This post is part of the Council on Foreign Relations' blog series on women's leadership in peacebuilding and non-violent movements, in which CFR fellows, scholars, and practitioners highlight new security strategies. This post was authored by Karen Sherman, president of Akilah, East Africa’s preeminent institute for women’s leadership and career development.
It was years ago, in 1992, but the day is etched in Judge Najla Ayoubi’s memory. She was at home, on the outskirts of Kabul, when she heard the crack of a gunshot nearby. She ran outside to find someone collapsed in the street. Anxious to help, Najla hurried past a neighbor who told her it was her father. As he lay bleeding, dying, Najla went to grab a head covering she dared not leave without and rushed her father to the hospital. It was too late. Eight other people were assassinated that day.
Afghanistan remains the archetype of a fragile state. Even before the United States’ post-9/11 intervention in 2001, the country had been all but destroyed after years of war, poverty, and repression, with women in particular bearing the brunt. A recent index by Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security ranks Afghanistan as the second-worst country to be a woman, just behind Yemen.
Najla’s family was a target for jihadis and extremists because of their liberalism and support for human rights. Smart and educated, Najla dreamed of serving in a powerful position. She became the first woman from the conservative Parwan province to go abroad to study; Najla completed her master’s degree in law and politics in Tajikistan. When she returned to Afghanistan and took her seat as a judge on the Parwan provincial court—another first for a woman—her brother was murdered by a conservative jihadi group, Hizb-e-Islami, after being kidnapped and tortured for more than a month.
“There was a lot of pressure,” Najla recounted. “We were on the shortlist to be assassinated for believing in freedom.”
As tensions mounted for Najla and her family, she fled to Kabul and was forced to leave the judiciary. She was further marginalized when the Taliban came to power in 1996 and stymied women’s rights. For years under Taliban rule, women were all but under house arrest—Najla was unable to leave her home without a male escort, even if the escort was only her neighbor’s four-year-old son.
“Age didn’t matter as long as you were with a male. It was so humiliating,” she remembered.
Charged with supporting her family after her father and brother were killed, Najla worked as a tailor and ran an in-home tailoring school for forty or so other young women who lost male family members.
With no access to radio, television, or electricity, renting books through an underground network was a lifeline. “We would pass the books from person-to-person, reading each one by candle- or gaslight,” Najla recalled.
When the Taliban was overthrown by the Northern Alliance in 2001, Najla returned to legal work, helping to develop Afghanistan’s new constitution and prepare for the first presidential and parliamentary elections. Following a trip to London where she met with female activists, the judge began to speak out more about women’s issues in Afghanistan. She found certain provisions of Islamic law to be highly discriminatory. When it came to dividing property among family members, for example, two brothers were equal to four sisters. As witnesses to a crime, two women counted as a single witness. Additionally, a man could easily initiate divorce, but a woman had to prove that her husband could not give her a child or provide for her.
Violence against women also drew Najla’s attention. Though poorly documented, Human Rights Watch estimates that 87 percent of Afghan women experience at least one form of physical, sexual, or psychological abuse in their lifetime, with at least half of women reporting abuse at home. Afghanistan’s religious and political leaders took notice of Najla’s outspokenness.
“The more vocal I became, the more I became a hard target,” she said. Najla had to hide for close to a year, inside and outside of the country. Najla’s mother feared that extremists would kill another one of her children.
Najla has lived in the United States since 2015, though she would like to go back to Afghanistan once it is safe. Her mother passed away in Afghanistan on Mother’s Day last year, without her. She worries the U.S. withdrawal will cause greater insecurity, and at the same time, recognizes that the country must be able to stand on its own. She fears history will repeat itself.
“I lived under the Taliban for five years. I know what that looks like. You can’t breathe. You lose even the right to breathe. Everything will be gone,” she said.
Najla has seen progress, however, over the last twenty years, with more girls in school and greater numbers of women in leadership positions in government and civil society. The women’s movement has also become more organized. Still, in the past few months, hundreds of human rights and women’s rights activists have been assassinated.
“No one is owning it. The Taliban, extremists, the government, Islamic State, Islamist parties. It’s very hard. There is a level of impunity: no follow-up, no arrests, no investigations,” she told me.
What sustains her now? Her work with Every Woman Treaty, a coalition calling for a global treaty to address all forms of violence against women and hold governments accountable. Najla believes a treaty would show Afghan women that there is a clear international standard when it comes to gender-based violence and would provide a platform for women and girls to see justice in action.
“I feel it in my bones,” she said. “This sector needs more work and attention.” Judge Ayoubi wants to ensure the next generation of Afghan women does not suffer as she did.
Karen Sherman is a board member of Every Woman Treaty and the president of Akilah, East Africa’s preeminent institute for women’s leadership and career development. She is the author of Brick by Brick: Building Hope and Opportunity for Women Survivors Everywhere.