Tugging at the folds of the traditional hijab dress, two young sisters jostle and laugh to try to get their mother’s attention as she fries onions on the stove.
Along with their 6-month-old sister, the girls are oblivious to the threat they now face from the Taliban, Afghanistan’s new rulers.
Their mother, Nabila, is one of 250 female judges ordered not to return to work by a regime that doesn’t condone women in senior positions. CNN is only using Nabila’s first name for her own protection.
Nabila said she feared reprisals, not only from fundamentalists, but also the men she once jailed. When they came to power, the Taliban opened the gates of prisons, releasing thousands of convicted criminals.
“Now we do not feel safe; the same criminals are going after my own life, the lives of my family,” Nabila said. “God forbid if they seek revenge.”
After the Taliban takeover in mid-August, a few dozen women judges fled Afghanistan, and those left behind are now in hiding, according to Judge Vanessa Ruiz from the US-based International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ).
All of the judges who worked under the former Afghan government – male and female – have been now replaced by Taliban appointees, two judges told CNN.
But Ruiz said women judges feared their gender made them particular targets for a regime that assigns greater value to men.
Many of the women judges presided over the worst cases of violence against women, including rape, murder and domestic abuse.
“They would be angry at any judge who sentenced them, but that a woman had official authority, and sat in judgment of a man, is rage of a completely different order,” said Ruiz.
The IAWJ and other organizations are racing to find a safe passage out for the women – but they say they need more help from the US and other Western nations, before it’s too late.
“They can’t see their mother being killed”
The risks for Afghanistan’s women judges pre-date the Taliban’s takeover of the country.
In January, two Supreme Court judges were shot dead in Kabul by unidentified gunmen, though the Taliban denied responsibility, according to Reuters.
Since then, threats against Afghan women – and people affiliated with the former government – have intensified.
Last week, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet told the Human Rights Council her office had heard “multiple allegations” of the Taliban going door to door, looking for specific government officials and people who had cooperated with the United States.
Furthermore, she said women had been “progressively excluded from the public sphere,” and faced increasing restrictions in “numerous professional sectors.”
Nabila said it wasn’t long before she received death threats.
“A day or two after the Taliban arrived in Kabul, my personal number was called and I was threatened with revenge, threatened with murder,” Nabila said.
She canceled her phone numbers, and the family is now moving from house to house every few days to avoid being tracked down.
Another judge, Bibi, has been in hiding with her three young children since the Taliban entered Kabul.
“My worst fear is that my kids … they can’t see their mother being killed,” said Bibi, who is only using her first name for safety reasons.
“We haven’t slept well, we haven’t eaten well. We just wait, we have stopped living like a normal human being.”
Bibi had to leave her workplace in a hurry as Kabul fell and wasn’t able to return to her office, which contains all her work files and her personal information, including her photograph, phone number and home address.
She fears the Taliban – or former prisoners – could use the information to track them down.
“They feel like it’s their right to find me, to hit me, to kill me, they don’t have anyone to be afraid of,” she said.
Both Nabila and Bibi and their families are trying to leave Afghanistan with the help of organizations including the IAWJ, but progress is slow.
Ruiz said they are doing all they can, but their resources are limited, and she urged Western countries to do more.
“Governments need to be better, more agile, more generous frankly, in giving admission to people who are in danger in Afghanistan right now,” Ruiz said. “You’ve got to cut the red tape when you’re dealing with an emergency, and we’re dealing with an emergency.”
Ruiz said the US in particular should be trying to help these women, as several dozen of the judges passed through a judicial education program funded by the US government. “It’s their association with us, in many ways, that puts them at risk,” Ruiz said.
The US says it has continued to evacuate Americans, Afghans and other nationals from Kabul, even after the August 31 deadline. Two evacuation flights left Kabul in the last two weeks, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing on Tuesday.
“We will continue to help Americans – and Afghans to whom we have a special commitment – depart Afghanistan if they choose, just as we’ve done in other countries where we’ve evacuated our embassy,” Blinken said. “There’s no deadline to this mission.”
“The Taliban came after me”
Only a few dozen women judges have managed to escape Afghanistan so far.
One experienced judge made it out on a flight from Kabul to Poland along with family members including eight nephews and nieces.
But it wasn’t an easy journey.
“I was at the airport gate for two nights with too many crowds, and I had a lot of kids with me,” said the judge, who did not want to be named to protect family members still in Afghanistan.
“The three days and two nights I had in Kabul Airport were really the worst nights of my life, but we got through it. I had no (other) hope of survival.”
She knew she had to flee the country after the Taliban tried to track her down.
“Five Taliban came to my area asking my neighbors about me,” she said. “When I knew the Taliban came after me, I relocated from that area also, because I was so scared if they found me.”
As well as fearing for their families, the women are also mourning their hard-won careers.
“Now I feel like I lost everything,” the experienced judge said. “Imagine you have a personality, a career, respect, a home, a car, a life and everything, and suddenly you leave in one set of clothes on your body and leave the country – now how would you feel?”
“We’re not going to abandon them”
For those stuck in Afghanistan, the frustration and fear are mounting.
“We that are left behind, we all express our anger, disappointment,” Bibi said.
“We have (been) deprived of our right to work,” said Nabila. “We find it impossible for us to live in Afghanistan.”
Ruiz of the IAWJ said they won’t give up until every woman judge is safe.
“We’re not going to abandon them. We’re not going to forget them. And we’re not going to let the world ignore them,” Ruiz said.
“We will not stop until this job is completed, and every woman judge who is threatened, and wishes to leave Afghanistan is able to do so.”
Despite the dangers, Nabila is dedicated to her chosen career path and hopes to one day return to the bench.
“I do not regret all about the field I have chosen and for which I have studied for many years,” Nabila said.
“We have been working for many years to combat violence, oppression and injustice, and I want to continue with my work.”
Nabila’s bravery is driven by a passion to protect Afghanistan’s most vulnerable women, and to try to create a better future for her daughters – a generation that now faces a dark reality under the new regime.