Afghanistan Came Close to Electing Its First Female Supreme Court Judge

Despite presidential efforts, national acceptance of women in positions of power has been extremely slow.

Members of Afghanistan's Supreme Court. (Photo: Getty Images)

Jul 8, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Anisa Rassouli was poised to become Afghanistan’s first female supreme court judge when President Ashraf Ghani nominated her last week. The appointment was applauded worldwide as a major step forward in a country consistently ranked one of the most dangerous for women. But the celebration turned out to be premature.

On Wednesday, the Afghan parliament struck down Rassouli’s nomination, just nine votes short of the required 97, according to The Guardian. Clerics and conservatives blasted the nomination, using strict interpretations of Islamic law to argue that women are unfit to serve in a court of law—especially because they menstruate, one parliament member suggested. Qazi Nazeer Hanafi objected to a woman touching the Koran during her period, reasoning that she’d have to take a week off of work every month, which would cause a disruption in court.

Rassouli’s nomination was part of Ghani’s push to promote women, a promise made during his presidential campaign last year. Since Ghani took office in September 2014, Afghanistan has appointed its first female police chief, Colonel Jamila Bayaz, and just last week it elected its second female governor, Seema Joyenda, who will serve in Ghor province.

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But acceptance of women in positions of power has been extremely slow. The nation’s first female governor, appointed four years after the Taliban ended its rule in 2001, has yet to take office because of protests. Joyenda is likely to face similar opposition. During his campaign, Ghani pledged to nominate at least four women ministers, and he nominated three to his cabinet in January. The following month, all three were rejected by parliament.

So, Why Should You Care? Rassouli, a 47-year-old with more than two decades of judicial experience, serves as the chair of the Afghan Female Judges Association and the head of Kabul’s juvenile court. Her nomination to Afghanistan’s supreme court could have helped bring balance to a legal system with a poor track record of protecting women’s rights. Protesters this week took to the streets to express outrage over a court decision that reduced punishment for four men convicted of beating Farkhunda Malikzada, 27, to death in the streets of Kabul after she was falsely accused of burning the Koran. The men charged with her murder were initially sentenced to death, but an appeals court instead gave them 20-year jail sentences.

There’s nothing under sharia—Islamic law—that prevents women from becoming judges, Rassouli said in an interview with The Guardian in June. Palestine appointed Khouloud el-Faqeeh, its first female judge, to the Sharia Court of Ramallah in 2009. Four years later, Pakistan appointed its first female judge to national sharia court. Those are rare examples. Women in Islamic countries have struggled to rise in legal systems that tend toward patriarchy and male leadership. Iran’s Shirin Ebadi was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work as a human rights lawyer and an activist.

That notable work is something she took on after she was forced to give up her work as a judge. She had become Iran’s first woman judge in 1975, only to have clerics take the role away from her after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. They demoted her to a secretarial position, forcing her resignation. Luckily, she did not give up on working for justice.