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With the Taliban Defeated, Justice Is on Her Side

Read Nora Boustany's previous Diplomatic Dispatches columns.
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_____Post Series_____
Ambush at Takur Ghar: A Chronology Ambush at Takur Ghar Seven U.S. servicemen died on an Afghan ridge in an battle that revealed flaws in the U.S. military operations.
Part 1: Bravery and Breakdowns
Part 2: Ordeal at 10,000 Feet
_____News From Afghanistan_____
Afghans Eager to Place Stock in New Currency (The Washington Post, Oct 10, 2002)
Tape, Assaults Stir Worry About Resurgent Al Qaeda (The Washington Post, Oct 10, 2002)
Bond Set for 1 N.Y. Suspect (The Washington Post, Oct 9, 2002)
More News from Afghanistan
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By Nora Boustany
Friday, September 27, 2002; Page A20

The wives of Taliban leaders surreptitiously came to learn English at her school, tipping her off when she was about to get busted by bearded squads of the now-defunct Ministry for the Protection of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Now those grim days are over in Afghanistan and Marzia Basel, 34, can finally work as a judge, her chosen profession.

She studied law at Kabul University's department of law and political science, but when she graduated in 1985, the leadership refused to grant her and two dozen other women their diplomas on the grounds that they first had to practice in the countryside for two years -- a requirement not imposed on male graduates. Only three women received diplomas that year, because they happened to be Communist Party members.

Basel, whose father was a judge and who has two sisters who also studied law, stayed in Kabul and worked at the supreme court as a clerk from 1985 to 1991. She investigated cases and reported to the judges, even writing some of their rulings. After studying English, she established a school for both women and men, who were taught separately. All the while she was braving harassment by the Taliban, which did not want women to work or to be educated. At times she moved around the neighborhood with her portable blackboard to keep her classrooms secret.

But when she was confronted, she said, she would fend off her accusers by telling them: "I am a judge. I know the sharia [Islamic law]. Nothing, nowhere in Islam or the holy book, says it is forbidden to do what I am doing, to teach." That was in 1998. This week Basel and 13 other Afghan women came to the United States as guests of the State Department for leadership training with the Academy for Educational Development.

On Tuesday, Basel and her team met with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. President Bush wandered in, pulled up a chair and chatted with the women for 35 minutes.

Basel supplemented her teaching in recent years with training from Spanish and French doctors on how to instruct women in rural areas on traditional childbirth methods. She also worked for U.N. agencies providing emergency relief.

Whenever she traveled, she always used a male relative as her driver. "My father vowed he would not come to rescue me if I was taken away. . . . Somehow, I believed I was doing the right thing and that God would watch over me," she recalled.

On Sept. 11, 2001, she trudged home after a day of teaching and turned on the radio to the Pashto-language Voice of America. The newscaster announced that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.

"This was a country of peace and security," she said. "I had taught my students about the twin towers, the 110 floors, how the sun rises on one side of the World Trade Center and sets on the other side." She taught them as well about the Sears Tower and the Empire State Building to give them a flavor of the United States. She kept herself informed by listening to Voice of America and the BBC and reading magazines.

As her own lectures and the pictures she used as illustrations flashed through her mind, Basel said, she made the link to the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center. "I felt Afghanistan was in danger," she said.

She and her family took refuge in a house outside Kabul. The night of the first U.S. airstrikes she saw a drone circle over Kabul. "We knew we would be under attack. After 23 years of war, we were so demoralized, we just felt if this war would bring us a better life, fine. Otherwise death would be easier. We were too exhausted to be afraid," she said.

After an agreement in Bonn in December that set up the immediate post-Taliban order in Afghanistan, she received her diploma and was asked to work as an officer with the loyajirga, the grand assembly charged with electing a new government, and with the U.N. Development Program's judicial commission. While she was spreading the word about elections, women she spoke with asked her to represent them. "I became a delegate [to the loya jirga] and voted for the first time in my life for Chairman [ Hamid] Karzai," she said, noting that she had a lot of community support as a result of her past teaching and relief efforts. In January, her duties as a judge began officially and she found herself deluged with cases on corruption, embezzlement, bribery, and drug smuggling and production. "We only caught the small fish; the big ones managed to get away," she said.

Ten days before leaving for the United States, she was appointed to the juvenile court for three months to investigate juvenile crimes and conditions inside prisons for young people.

On a personal level, Basel is looking forward to a better life, and she is glad to have made a difference.

"I am still single, but I am proud. My ladies have salaries now. . . . The women I trained are in the system." About 1,500 men and women who took her two-year course are employed with international organizations in Afghanistan.

Basel said she asked Bush on Tuesday to urge U.S.-trained Afghan law professors in this country to return home: "We need them. We would like a well-trained national army. Gunmen still walk the streets and in the provinces. The warlords have as much power as the government." Her countrymen, she continued, want the mission of international peacekeepers to be extended outside Kabul to the rest of the country.

Bush, she said, promised that the United States would never again turn its back on Afghanistan.

2002 The Washington Post Company

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