Photo: AFP  (Photo:AFP)
राजनीति

Trapped in Kabul, prominent Afghan women fear retribution under Taliban rule


She broke her SIM card, packed light and went into hiding.

“They’ve promised to kill me,” said Nabila, who asked to be quoted by her first name. “My husband and I now change our house every four days.”

Some 200 other female Afghan lawyers and judges, unemployed and vulnerable to Taliban retribution, remain stuck in Kabul alongside her, she said.

President Biden touted last month’s two-week airlift from Afghanistan, which evacuated some 120,000 people, as an “extraordinary success.” Yet many thousands of Afghans who invested lives and careers to further a U.S.-backed political order after 2001, promoting democracy and the rule of law, remain stuck.

Women like Nabila are most at risk both because of their past roles and the Taliban’s harsh new restrictions on women’s rights.

They face an additional, and often insurmountable, hurdle to leaving Afghanistan: the lack of any official government ID, let alone a passport.

Some 52% of Afghan women don’t have a national ID, known as tazkeera, compared with just 6% of Afghan men, according to the World Bank. That discrepancy is largely due to conservative cultural norms, which impede Afghan women from going to a government office to get identification papers, or keep them at home where they rarely need one. The U.S. has usually required a tazkeera or a passport from the Afghans it airlifted from Kabul, and IDs are needed to process visa applications.

“We’re talking about the most highly educated Afghan women who don’t have documents,” said Kimberley Motley, an international human-rights attorney who has worked on Afghan issues for more than a decade.

“We absolutely have an obligation to legal professionals who were part of these programs. We sold them the idea that rule of law is the foundation for building up a ‘democratic and civilized’ society,” Ms. Motley said.

Nabila, who worked for six years as a judge in Afghanistan’s family court, only applied for an electronic ID card, a precondition for a passport, 10 days before Kabul fell. She didn’t receive it before the Taliban took control of the state bureaucracy.

Nabila and her colleagues are far from the only prominent Afghan women who are stuck. An employee of Women for Afghan Women, a grass-roots civil-society organization that promotes and protects the rights of disenfranchised women, said she and 43 colleagues had been in hiding since the Taliban went to their offices the day Kabul fell. None of the staff have been able to leave the country, she said. Most don’t have passports.

Even for women with the right papers, getting to an evacuation flight was often not an option. Without the ability to line up for hours or days in a male-dominated scrum outside Kabul airport, and afraid to pass through checkpoints manned by Taliban fighters possibly looking for them, many women in prominent legal, cultural and political positions watched as the last American evacuation flights departed at the end of August.

Since then, four chartered Qatari flights have departed from Kabul, carrying around 680 Americans, holders of other foreign passports and their dependents. Afghans without permanent residency abroad weren’t allowed to board.

The August airlift included several daring, successful escapes, including Afghanistan’s women’s national soccer team and thousands of Afghans freed through a two-week rescue operation run by a group of American volunteers.

Yet many more remain, including 34 female volleyball players and staff of the women’s adult and youth national teams. The Taliban have indicated they will ban female participation in sports. “We have no clear future after years of struggling against hurdles to have a place in our beloved sport,” said one of the players. “I have not been outside the house since the Taliban took over. It is very difficult.”

Two-hundred-eighty students, staff and teachers from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, which included girls, failed to get out after an evacuation attempt crumbled 100 yards from the airport in the final days of the U.S. airlift.

The institute regularly received threats from the Taliban and was in 2014 hit by a suicide bombing during a concert that killed a German citizen.

“Musical diversity, Western music, girls and boys in music, music for social change,” said Ahmad Sarmast, the founder and director of the institute, which housed Zohra, Afghanistan’s first all-female orchestra and for years received funding from the U.S. Embassy. “Everything we did was against the Taliban’s ideology,” added Mr. Sarmast, who partially lost his hearing as a result of the 2014 bombing.

One of the most significant gains for women’s rights since 2001 has been the ability of women to get a divorce and protection from abusive husbands. Nabila, the judge, said the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan has already put at risk the lives of the women who benefited from the post-2001 family law and women’s courts.

Nabila had been trained as part of the Justice Sector Support Program, which was funded with more than $200 million of a total of $1 billion in U.S. taxpayer money spent on promoting rule of law in Afghanistan. Meeting The Wall Street Journal for an interview in central Kabul was the first time she had come from the suburbs into the city where she used to work every day, she said. She traveled dressed in all black with her face covered, with her husband as an escort to avoid angering the Taliban, who say women shouldn’t leave the house alone.

A couple of years ago, Nabila was part of a three-person court that granted a divorce to a woman in Kabul whose husband was imprisoned for beating her.

On the day of the verdict, the husband managed to slip around a line of police officers outside the court. Furious with Nabila and her colleagues’ decision, he approached his now ex-wife and stabbed her 14 times with a knife hidden in his shoe, Nabila remembered. The woman died of her wounds.

When the Taliban broke open jails across the country in August, the man was among the thousands of freed prisoners, and one of those whose wrath she now feared.

“We have been forgotten,” Nabila said. “We worked on human rights, divorce, gender-based violence. I would like to continue this work, but first I have to save myself.”

—Zamir Saar contributed to this article.

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