Before the United States withdrew its forces from Afghanistan last August, Najla Raheel was a busy lawyer specializing in assisting victims of domestic violence. She dedicated her free time to serving on legislative committees to strengthen protections for women’s rights. She also served in the upper echelons of the country’s nascent independent bar association. But when Washington pulled out and the Taliban swept in, everything changed.
As the Taliban claimed Kabul, it freed thousands of prisoners — including many of the men Raheel had helped put behind bars for spousal abuse. Fearful of revenge, and stifled by the new regime’s rapid imposition of policies aimed curbing the rights of women, Raheel knew she had to leave. After weeks of hiding in Kabul, she faced a harrowing journey to escape the immediate threats that surrounded her, and after months of legal limbo, has arrived in Canada, where she hopes to start a new life.
JURIST Features Editor Ingrid Burke Friedman spoke with Raheel about her professional life before the Taliban’s rise, the obstacles she faced in fleeing her country and establishing a new home, and her hopes for the beleaguered attorneys of Afghanistan.
Why did you decide to become an attorney?
When I graduated from university, I wanted to become a judge, but to do that I would have had to take an entrance exam and those only happened once a year. So I decided to work as an attorney while awaiting the next round of exams. But once I began defending clients, I was struck by how many women in Afghanistan were experiencing abuse — often very dangerous and violent abuse — when seeking to divorce their husbands. At that point, courts were routinely ignoring these women’s claims because of pervasive misogyny. Women who had suffered abuse were simply told to reconcile with their husbands. Because of this, if these women didn’t want to be separated from their children, they had no choice but to remain with their husbands despite the violence at home. Witnessing this troubling dynamic is what inspired me to continue working as a lawyer, defending the rights of such women, rather than pursuing a judicial role.
Another factor that dissuaded me from the judiciary was corruption. At that point, there were so many issues with judges accepting bribes to rule a certain way, and I wanted nothing to do with that. I knew that was dangerous for all of society.
How did your professional life change after the United States withdrew from Afghanistan?
Before the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, I had a good career as an experienced lawyer who defended the rights of vulnerable women in court. I served on dozens of legislative committees; I made it my life’s work to create protections and policies to safeguard the rights of women. I was also at the leadership level of the Afghanistan Independent Bar Association, which gave me a valuable platform from which to speak out about a variety of rights violations and other forms of injustice and to play an active role in civil society.
Since then, I have lost everything, and I’ve been forced to flee my homeland. I am struggling as a new immigrant who does not currently have a job. And because of my current status, I can’t seek out work in order to alleviate these struggles; I just have to wait for government support.
When the Taliban reclaimed control of Afghanistan, did you know immediately you had to leave?
When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, I thought of leaving the country immediately, but I ended up staying for two months. That was terrifying; given my previous professional activities, I felt like I was in grave danger. Among other things, after the Taliban released the prisoners, all of the men who had been sent to prison because I defended their abused wives were suddenly free. It was a very dark and deeply unnerving time.
Ultimately, I knew I had to go, but leaving was tremendously difficult. Not only was it devastating to leave my homeland behind, but the evacuation process itself was also grueling.
After hiding out in Kabul for several weeks, I had to drive to Mazar-i-Sharif [ed: a northern Afghan city near the Uzbek border, about 200 miles from Kabul] in order to cross the border. The trip was terrifying — a day’s journey comprising so many dark moments, the memories of which still haunt me every day.
And beyond that, I simply can’t come to terms with the fact that I had to leave my country behind. In Afghanistan, my schedule was always packed full; I was defending clients, taking care of my many responsibilities — always busy. But in the months since I fled, I have spent every day stuck inside. For six months in Albania, and then for the past couple of months in Canada, I’ll spend my days stuck inside, watching the outside world from my window. It’s difficult to cope. Sometimes I feel like all of the contents of my hotel rooms have been permanently etched into my mind because I see them all day every day. Sometimes I cry a lot.
And all the while, several of my family members remain trapped in Afghanistan. It’s just been really hard.
Are you still in contact with some of the lawyers who have remained in Afghanistan?
I do remain in contact with many of the women lawyers who are still in the country. They are facing extremely dangerous situations there, and in the absence of help from organizations that could evacuate them, all I can do is try to give them moral support.
Do you have faith that the legal profession in Afghanistan will regain its independence?
The Taliban seized control of the Afghanistan Independent Bar Association shortly after they took Kabul, so by now the organization has been fully merged into their Justice Ministry. Because of that, I can’t say I have any optimism at all, though I do hold out hope for an independent profession in the future. But for that hope to ever translate into action, we will need the support of other bar associations around the globe. Without strong external support, I’m afraid there’s little room for wishful thinking.
What would you ask of lawyers around the world with respect to supporting the work and safety of those attorneys who were forced to flee Afghanistan, as well as those who stayed but now live in persecution?
I call on the lawyers of the world not to forget their counterparts in and of Afghanistan. We desperately need your support. In particular, I would make the following requests:
First: Advocates inside Afghanistan are under threat and their lives are in imminent danger. Help them leave Afghanistan.
Second: Those attorneys that have made it out of Afghanistan are often left to fester in refugee camps for far too long, which poses a threat to anyone’s mental health. Help them get out of these refugee camps and into destination countries.
Finally: Those attorneys who have made it past all of these obstacles and have arrived in destination countries so often find themselves unemployed, and thus unable to provide for themselves and their families. And ultimately, these attorneys who have devoted their professional lives to defending the rights of others find themselves silenced. Help them find work. In fact, help them find work helping Afghan refugees in order to alleviate this whole dark cycle.