Afghan women judges

Two Quebec lawyers want to rescue Afghan women judges in fear for their lives

Pepita Capriolo and Marie-Christine Kirouack are urging our governments to help their sisters in the field in Afghanistan start a new life here.

In a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, all women and girls are at risk. But no one is more in peril right now than women in key positions of power. Women lawyers, judges, journalists, police officers and army personnel will be especially targeted by this regressive militant group that seeks to enforce strict Islamic law in Afghanistan. 

In Quebec, two good friends have joined forces to urge the provincial and federal governments to help them sponsor their fellow Afghan lawyers and judges escape a very precarious situation and start a new life here. 

Sisters are doing it for themselves

Afghan women judges Pepita Capriolo
Pepita Capriolo at a rally last weekend in Sherbrooke, QC. Photos by David V. Morris (Two Quebec lawyers want to rescue Afghan women judges in fear for their lives)

Pepita Capriolo, a former Superior Court of Quebec judge, is technically retired, but doing everything other than taking it easy these days. Two years ago, Montreal’s archdiocese hired her to investigate the case of Brian Boucher, a priest found guilty of sexually assaulting two boys. In November 2020, while the pandemic was raging, she submitted the results of her year-long independent review. Earlier this year the archdiocese launched the Capriolo Report implementation committee, aiming to follow through on her work. 

When her friend Marie-Christine Kirouack, a family law lawyer, read about Shah-Ismatullah Habibi, a former Afghan refugee who lives in Sherbrooke and runs l’Association éducative transculturelle, an organization that helps refugees in the Eastern Townships, she wanted to do something to help. She decided that sponsoring Afghan women in legal professions would be a straightforward and tangible way of helping her “sisters” in the same field now facing a life-or-death situation. She reached out to her friend Justice Capriolo, who immediately offered to assist with any efforts. 

Afghan judges and lawyers in “grave danger”

The women wrote to both the provincial and federal ministers of immigration (Nadine Girault and Marco Mendicino, respectively) informing them that they wanted to help sponsor them, and then, with the help of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ), they sent both governments all the information they had on these female judges.

“Of course, they first need to get out,” Capriolo says. “We initially had no idea how chaotic the situation would quickly get.” 

The IAWJ recently issued a statement, expressing that they “have grave fears for the basic human rights of women and girls in Afghanistan” and particularly “the situation of Afghan women judges, given the special role they have played and are still playing in upholding the rule of law and human rights for all, and the particular dangers they face as a result. We honour their commitment and their courage.”

The IAWJ believes that, due to the nature of their work and past rulings they have made in criminal anti-corruption and family courts, many of the 270 Afghan women who serve as judges will be in grave danger. They want their safety to be guaranteed in any negotiations that take place, allowing them and their families to leave the country. 

“I’m terrified for women judges,” says Kirouack. “I am terrified for women attorneys. I am, of course, terrified for any women who were part and parcel of anything that was an authority. If you’re talking police, if you’re talking army… Obviously, I think these women are highly at risk.”

Female solidarity and women’s rights

two Quebec lawyers
Girls at the rally in Sherbrooke (Two Quebec lawyers want to rescue Afghan women judges in fear for their lives)

Neither Capriolo nor Kirouack know any of these women personally. 

“It’s definitely a sense of female solidarity that’s operating here,” says Kirouack, “but also my sense of solidarity with jurists. I’m lucky. My ancestors arrived here on a boat around 1740. Except for the First and Second World Wars, where part of my family went overseas, I haven’t been touched by these difficulties,” she says.

“Furthermore, under the law here, when my mother was born,” Kirouack adds, “she was considered ‘an incapable’. [The category of married woman was only removed from the list of incapable persons in 1954 in the Quebec Civil Code.] My father was the only one who could sign for my mother to give birth to me, so that’s also my roots, so, yes, I must stand up for them now. It’s also a profound question of humanity. I am a privileged person here and I cannot stay idle.”

Judge Capriolo says she only has a distant personal connection to these women. “When I attended the International Association of Women Judges meeting in 2012, I met Afghan women judges and I was so overwhelmed by their courage. Think of taking on that kind of mentality… and to think that their lives are at risk now… it got to me. So, I figured, let’s do something.” 

While the situation feels hopeless on the ground in Afghanistan for those watching from here, Judge Capriolo finds it easier to tackle the enormity of the problem bite by bite. 

“I want to make sure they don’t die because they’re judges”

“I watched the news and I just wanted to cry,” she says. “But there’s a saying in Judaism” ‘You save one life, you save the world.’ If we can help one person, that will be something. That’s how I try to focus, because the enormity of it is so humongous and certainly outside of our power to do anything with the government there. Let them negotiate with the Taliban and let these women flee. They certainly won’t be using female judges so it’s not like they’ll need them for anything.”

As a woman who was able to freely pursue a career in law, Judge Capriolo feels a kinship with these women. “I want them to be safe,” she says. “I want them not to be punished for doing what I’ve done all my life. I want their families to be safe. Now, whether I can hope that they can carry on with their professions, I don’t know whether they could or how they can carry on, but right now my immediate concern is to make sure that they don’t die because they’re judges.”

While neither of them is privy to negotiations currently taking place, if and when these women get out, they’ll be ready to spring into action. 

“All we can do is keep the question alive,” says Judge Capriolo. “We don’t know what our government and the international community can do, and what is taking place behind the scenes to help these people. But if it remains an important question, it will force our government to stay involved in trying to find solutions. It should not be forgotten.”

Canada continuing to help Afghan resettlement

As of right now, the Canadian government has committed to welcoming 21,000 Afghan refugees, most of them already in camps in neighbouring countries. On Tuesday, the government announced that it would take in and resettle some 5,000 Afghan refugees who had been evacuated by the United States. Canada has evacuated or facilitated the evacuation of about 3,700 Canadian and Afghan citizens from the war-torn country, a far smaller number than the initial 6,000 promised. Most of these Afghans were part of the program announced last month to resettle the families of Afghan interpreters and other support staff who worked with Canadian military forces. Most of them have already arrived in Canada, and the government continues to work with allies to evacuate and resettle more. 

“I need to believe that there’s still a chance to get them out,” Kirouack says. “I’m hoping political pressure from all countries on the world stage will push the Taliban back so that it will be easier for them to flee. We need to sign as many declarations as possible. Avocats sans Frontières (Lawyers Without Borders) just came out with a statement — we need to be relentless. We can’t just say this is now over, Aug. 31 came and went, and let’s now go back to our everyday lives. We cannot do that. We need to put pressure on the Taliban, so they let people travel to the different borders and flee to different countries.”

That international political pressure (and whatever behind-the-scenes negotiations are taking place) might be working. While the Taliban had initially stated that they would prevent Afghans from leaving the country, they recently released a statement saying they would now allow anyone who wants to leave, to do so. The situation on the ground, however, remains profoundly precarious, as it’s hard to take a terrorist militia at their word. With ISIS also on the ground, the threat of another terrorist attack remains incredibly high.

Keep the pressure on public officials

Marie-Christine Kirouack Afghan women judges
Marie-Christine Kirouack (Two Quebec lawyers want to rescue Afghan women judges in fear for their lives)

Judge Capriolo understands how hopeless it all feels from thousands of miles away. 

“When something terrible happens on the other end of the world, it is normal and even healthy for our brains to stop worrying about it all the time,” she says. “But I think there’s still something that we can do collectively as the west. My purpose is to keep it in the public eye and not have it disappear from the news.”

Kirouack agrees. “Sign petitions,” she says. “Write to your member of parliament. Write to your member of the National Assembly. Be relentless. Put some money aside. Because if we do manage to get some of these women out, we will need money to sponsor them and help them set up a new life here. Whatever it is, $10 dollars. If you can do it, do it. Because once we get them over here, we will need to help them start over in a new country.”

From the more than 2,000 Afghan refugees who will soon be arriving or have already arrived in Canada, 300 will be coming to Quebec and there remains the very basic need for financial support. 

“Let’s make sure these people are welcomed and given what they need,” says Judge Capriolo. Both women say they have already received offers from Quebecers who want to help, asking, “How do we set them up? How do we get them apartments?” “Once they get here, I want us to be ready to go.”

The federal government also has a page pointing to where Canadians can volunteer and donate money, if they are interested in doing so. No effort is too small.

That knock on the door

While Justice Capriolo insists she has no personal connection to any of these Afghan women that she’s trying to help, she, in fact, does. Her own family’s history makes her understand the urgency and the gravity of the situation more than some. 

“I think of these people with their young children being locked up somewhere and being scared for their lives,” she says. “I am very careful not to make comparisons with the Holocaust, but my grandmother told me about being locked up in a closet in Romania (with my grandfather and my very young mother) and the Nazis knocking on the door — that image is so vivid that it stayed with me. These women are doing the same thing right now. Every time someone knocks on the door they don’t know if they’re going to be killed.” ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.