The first female nominee for Afghanistan’s supreme court has failed to win enough votes in parliament.
Anisa Rassouli received 88 votes, nine short of the 97 needed for her nomination to pass. Zahir Qadir, the deputy parliamentary speaker who was chairing the session, said: “We ask the president [Ashraf Ghani] to nominate another individual for this position.”
Wednesday’s vote came after clerics and conservatives lined up to criticise the choice of Rassouli, who has been a judge for 24 years and is the current head of Kabul’s juvenile court. They claimed only men were fit to sit in the highest court in the country.
Last month, one MP made his views clear. Menstruating women were considered unclean in Islam and were not allowed to touch the Qur’an, Qazi Nazeer Hanafi said. As judges put their hands on the holy book every day, and it was unfeasible for a supreme court judge to take a week off every month, ran his logic, Rassouli’s appointment should be opposed.
“It is against Islamic law. I will make a campaign and tell the other brothers to vote against her,” said Hanafi. “It would be a crime if I voted for her.”
Shams-ul Rahman Frotan, a member of the Ulema council, : “We told [the president] that a woman cannot be a judge in capital crimes and other serious criminal issues.”
Amid the controversy, Rassouli remained calm, weighing her words carefully and shrugging off rebukes in an interview with the Guardian last month. “There is nothing under sharia that prevents me from becoming a supreme court judge,” she said.
By nominating a woman to the supreme court, Ghani had hoped to fulfil a promise from his campaign trail, as he did when he recently named four female ministers.
Rights advocates had hoped the presence of a woman on the supreme court could help overhaul Afghanistan’s inherently sexist legal system. Family and marital law favours men, and a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man. The vast majority of girls and women in Afghanistan’s prisons have been jailed for moral crimes, such as running away from home to escape a violent husband.
Speaking after the vote, lawmaker Shukria Barakzai, an outspoken women’s rights advocate, told Reuters: “I hope the president nominates another woman for this position.”
After taking a law degree at Kabul University, Rassaouli became a judge at 23, and as the chair of the Afghan Female Judges Association has fought for three years to get a woman on the supreme court panel.
Aged 47, unmarried and living with her parents and siblings, Rassouli has impressed Afghan and foreign colleagues with her work in the capital’s juvenile court.
Had her nomination been approved, one imminent challenge for Rassouli would have been to build Afghans’ trust in the formal legal system. In rural areas in particular, many people prefer local, informal councils to courts of law, which are often inaccessible and reputed to be slow and corrupt. However, the informal system often grants impunity to male suspects, such as those accused of domestic violence.
“Women who prefer to go to village courts don’t have enough information and are uneducated. If I talk to them face to face, I can explain why the formal system is better,” Rassouli said last month. “The main problem is security. We could bring the courts to the villages if there was better security, and then people wouldn’t use the local councils.”
Rassouli said her presence at the supreme court could potentially help women gain faith in the legal system. “We have a lot of women who come to the supreme court asking about their rights. are more comfortable talking to a female judge, so there’s need for me to be there,” she said.
After Wednesday’s vote, that need appears far from being fulfilled.