Every morning, 28-year-old Zainab Fayez puts on a blue burkha and walks through multiple checkpoints to get to her heavily fortified office in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan. Finally inside, she takes off the burkha but leaves a scarf on to cover her face and hair in the otherwise all-male office. Fayez is the first and only female prosecutor in the volatile province of Kandahar, working in the attorney general’s office of Kandahar’s appellate court.
In only two years, Fayez has fought more than 50 cases related to violence against women and has put 21 men behind bars in this conservative part of the country. On the day she’s visited by a reporter for Women in the World, two women have arrived to meet with her — a mother and her 18-year-old daughter, Nazia. They have come to file a complaint about Nazia’s violent husband who beats her.
Cases like Nazia’s land on Fayez’s desk daily. Seventeen years after the fall of the Taliban, an extremist regime particularly oppressive toward women, domestic violence is still common in Afghanistan, particularly in the conservative south.
Fayez is originally from the central province of Ghor, but she completed her law studies at the University of Kabul. Both the capital and Fayez’s native province are more liberal than Kandahar where she moved with her husband soon after graduating.
“It was the people’s need that inspired me to start working here,” Fayez tells Women in the World.
Before joining the attorney general’s office, Fayez gave pro bono legal advice to women in Kandahar for about a year. This is how she came face to face with women who were victims of domestic violence. “That convinced me to look for a job here. There was no one to hear their voices, no one to help them,” she says.
“The issues women commonly face here are violence at home, being deprived of all social rights such as education, divorce cases, underage marriages and so on,” she continues.
Fayez approached the director of prosecution, Abdul Rahman Koshan, and was immediately offered a job. Because of cultural traditions, it is very difficult for women to share personal problems with a man. That is why someone like Fayez was desperately needed in Kandahar.
“Women feel more comfortable to share their problems with another woman,” Koshan says. “There are cultural issues [in Kandahar], that’s why it is difficult to find women to work here.”
Every day, victims line up to meet Fayez in her office. If the problem is particularly serious, Fayez contacts the woman’s family members and they are called to the office.
Marzia*, a 56-year-old widow, came to Fayez about a year ago. Her father had recently passed away and left her a house as an inheritance but her brother didn’t want her to have it. “He believed that no one gives inheritance to women so why should he,” Marzia says. Her brother was summoned but he did not appear in court so the police arrested him. “The lawyers talked to him and warned him that if he did not give the house to me he would be imprisoned.” Finally the brother agreed and Marzia moved into the house. “God bless [Fayez], she helped me a lot,” Marzia says.
Eighteen-year-old Rahila was married to her drug-addicted husband when she was only 11. “He used to beat me when he was high,” she says. Finally in July last year she’d had enough and decided to go to Fayez to file a case. The husband was arrested and sentenced to prison. “But my husband’s family has taken my two sons and won’t give them to me,” she says. Rahila is hoping to divorce her husband. This will be another struggle for which she will most likely require Fayez’s help.
The cases that stay in Fayez’s mind for a long time after she has solved them are often the most violent ones. One of these cases involved a woman who was set on fire by her husband. “The husband had doubted his wife’s faithfulness. Her relatives came to me and I took her case to the court,” Fayez says.
The woman couldn’t be saved, but the husband was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Another case Fayez cannot forget was the beheading of a woman by her husband a year ago. The man had become suspicious of his wife and one day he took an axe and cut his wife’s head off with it. Fayez managed to get the man sentenced to prison for 18 years.
Rape cases are also commonly brought in front of Fayez.
“Once, a woman was raped by her father-in-law. He was sentenced to prison for 18 years,” she says. The woman came to Fayez herself, extremely scared of her family’s reaction. “She didn’t have any other way,” Fayez explains.
That a man ends up in jail instead of a woman is an achievement in Afghanistan. Many rape victims have ended up languishing in the country’s jails because they have instead been charged with adultery. Fayez believes the problem is not in the laws regarding violence against women, but, rather, that these laws are not always fully implemented and that all women do not have access to justice.
Despite the slew of controversial cases Fayez has taken on, she has never felt threatened herself. But simply the mentality toward working women can be dangerous in Kandahar, even though her husband and the rest of her family are very supportive of her career.
In the years following NATO invasion in 2001, at least 13 working women have been assassinated in the city of Kandahar — either by the Taliban or their own relatives. Some of these women were police officers or health workers and one of them headed the women’s affairs department in Kandahar.
“In a society like Afghanistan, there are definitely problems for women to go out of their houses but these are common problems that everyone faces here,” Fayez says.
Despite the risks, she is determined to continue her fight.
“The main issue here is illiteracy. Women cannot work so no one respects them. They are an extra burden on the families that the men have to feed. If they have an income, they can support themselves and there won’t be any oppression.”
In Fayez’s office, the two women are preparing to leave. Nazia’s husband has been arrested and will be brought to the office the following day.
“Every single case I solve makes me happy,” Fayez says, a smile on her face.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the woman.
Maija Liuhto is an independent journalist based in Kabul, Afghanistan. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy and Al Jazeera English, among others. Follow her on Twitter here.
Kern Hendricks is a freelance photographer based in Kabul, Afghanistan. Follow him on Instagram here.