Legacy of the Taliban that turned a proud judge into a broken woman

It is difficult to imagine that life was really ever very different for the women of Afghanistan

It is difficult to imagine that life was really ever very different for the women of Afghanistan. After all, the Taliban is gone from Kabul city, and yet one does not see a woman on the street without the all-enveloping blue burqa.

When I was in Quetta, Pakistan, in October, I bought a burqa for $20 in case I might need it. When I returned to New York, it was passed around and tried on by friends, female and male, who marvelled at the sense of confinement, invisibility and claustrophobia it immediately engendered.

It also became quite a party joke, so it is strange to be in Kabul and see this garb as something still taken seriously. This is not a stone-age city intellectually; beneath the burqa, one can make out women wearing sophisticated wool salwar kameez suits and upscale black leather shoes. Some carry urban-style handbags.

But to get a more accurate picture of women here, you have to turn back the clock. In 1977, 15 per cent of all legislators were women. Until the 1990s, women accounted for 70 per cent of all teachers, 50 per cent of government workers and fully 40 per cent of doctors. In 1990, there were 14 women members of Afghanistan's judiciary. Shukria was one of them.


"For five years before that I was an assistant to a judge," she says proudly. We are sitting in the offices of UNICEF, where Shukria's aunt has helped her to apply for a job.

"Then I became a judge in 1990. I dealt with family law, divorces, property law and also juvenile justice."

The Afghanistan juvenile justice system dealt with minors on several levels according to their ages. Her department dealt with with young people between the ages of 15 and 18 years old. "Most of the charges against girls were related to sexual matters. The boys were accused of stealing or carrying drugs and weapons," she says.

Shukria loved being a judge, mostly, she says, because she could help turn children's lives around.

"A judge can send them for rehabilitation instead of prison. Afghans are not violent, no matter what people say. Most of the crimes were because of poverty and lack of education. Children would steal because they needed things or needed money."

In 1996, Shukria's work life came to an end in an abrupt and brutal manner. The Taliban forbade women to work. I ask Shukria how it happened, how did she learn she was "sacked?" She is holding a file folder with her CV inside and she suddenly brings it up to cover her face. She cannot control the tears.

Minutes pass before she begins to speak slowly. "I was in my office. They burst through the door. They were yelling, 'Who do you think you are? Who appointed you?' They did very bad behaviour to me. There was an old man, a guard, and they made him carry my things out. You couldn't talk to them. You couldn't reason with them. They wouldn't listen," she said.

It is impossible not to speculate about what she means by "bad behaviour but it is very easy not to ask this woman, with dark haunted eyes and tears on her cheeks, any more about it. She was a lawyer, a judge, a proud woman, and today it is clear she is trying just to unbreak her heart.

"After that I sat in my father's house for three years, sweeping the room. I worked as a volunteer with children, but it was a terrible time.

We turn to the present. Shukria has prepared a series of lectures about law in Afghanistan for some NGOs.

She met UNICEF director Carol Bellamy last week to offer proposals for the establishment of a new judicial system. She is discussing the revival of the 1964 Constitution of Afghanistan, which granted equal rights to women. "If peace will come, if we have a government, then we will have good law as we used to. Judges must sit as judges, qualified people, not policeman or military. We have good law here, it just needs to be implemented."

After talking with Shukria I go the football stadium in central Kabul. This is where justice Taliban-style was meted out once a month on Friday afternoons for five years. The accused would be presented to the family of the alleged victim, who could then vote to spare the accused's life.

Few did. The judges would present the case over the loud-speakers to the 30,000 or so observers in the stands. Inevitably execution would be called for. Women were stoned to death for adultery, men's throats were slit for murder, hands were chopped off for theft, right there in front of the cheering crowds.

Today the stadium is silent, the grass on the field crushed and brown. A lone soldier sits at the entrance peering curiously at some Western woman wandering around an empty field. The last execution there was in September, I am told.

A strange graffiti is written on several of the stone walls beneath the stadium seats. "I love you" written in English over and over again.

The reconstruction of Afghanistan is a daunting notion, from the repair of Shukria's spirit to the very idea of a building a society with liberty and justice for all.

Elaine Lafferty is an Irish Times correspondent normally based in New York