unspeakable violence from battered women and their families. She even saw a man kill his wife before her own eyes during a court hearing.
But in the two months since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, she says she regrets the 10 years she spent as a judge and the years she took to study law.
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“Sometimes you think to yourself: Why did I do that? Why didn’t I choose any other discipline,” she told Al Jazeera from an undisclosed location in 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 reasons to be afraid.
During its 11-day rampage through Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, the Taliban released thousands of prisoners from the nation’s jails. Among them were possibly men who judges such as Naima had personally sentenced, and who might have ended up joining the Taliban government.
In fact, Taliban leaders themselves have made several inferences to criminal elements posing as them or joining their ranks with ill intent.
Last month, acting Minister of Defence, Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob, specifically addressed these concerns in an audio message, saying: “There are some bad and corrupt people who want to join us … To fulfil their own interest or to defame us and make us look bad.”
Naima says her suspicions were confirmed when she went to a bank last month and one of the guards, clearly a member of the Taliban, kept staring at her. Things only became more tense when one of the bank workers called out her name and the guard tried to take her bank card, presumably to verify her name.
Naima quickly pushed her way into the middle of the crowd of dozens of other women waiting for their turn, but just before she did that, she managed to catch a quick glimpse of the guard who had been trying hard to watch her.
“It all came back to me in a flash, he had been in my courtroom only eight months prior for murdering his wife,” she said.
Naima’s story is not uncommon. Other female judges Al Jazeera spoke to shared strikingly similar stories. Like Naima, all of them are in hiding in Kabul.
Immediately after the Taliban takeover, tens of thousands of civil servants were out of jobs across Afghanistan. The group took weeks to establish its interim government, including any form of judiciary.
It has also failed in regaining access to more than $9.5bn in assets and loans being blocked by the United States, World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which means the Taliban is largely unable to pay salaries to government workers, including judges.
Women have been especially affected by these developments. Shortly after taking power, the Taliban told government workers not to return to work until they could guarantee their fighters would not harass or abuse them.
Still, some judges tried to return to work.
Wahida, a female judge in the northern province of Balkh, was among those who thought their line of my work might be considered too essential to hold back. In late 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: “Go back! We still don’t have orders on how to handle the situation here.”
When she saw that men were able to enter the building, Wahida’s confusion turned to anger, but the Taliban’s response was clear: “Women can’t work in a courthouse where men are, go back home or send a male relative to collect your wages.”
The words confirmed what Wahida and thousands of other educated 20 and 30-something Afghan women had feared – that the Taliban would return to the kinds of practices their mothers had to endure during the group’s five-year rule in the 1990s.
The response given to Wahida was in line with what female educators, NGO workers and government employees in Kandahar, Herat and Kabul told Al Jazeera in recent weeks. But legal experts say the situation goes beyond the Taliban’s usual misogyny and has now turned into a dismantling of the Afghan judiciary.
“There is no legal system in Afghanistan anymore,” Saeeq Shajjan, a lawyer who ran a well-known law firm in Kabul, told Al Jazeera.
Shajjan said not only are both female and male judges out of work, but that they all are in hiding. Other sources Al Jazeera spoke to agreed with Shajjan’s assessment of the situation.
“They decide everything right there on the spot. Whatever a commander or an elder says is now the law,” Shajjan said.
‘Streets are the courtrooms’
The sentiment was echoed by residents in the central province of Daikondi, who said the Taliban has kicked out thousands of families from their homes based on claims of land disputes or decisions made by unnamed local councils, called shuras.
“There are no more courtrooms, the streets are the courtrooms,” Shajjan said, citing the Taliban’s recent appointments to their caretaker administration as proof that the judiciary went from being one of the main branches of the government to at best, an afterthought.
This has left hundreds of judges unemployed and afraid.
Najiba, who only gave her first name for security reasons, presided over the case of a former Taliban member who had brutally tortured his sister because she messaged a boy online.
The 37-year-old wanted to see the girl for herself. When she arrived at the hospital, she could not believe what she saw.
“Her entire 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 upon her daughter.
“I can’t believe this. I don’t know what had gotten into my son to make him do something so inhuman and animalistic,” Najiba recalls the distraught mother telling her.
Upon finding him guilty, Najiba sentenced the man to 10 years in prison. She still remembers what happened immediately after the verdict was handed down.
“He started shouting in front of everyone: ‘When I get out, I will do to you what I did to my sister’,” she recollected.
That was in 2018.
“I didn’t take him seriously at that time. Throughout my 10 years of service, I have received so many death threats from angry criminals,” she said.
This year, the man Najiba sentenced was among thousands of criminals released by the Taliban.
“He found my information from the provincial court office and threatened me from unknown numbers. Every time I received these calls, the face of that poor girl with no eyes and broken nose came to my mind.”
Adding to her fears was the “notoriety” she gained through the media.
“I was famous in my city. Every Thursday, I went on a morning show to discuss women’s rights and responded to questions posed by women.”
Shortly after the Taliban takeover, she fled her home in northern Afghanistan and headed to Kabul, where she now lives in hiding.
“I fled the city in a car wearing a chadari [burqa], so no one would recognise me.”
‘Everything changed in a second’
Over the past two decades, female judges such as Najiba presided over hundreds of cases of violence against women, including rape, murder, torture and domestic abuse.
According to the Afghanistan 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 those. She still remembers the incidents of August 13, the day the Taliban arrived in Mazar-i-Sharif.
“It was the last semester of graduate school. Everything changed in a second. I left my home, university, and everything behind. I dug a hole in the garden and buried all my documents. Each of my achievements, my entire identity was under the ground. I felt I was grieving my own body,” she told Al Jazeera.
After hiding everything, she fled to Kabul where she sought refuge in her brother-in-law’s home. Now, she is also waiting for a way out.
But so far, help for the members of the judiciary, who face as much of a threat from random criminals as they do from the Taliban, has been slow and limited.
Greece welcomed 26 female lawyers last month. The Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis brought the issue up during a recent address, saying these women “cannot be perceived as a pull factor”.
Other than that, though, judges and lawyers have been left mostly to their own devices as they struggle to live their lives in anonymity.
Sitting in a nondescript, undisclosed home in Kabul, Naima thinks back on her life – how the job she loved so much, especially the ability to help desperate women in their times of greatest need, has forced her into the shadows.
“It is as if the last 20 years never existed,” she told Al Jazeera.
In the final days of the Ghani administration, there were more than 250 female judges in Afghanistan. Most of them were in Kabul, but there are also dozens in the provinces of Panjshir, Baghlan, Maidan Wardak, Herat, Balkh, Parwan and Kapisa.
In some of these provinces, female judges had been appointed as the heads of courts. But all of that came to an end under the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate.
“We all took decades to study, to work. Now, all that is gone,” says Naima, who went from using her legal expertise to judge hundreds of cases to using a false name to talk to the media, from a secret location.
“As if it was all some kind of dream and we all woke up one day in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.”
*Names changed to protect identity