Amini was terrified and started seeking refuge for herself and her family to escape from Kabul.
“We are worried about everything – our situation, our lives and especially our security,” she told CNN in an interview from west London, where she now lives in temporary accommodation with her husband and four daughters.
Before they fled their home, Amini grabbed a pair of scissors, a needle and thread. She cut slits into the lining of her dress and sewed in her most prized possession: her law degree.
Wherever she goes, the 48-year-old Afghan judge wants to make sure she carries proof of her qualifications.
Those same documents now mean nothing to her colleagues stuck in Afghanistan, some of whom have gone into hiding. Amina’s friend Samira, who has tried cases of violence against women in the same court, said she is one of the 80 or so women judges still left in the country.
“Now I’m living like a prisoner,” Samira, whose full name was withheld to protect her safety, told CNN in a Skype interview. “They (Taliban) stole my life.”
Change has worn off
The current crisis facing women judges is a sign of the Taliban’s wholesale dismantling of women’s rights in Afghanistan over the past two decades.
Since 2001, when the group was last in power, the international community has pushed for legal protections for Afghan women and trained young female judges, prosecutors and lawyers to uphold them. In 2009, then-President Hamid Karzai ordered the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law, criminalizing acts of abuse against women, including rape, forced marriage, and banning a woman or girl from going to school or work.
And by excluding women from the judiciary, the Taliban have effectively denied them the right to legal recourse to remedy any of these violations. Amini explained that this left women and girls nowhere to turn in a system that enshrines a strict Islamic interpretation of patriarchal rule.
She says it was that horrible reality that made her run away. Amini, her husband and daughters traveled by bus from Kabul to the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif in September, driving for 12 hours through the night with their headlights switched off to avoid detection.
“It was very difficult for us,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “At the time, we were very worried about everything.”
From the Mazar-e-Sharif International Airport, she boarded a specially chartered flight for women judges organized with the help of one of Britain’s most distinguished lawyers, Baroness Helena Kennedy.
Last August, Kennedy, a member of the House of Lords, said he had been inundated with WhatsApp messages from women, desperate judges with whom he had developed connections through his work founding a bar association in Afghanistan.
“It started with receiving really tragic and emotional messages on my iPhone,” he said. “Please, please help me. I’m hiding in my basement. I’ve already received threatening messages. I’ve already received messages from people saying there’s a target on my back.”
Determined to help, Kennedy, along with the International Bar Association’s human rights arm, raised money for the evacuation through a GoFundMe page and collected charitable donations from philanthropists. Over the course of several weeks, the team chartered three separate flights that took 103 women, most of them judges, and their families out of Afghanistan.
The women are now scattered across several Western countries, many still stuck in legal limbo and seeking more permanent residency for themselves and their families.
Hopes were dashed
When Amini’s family left Afghanistan, he says, they traveled first to Georgia and then to Greece, where they waited more than a month before receiving documents from the United Kingdom to apply for resettlement. Eventually he was allowed to travel to the UK. But, a year later, he is still living in a west London hotel, waiting for more permanent accommodation.
The British government has been criticized for failing to convert the nearly 10,000 Afghan refugees still living in hotels like the Amini into permanent housing.
“I imagined that the world would open its arms and say, ‘Bring me these incredibly brave women.’ But then my second problem arose because we had such a hard time finding places to rehabilitate women,” Kennedy said.
Amini and Samira were once among Afghanistan’s trailblazers, women’s rights judges trying to create a fairer, more equal society. Now, they live across the world, their hopes for their country shattered.
“We had a dream of a new Afghanistan. We wanted to change our lives, we wanted to change everything,” Amini said. “Now we have lost our hope for our country. Everything has stopped.”
Her priority now turned to learning English. She hopes to resume her work in the UK one day. Their daughters are enrolled in local schools and continue their studies — a right denied in their native Afghanistan.
For Samira, there is no immediate way out of Kabul, at least for now. She fears for her young daughter and what growing up under the Taliban means to her.
“I think about her future. How can I protect her? Because life is very difficult and dangerous now in Afghanistan,” Samira said. “We are facing a slow death.”