Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Rough Justice for Herat Women

Shortage of female lawyers appears to deter women from going to court.
By Najim Rahim

Hasina, 30, leans against a wall in the Herat court house, her face under her green headscarf lined with fatigue and frustration.

“I have been coming to the Herat court for the past three months to try and get divorced from my husband, because he is an addict - but I have not yet succeeded,” she said. “I am tired and do not know what to do.”

Hasina’s problems are exacerbated by the fact that she is impoverished and illiterate. She cannot read the handful of court papers she is clutching and has not been able to find anyone to represent her in court – let alone a female lawyer who would likely be more sympathetic to her plight.

“My husband comes home at night and starts beating me and asks me for money for his drugs,” said Hasina, a domestic servant. “I cannot continue living in this condition.”

Many women in the western city of Herat complain that their access to justice in the family courts is being severely restricted by a lack of female lawyers willing to fight their cases.

“Women want female lawyers because they can understand their problems very well, and cannot easily confide in male lawyers,” said Farida Qaderi, herself a lawyer.

“Another reason why women are reluctant to accept a male lawyer is fear that people would think they have some kind of inappropriate relationship. This can be a major reason why both sides cannot work together.”

Others complain the legal system is overwhelmingly weighted in favour of male parties to disputes.

One female lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous, said this contributed to a situation where female colleagues were reluctant to work on family cases, particularly divorce.

“Male [lawyers] have often told us that women have no place in society if they get divorced; the people will consider them bad,” she said, adding that she had heard of cases where husbands had threatened female lawyers, warning them not to represent their wives. She also pointed out that women often have insufficient funds to hire a lawyer.

Forozan Tokhi, a member of the legal department of the women’s affairs directorate in Herat province, agreed that a perception that family law cases are decided in favour of men deterred female lawyers from representing women.

“Therefore, the [female] lawyers get tired of these cases and show little interest in taking them on in the family court,” Tokhi said.

But court officials reject claims that the courts are male-dominated and biased against women, arguing the problem is rooted in the lack of properly-qualified female lawyers.

“The female lawyers do not present strong or new evidence and tend to just talk about their clients,” Fazel Wahab, a judge at the Herat province appeal court. “The female lawyers have little experience and are unable to defend their clients properly.”

Although more than 100 women are employed in Herat’s judicial and legal services, he said they were mostly poorly qualified.

According to Mohammad Amin Mehak, a member of the family court, female lawyers tend to only be able to act in an advisory capacity.

“Most female lawyers work as legal advisers and are not allowed to participate in judicial sessions,” he said. “They mostly advise their clients behind scenes at the court, which has caused many problems in the cases.”

Family court officials in Herat say that most of the cases they deal with relate to divorce, with around 320 cases registered in 2010.

Moidolhaq Mowahedi, a social affairs expert in Herat, said women’s limited access to justice in part accounted for the rise in self-immolation and suicide among women in the region - official figures show they have increased by 35 per cent in 2010 compared to 2009.

“A woman who goes to the court for her rights is already convicted,” he said. “Based on traditional beliefs, a woman should not apply to the court. A woman who goes to such places is known as a bad one.”

Najim Rahim is an IWPR-trained journalist in Herat.