Our driver dropped us off outside the compound that houses Kabul’s municipal government offices at Sedarat Square in the center of the city. After passing through two security checkpoints where I was frisked and patted down twice, I stepped into a courtyard mobbed with people, armed guards toting AK-47s and parked armored Humvees.
A few yards past the last checkpoint is a trailer, which houses the Justice for All Organization, a pro-bono legal clinic that represents women and indigent clients. To enter the office, you have to take a big, awkward step on and over some concrete blocks to climb the short stairway into the office.
The trailer is, not surprisingly, cramped, stuffy, and warm. There’s no air circulation. The lighting is poor. But it is here where women and other clients who cannot afford a lawyer can get legal advice and representation. It is where a dedicated group of lawyers work to uphold what passes for the rule of law and women’s rights in Afghanistan.
Mahfuza Folad, a former judge, runs the organization. She and her five colleagues (four of whom are women) work at makeshift desks waiting to help a largely female clientele. The potential clients are seeking divorce and separation, custody of their children, alimony, or they are being prosecuted because they have sought shelter from violence or are accused of committing adultery.
Started with funding provided by the Open Society Afghanistan, the organization now serves clients in Kabul and in the provinces beyond Afghanistan’s largest city. Today, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and other international NGOs provide the organization’s funding.
On Saturday, May 18, there were more than a dozen women, most wearing burkas, waiting to see the lawyers (Saturday in Kabul is Monday in the West).
The first woman in line, Marzia, 35, had come to the clinic because her husband had two wives and mistreated her. She wanted a divorce, but her husband threatened to kill her. The local police were not helpful because they were friendly with her husband. Mahfuza said she would draft a petition to get Marzia’s case moved to another jurisdiction where she could get a fair hearing. (I asked Mahfuza to just provide the barest of outlines about her case so that there was no violation of attorney-client privilege. Marzia spoke openly about her abusive marriage and the pain it had caused her.)
On an average day, Mahfuza said she and her lawyers provide counsel to a dozen or more clients. At any one time, they have seven open cases—the maximum permitted under Afghanistan’s rules for lawyers.
As Chris Stone, president of the Open Society Foundations, wrote about our visit to a women’s prison in Kabul in May, the problem isn’t the quality of the legal representation or the lack of lawyers willing to help. The problem is a legal system that turns those trying to protect themselves into criminals. The women wanting help from Justice for All added to the pattern that Chris Stone described during the visit to the women’s prison:
[W]omen explaining that they had been falsely accused and locked away to cover up their own victimization… The pattern in these stories seemed like a small clue into the enormous injustices that women face in Afghanistan today, even in Kabul.
Prior to joining the Foundations, my professional experience had come from journalism and several years of serving in the U.S. government. As a reporter, I covered the Congressional debate over whether to go to war in Iraq and I made two reporting trips to Iraq in 2004 and 2005. But like many Americans, my view of Afghanistan had been shaped by media coverage, which in the U.S. largely, and perhaps rightly, focuses on U.S. military action and U.S. troops killed and wounded, diplomacy, and the shortcomings of Afghanistan's government.
But Justice For All Organization’s legal clinic was an unfamiliar piece of the story of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. I would not have known about the dedicated Afghan lawyers in Kabul and in a few of the provinces working to uphold the rule of law for their less fortunate fellow citizens without traveling there. If there’s any hope for Afghanistan’s political future, it’s at the Justice for All Organization’s legal clinic.