Meet Najia Munira Akhundzada and Shamsi Maqsoudi. They are Afghan attorneys who specialize in arguing women’s rights cases in the tough male dominated courtrooms of Afghanistan.
At first glance, they seem demure. They speak in soft and respectful voices. They wear neutral colors like black, white and gray. But their polished presence and polite smiles command attention.
“If we want to do something for women, we have to cross some borders in our traditional practices,” said Munira Akhundzada, arms folded across her chest. Her walnut-colored eyes flash seriousness.
“We should try to, we should struggle to overcome some obstacles,” echoed Shamsi Maqsoudi.
Akhundzada and Maqsoudi, both 24, traveled great distances, from Nangarhar and Kabul respectively, to study at Chapman University in Orange County on full scholarships, working toward LL.M, or Masters of Law degrees.
Since 2007, the U.S. State Department has partnered with private law firms and law schools to sponsor several Afghan lawyers who continue their legal studies in America. It’s part of the U.S. government’s way of helping develop the rule of law in and the judicial system in Afghanistan, an on-going challenge since the war-torn country crafted its constitution in 2004.
But tradition holds strong. For example, Akhundzada had to dismiss scornful stares from relatives who maintain that single women should not travel alone to study in America.
Chapman law professor Ron Steiner is the director of the LL.M program at the university. The school sponsored one Afghan woman last year and is hosting Akhundzada and Maqsoudi this year. Steiner called the three women brave and said they’ve been some of his hardest working students.
“They come here and I think they feel this sense of obligation that the thing they’re here for is to work hard and take advantage of this opportunity and take something back home,” Steiner said.
Akhundzada nodded in agreement. She vowed to make the most of her training when she returns to Afghanistan in the summer. She said women who graduate from universities in Afghanistan seldom get to fulfill their career goals because of intense social pressure against it.
“If we don’t -- one or two, three women -- if we don’t give sacrifice, then we will never be able to gain our rights to improve women’s rights,” Akhundzada said.
The lack of female attorneys, prosecutors and judges in Afghanistan has created a barrier to justice for women. Sometimes women are too shy or embarrassed to describe to male attorneys and judges the assaults they've suffered.
“Most of women are not that well educated and don’t know their rights,” Maqsoudi added. She said some defense attorneys simply read the defendant’s statements in court and don’t forcefully argue for the woman’s civil rights.
Akhundzada and Maqsoudi share the same dream of becoming judges in Afghanistan, especially right now they say, when Afghan women need fair judgment and adequate representation in the courts.
Two years ago, just four percent of Afghanistan’s 1600 judges were women. Not a single one sits on the Afghanistan Supreme Court. Although the government appoints many female judges to remote provincial courts, where they are badly needed, Maqsoudi said most serve in urban centers like Kabul or Herat.
“If I become a judge I will face the same problem, security,” she admits. “It’s a problem.”
A problem, both say, that stands in the way of delivering justice to rural women. In her home country, Maqsoudi recognizes that people who disagree with certain rulings threaten the women judges who deliver them. She pauses a moment and continues.
“I should accept these problems,” she declares. “I should expect I will face these problems.
In the last decade, women’s rights have advanced in Afghanistan. Girls can attend schools and women can work outside their homes. For the first time in history, an Afghan woman participated in the summer Olympic Games in London. Still, forced marriages, threats of violence, and brutality, are common fears for many Afghan women.
Akhundzada tells the story of one woman she helped represent in Nangarhar. The client’s husband, brother-in-law and mother-in-law maimed her after she reported her husband’s abuse and sought a divorce. Akhundzada visited the mother-in-law who went to jail.
Speaking in her national language, Akhundzada asked the woman, “Sister, why you do this with your daughter-in-law?” She was quiet, Akhundzada said, and then the mother-in-law replied, “Look, I did this because in Islam it says that if a wife is not accepting what husband says, then her nose should be cut off and her head should be shaved.”
Akhundzada said that in rural areas, tradition persists even if it’s against Islamic law, because most people aren’t educated or even literate. She adds that what happened to her client is an improvement, because years ago no lawyer would have taken the battered woman’s case and she would’ve likely been killed.
Violence against women has declined in Afghanistan since the Taliban fell 11 years ago. Newly introduced women’s shelters, although few in number, offer abused women a place to live while they run away from
family or marital violence.
“The question will be to what extent are Afghans willing to fight for that dramatic change in lifestyle that they’ve experienced,” said Erik Jensen, law professor at Stanford Law School.
Jensen manages the Afghanistan Legal Education Project at Stanford. Since 2007, his law students have written textbooks on Afghanistan law for Afghan law students who study at the
American University of Afghanistan and other legal scholars across that country. The U.S. State Department also provides some funding for this program as part of the Afghanistan judicial reform venture.
“It asks more than what the law is,” Jensen said, referring to the Stanford Law program in Afghanistan. “It’s a method that asks questions to teach law students how to question the law.”
Legal scholars say there are obvious reasons for promoting female lawyers to join the ranks of Afghanistan’s judicial officials and legal scholars.
The Obama administration announced plans to withdraw U.S. military troops from Afghanistan in 2014. If the country cannot defend itself or uphold itself judicially, the gains women have made there may be in jeopardy.
“We think, we hope that we are giving people a broader vision of what the law can be,” said Chapman Law professor Ron Steiner.