In the brightly lit lobby of an Albanian hotel hosting Afghan refugees, a group of women gather to discuss how to counter the repressive rules introduced by the Taliban.
“We are trying to mobilise the legal fraternity who are in exile in different parts of the world to help and support our colleagues who are still in Afghanistan,” Najila Raheel, a lawyer from Kabul, told The National.
“We’ve created WhatsApp groups of Afghan lawyers and judges, and even students. We are monitoring the situation and we hope to fight the injustices in Afghanistan. We will seek international support to pressure the Taliban to accept rule of law.”
The hardline militants do not recognise the constitution and legal codes established under the elected governments that replaced their regime after the 2001 US-led invasion. Instead, they have issued new rules that restrict women’s rights and freedom, based on their interpretation of Islamic law.
“Afghan women no longer have any legal rights,” Ms Raheel said.
The Taliban’s rules also differ from region to region, adding to the chaos that exists in the legal vacuum left behind when the previous government fell.
Ms Raheel says she never expected the sudden collapse of a system she helped to build and had put her faith in.
She and another member of the group, Negina Khalil, the first female prosecutor in the remote province of Ghor, said the Taliban takeover had undone years of their work.
“For 20 years, I worked so hard, along with my colleagues, contributing to a legal system that can provide protection and relief to my fellow citizens, particularly women. On any given day I would be working on 10 different cases,” Ms Raheel said.
Ms Khalil said much of her work was on giving women access to the justice system.
“I focused on cases of elimination of violence against women, and later I was the head of the juvenile prosecution office where we investigated the recruitment of children by insurgencies like Taliban and ISIS,” she said.
Most recently, she served at the Attorney General Office’s in Kabul, overseeing cases involving the harassment of women. Her work came at a heavy price.
“Even before the collapse, the Taliban and Haqqanis had killed many of my colleagues and had placed a bounty on my head,” she said, referring to the Haqqani Network, a militant group with close ties to the Taliban whose members hold many top positions in the new government.
“Two years ago, the Taliban stopped my mother’s car in Ghor and killed her. In 2020, when we were visiting her grave for prayers, they attacked us and my brother was injured. Despite all this I remained committed to serve my country, because the legal framework allowed us to work,” she said.
But when the Taliban entered Kabul on August 15, they released all prisoners from the jails, including people convicted through the efforts of Ms Raheel and Ms Khalil.
“They started sending us messages saying ‘We know the prosecutors who investigated us and we are coming after you’,” Ms Khalil said.
The Taliban put her on a no-fly list to prevent her from from leaving the country. But, like the other women in the group, she found a way to escape.
Ms Raheel said: “I left everything behind: my career, my whole life, everything I worked so hard to build.”
She said the Taliban had literally closed the doors of the courts to women.
“I have just spoken to a couple of female lawyers who were helping a woman seeking divorce, and the Taliban refused them entry to the court. The Taliban told them that they were dishonouring the courts and the Taliban by coming there.”
Ms Raheel lived through the Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001 and is shocked to see history repeated.
“The last time they took control, it was the same situation. I wasn’t allowed to study or leave the house. There was poverty and starvation, and I was beaten by the Taliban for not wearing a chaderi [burqa]. But I never gave up – we wove carpets at home and studied.
“After they left, I enrolled in university to study Islamic law. I wanted to change the perception of Islam the Taliban had created. I was determined to not let this happen again,” she said.
“We worked so hard. We studied in very difficult circumstances and faced much disapproval from the society. And after all that we sacrificed, here we are again, to a situation where women don’t have rights, freedoms or access to education or the justice system.”
But the women refuse to give up. Over countless cups of tea in the cafe of the hotel in Shengjin, the Albanian town in which they are staying, they chalk out a plan.
They want to pressure the Taliban through governments and media to allow the return of women lawyers and judges to courtrooms and to uphold women’s rights.
“For those of us who are out, we need to fight and raise our voices so that the world can pressure the Taliban, because to keep silent also means to accept the defeat,” Ms Raheel said.
And if things change, “even a little bit in a positive way,” Ms Khalil says she will return in a heartbeat.
“I will directly go to Afghanistan from here if I have to. My goal has been to help my people and build and serve Afghanistan.”