Afraid for their lives, Afghan women judges desperately seek escape from Taliban

While Canada prepares to send more flights to evacuate vulnerable Afghans from Kabul in the coming weeks, Maryam is busy making sure she will survive until then.

She’s hiding and destroying any evidence of her successful, decade-long career as a judge in Afghanistan — a job that could seal her fate under Taliban rule.

CBC News has agreed to not use Maryam’s real name for her own protection.

As a woman judge, she said if the Taliban identified her, she would most likely be executed without a trial. If she was lucky, she might only be imprisoned.

“[The Taliban] believe … women who work as a judge are infidels,” Maryam told CBC News in a conversation over WhatsApp on Monday. “I think the Taliban’s coming makes Afghanistan regress about 100 years back.”

During the day, her electricity has been cut; but at night, she has been able to send messages and communicate with friends and colleagues.

There are about 270 women judges in Afghanistan — all of them in danger and all of them desperate to flee after the Taliban seized control of Kabul on Sunday, effectively ending a two-decade, Western-backed campaign to transform the country.

Maryam said she speaks regularly with many of them online. “They are so worried. They are frequently asking me, ‘Is there any hope to escape?'”

The Taliban had ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 with a harsh form of Islamic law.

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According to the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ), there have been recent reports of deadly car-bomb attacks targeting Afghans who work for the courts, as well as their families. In January, an unidentified gunman ambushed and killed two female judges from Afghanistan’s Supreme Court. 

“The Taliban’s first target is the military and their second target is the judiciaries and the judiciary officers, including judges,” Maryam said.

Just last week, she said she heard about two men who were arrested and killed when the Taliban found out they were judges.

Using a scarf to hide from Taliban fighters 

Like much of the international community, Maryam was caught by surprise when the Taliban arrived in Kabul, where she lives. Despite how quickly the militant group was gaining territory, American intelligence reports last week had suggested the capital would be able to hold out for about a month or longer.

On Sunday, Maryam was in the car with her husband when they spotted Taliban fighters on the road. 

“I was afraid they might stop me,” she said. She covered herself with a scarf, and they were able to make it home without being pulled over. 

But even at home, Maryam is not safe.

“I heard that searching homes will be started soon,” she told CBC News. She has nowhere to go — her relatives are too afraid to hide her. 

Afghan women walk in Kabul on the first day of Eid al-Fitr, a religious holiday celebrated by Muslims, in May 2021. Just a few months later, the capital city is under Taliban control. (Mariam Zuhaib/AP)

The Canadian government recently expanded its special immigration program for Afghan refugees beyond interpreters and people who worked with the Canadian Armed Forces, to include women leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, persecuted religious minorities and LGBT individuals. 

Maryam said she submitted her application from the car, as her husband drove past Taliban fighters, and extremists stormed the presidential palace.

“We love our country. We love our jobs. We didn’t want to leave, but now we have to leave to stay alive,” she said.

Even if Maryam’s application to Canada is accepted, there’s the matter of getting a flight. The airport in Kabul is closed right now to commercial flights, and has been taken over by the American military. Ottawa is planning on sending more planes to help with evacuations, but that depends on whether troops can secure the airport. 

“The window of opportunity to assist them is becoming smaller and smaller,” said New Zealand Supreme Court Justice Susan Glazebrook, president of the IAWJ.

The association has been urging world governments to help Afghan women judges get to safety. 

Glazebrook said leaving them “to be at the mercy of the Taliban and insurgent groups” would be “tragic,” given what they sacrificed to build a more equal, more democratic Afghanistan.

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