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Pressure Chambers 

Visiting judges testify to the dangers of being a woman on the bench in Afghanistan

Published January 23, 2007 at 7:07 p.m.

» Sidebar: VT couple fundraises to build a school in Afghanistan

When Juvenile Court Judge Marzia Basel came to the United States from Afghanistan in 2002, she and her fellow Afghan women judges were given some of the highest diplomatic honors afforded to visiting foreign dignitaries. They had dinner at the White House, met with Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice - then secretary of state and national security advisor, respectively. They also had a 45-minute impromptu chat with President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.

During her stay in Washington, D.C., Basel, who is also president of the Afghan Women Judges Association, was photographed not wearing her chador, the traditional Islamic headscarf of Afghan women. She returned to Kabul to a firestorm of criticism; one newspaper accused her of "dishonoring the people of Afghanistan." That photograph cost Basel her judgeship.

Small wonder, then, that most Vermonters don't even know Afghan women judges have been coming to the Green Mountain State for the past three years on cultural exchanges with the Vermont judiciary. While they're here, the judges have asked that their hosts not publicize their visits.

Nonetheless, events this month are calling attention to the Afghan Women's Judicial Education Project, which brings Afghan women judges to the state for several weeks each year to learn about American jurisprudence. This cultural exchange program, which is sponsored by the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) and the Vermont judiciary, is the subject of a free talk this Friday at the Vermont Law School in South Royalton and a conference this weekend at Dartmouth College. The conference will highlight many of the legal, educational and development connections between New England and Afghanistan, including the construction and support of public schools for Afghan children by a Vermont-based foundation (see sidebar).

The project is the brainchild of Vermont Family Court Magistrate Patricia Whalen and the Women's Rural Leadership Institute. Whalen, who lives in Westminster West, met Basel several years ago during a trip to Washington, D.C., where Basel was searching for judicial training programs for her fellow Afghan women jurists. Whalen, who's a member of the IAWJ, offered to help, though she wasn't sure what she could do as a judge in a rural state with a modest-sized judiciary.

"I told her, 'We still do things the old-fashioned way in Vermont,'" Whalen recalls. "'It's not a big, glitzy court system.'"

Whalen had no idea that the Vermont notion of "old-fashioned" is still light-years ahead of conditions in Afghanistan. There, most courtrooms lack heat and electricity; they're lit by whatever daylight streams through the windows. There are no computers, video cameras or court stenographers. Instead, Afghan judges rely on an ancient system of scribes, who write down everything witnesses say, then read back the testimony and ask the witnesses to sign it. As Whalen remarks, "Things haven't changed there since the 13th century."

Even more oppressive than these archaic working conditions are the primitive mindsets of some of the country's fundamentalist clerics. For years they made it difficult, if not impossible, for women to work as judges and continue their legal education.

"Like a lot of women in my position, I was really moved by hearing the stories about what was happening to the women of Afghanistan," Whalen tells Seven Days, "especially hearing how many professional women were committing suicide and were deprived of the means of supporting themselves."

Every decision that women jurists in Afghanistan make, on or off the bench, is under scrutiny, and the consequences of even the slightest indiscretion can be catastrophic.

For instance, one of the four judges who was in Vermont last June recounted an incident that had occurred a month earlier. She had gone to a girls' high school about an hour outside of Kabul to speak on the legal rights of women under Afghan law. By the time the judge returned to Kabul, she learned that the Taliban had burned the school to the ground. Some hours later, a "night letter," or threat against her and her family, was left outside her door - a common experience for women judges there. Such are the constant pressures they face in a country still threatened by religious fundamentalism more than five years after the overthrow of the Taliban.

"All nine women [who visited Vermont] ran secret schools. And one of the judges who was here last year did the first trial on honor killings in Afghanistan," Whalen says. "These are exceptionally brave women."

Most of these Afghan women have never known life without warfare, she explains. In most cases, they attended college or law school before or during the Soviet occupation, and were prevented from continuing their legal education after the Soviets withdrew in 1989. When the Taliban took power in 1995, the ultraconservative Islamic regime occupied Kabul and quickly instituted "gender apartheid." They announced over the radio that all women must leave their jobs and go home to their families. Female judges were physically removed from their jobs and placed under house arrest for six years; their courts were shut down.

Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the situation has improved. But Whalen says many of the female judges she speaks to are fearful that NATO and the international community will withdraw and allow a resurgent Taliban to resume power.

In the meantime, the Afghan Women's Judicial Education Project is continuing its cultural exchange, with four more judges due to arrive in Vermont in May. As in the past, their visit will include a stay at Vermont Judicial College. It's an annual event when Vermont courts close for a week, allowing all the state's judges to gather at Breadloaf for a legal refresher and educational update on recent court rulings and procedural changes.

Vermont Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Skoglund calls her experience of meeting the women judges rewarding and insightful, both for her and her judicial counterparts from Afghanistan.

"What we got was an incredible appreciation for how lucky we are and how good we have it," Skoglund says. "What they got was a vision of what life could be. We had them laughing and playing volleyball, for goodness' sake!"

Whalen echoes the sentiment that these cultural exchanges go far beyond discussions of legal matters. The Afghans, she says, were "blown away" by virtually everything they experienced, from seeing a woman drive a car alone at night, to the absence of military troops on the streets, to the way men and women interact.

"What really impressed them and brought them to tears was our family life," Whalen recalls. "I think that's something they really want to have."

Whalen emphasizes that the Vermont judges didn't sugarcoat the experience; they also exposed their guests to the shortcomings of American society, such as poverty, hunger and homelessness. The idea, she says, was to impress on them that these problems can be solved when a community comes together to make it a priority.

In that vein, Whalen says the Afghans were probably most impressed by another Vermont tradition: the potluck. Cultural norms of Afghan hospitality dictate that when a visitor comes to someone's home, the hosts feed their guest. Since this custom can place an enormous burden on the host family, Whalen says, most Afghans refrain from visiting one another's homes.

Whalen and other volunteers in Windham County treated their foreign guests to several potluck dinners during their stay. In fact, they held one every night, each with a theme such as women in medicine, women in law and women in religion. Whalen says the idea struck a real chord with their visitors, who grew up in a tribal society where many of life's burdens are shared.

"Now they have potlucks and they talk about Vermont potlucks in Kabul," she reports. "The women have meetings and one brings the sugar, one brings the tea, and one brings fuel. They now have a way of networking together. And it's OK, because these Vermont people do it this way."

These networks could do more than empower individuals - Whalen suggests they're vital to the future of Afghanistan. She sums up her hopes for the exchange: "The idea is, you can't have peace in any of these places unless you have women leaders at the table."


Building from the Ashes

For the first few years, whenever the anniversary of September 11, 2001, rolled around, Sally and Don Goodrich of Bennington would retire to some secluded place where they couldn't see a newspaper or a television. Like other families of 9/11 victims, the Bennington couple found it far too painful to see images of the Twin Towers collapsing over and over ad nauseam. Their son Peter, 33, was aboard United Airlines Flight 175, the second plane to strike the World Trade Center.

In the years just after his death, the Goodrichs searched in vain for a project to which they could devote themselves, something that was emblematic of the way their son had lived. Then, in August 2004, they were handed a letter by the parents of a next-door neighbor, Marine Corps Major Rush Filson. Filson had been a childhood friend of Peter's and volunteered for duty in Afghanistan after 9/11. While there, he met an Afghan teacher who changed his whole outlook on the world, according to Sally Goodrich. In his letter, Filson asked his parents to stop sending him gifts - what he really wanted were school supplies for the local Afghan children.

That chance encounter would change the Goodrichs' lives. Sally Goodrich, a school administrator and reading teacher at North Adams Schools in Massachusetts, and Don, an attorney who also chairs the board of the group Families of September 11, immediately recognized the project they'd been seeking.

Over the next year or so, the Peter M. Goodrich Memorial Foundation raised about $180,000 to build a school in Surkh Abat, in Afghanistan's Logar Province. The school, which was completed in January 2006 and dedicated last April, serves about 500 girls who were denied an education under the Taliban. As Sally Goodrich puts it, "All we had to do was give up our right to grieve privately."

Since then, the Foundation has also built a well, provided aid to orphans, donated to two other schools, and created long-term educational opportunities in the United States for Afghan students. This weekend, the Goodrichs will be at Dartmouth College for a conference entitled "New England and Afghanistan: Building Paths of Understanding and Collaboration Across Borders." They will be speaking about their experiences and their ongoing work helping to educate Afghan children and build bridges to a culture few Americans will ever see.

"I've seen the worst side, but I've also seen the best side of what it means to be a good Muslim," Goodrich tells Seven Days. "Suffering has enabled us to communicate with people in ways that would not be possible otherwise, and appreciate their life circumstances."


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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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