Photo of Judge Tayeba Parsa in front of ocean and sky
Judge Tayeba Parsa in Gdansk, Poland

Judge Tayeba Parsa

Exiled Afghan judge serving as inaugural Bolch Rule of Law Judicial Fellow

Duke Law School welcomed Judge Tayeba Parsa of Afghanistan in May as the first Bolch Judicial Institute Rule of Law Judicial Fellow. 

Parsa, a judge in the Commercial Division of Appellate Court of Kabul Province, was among some 250 women judges in Afghanistan in August 2021 when the Taliban retook power. She was forced to flee for her life, leaving her home country and her 17-year career in law behind. 

During the year-long fellowship, Parsa will study, teach, conduct research, and pursue new educational and professional opportunities with support from Duke Law and the Bolch Judicial Institute. She is also receiving support from the Open Society University Network’s Afghan Challenge Fund.

“The goal is to give Judge Parsa the time, educational and networking opportunities, and support systems she will need to prepare to continue her legal education and scholarship or to pursue professional opportunities in legal practice,” said Paul W. Grimm MJS ’16, a retired federal judge and the David F. Levi Professor of the Practice of Law and director of the Bolch Judicial Institute. 

“I thought, ‘It’s not enough to save yourself. What happens to Afghanistan?’”

— Judge Tayeba Parsa

“She is incredibly devoted to the profession of judging and to the ideals of justice for all. Her bravery — not just in her harrowing escape from Afghanistan but in enduring years of discrimination, threats, and even abuse as a woman judge in a male-dominated society — underscores how deeply she believes in the rule of law. We hope this fellowship will give her many opportunities to advance her studies and career.”

Parsa is now living in Durham with her husband and young daughter and the family is applying for asylum in the United States. After she completes her fellowship, Parsa, who began serving as a judge in Afghanistan at age 24, hopes to work toward a JD. 

“This educational opportunity is so important for me to regain my career and to be able to work again for Afghanistan, even from exile,” Parsa said in a June interview with Allyson K. Duncan ’75, a retired judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

“I hope I can get a law degree again.” 

When the Taliban re-claimed power across Afghanistan, they threatened to kill Afghans who supported the previous democratic government, which was built with help from the United States over nearly 20 years. The country’s women judges were in particular danger. Many, including Parsa, immediately went into hiding and burned their law degrees and case documents to erase evidence of their work.

Leaving Afghanistan

Parsa told Duncan she was particularly vulnerable because of her high visibility. As communications officer for the Afghan Women Judges Association, she had many international connections and had given interviews to foreign media highlighting the peril women judges were in as the Taliban closed in on Kabul.

“For the Taliban, simply being a government judge is enough reason to be killed without a trial. Two male judges were murdered by the Taliban the moment the Taliban discovered both men were judges,” Parsa told Judicature in 2021. 

“But for women judges, the danger is much greater. Threats against women judges were always more acute and came from those who were against women being judges, and even worse, from those who were not wanting women to be a part of the workforce at all. And the threats sometimes went beyond letters and calls.”

Thanks in large part to Parsa’s outreach and coordination with the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ), which helped to arrange her evacuation and temporary refuge, Parsa was among the few women judges who escaped Afghanistan in the days immediately following Kabul’s fall to the Taliban. The IAWJ has since rescued more than 200 women judges and is working to evacuate all who remain. Its efforts were honored with the 2023 Bolch Prize for the Rule of Law.

Parsa and her husband, Jamal Wahid Abdul, were evacuated to Poland, where they received temporary refugee assistance from the government and welcomed their daughter Mahdis. Though they are grateful for the support they received in Poland, living in limbo for 19 months was difficult for both Parsa and Abdul, who also has a law degree and worked in data management in Afghanistan. Particularly painful was the realization that with the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan had just lost the accumulated wisdom of all the women judges who had worked, often under great duress, on behalf of justice and the rule of law, she told Duncan. 

“I was happy to arrive in Poland and be alive,” Parsa recalled. “The next day, I realized I was not a judge anymore and I’d lost my career forever. It was so painful for me. I thought, ‘It’s not enough to save yourself. What happens to Afghanistan?’

“I studied and practiced law with a passion for almost 17 years. Protecting rightful people and preventing justice from being undone by corruption in courts gave meaning to my life. I was never happy only because I had a good position and was able to make money and a comfortable life for myself and my family. I was so pleased because I was able to make a difference in the society, and I had direct impact on administering justice.”

It has also been difficult for Parsa to have her family dispersed and not be able to visit them. Her five sisters and mother fled the country before the fall of Kabul, and while her mother has since become a resident of Sweden, her father was granted temporary refugee status from Poland and can’t be a permanent citizen of Sweden or obtain health care there.

Parsa and Abdul celebrated Mahdis’s first birthday in August with neighbors and other local Afghan families, and they will welcome their second child in November. 

Judge Parsa with her daughter and husband on a sofa
Parsa with her husband and daughter in Durham.

As part of her fellowship, Parsa is auditing courses in Duke Law’s Master of Judicial Studies program. She has particularly enjoyed American Statutory Interpretation, taught by David W. Ichel Distinguished Professor of Law Neil S. Siegel, and found analogies between the issues raised in Race and Civil Rights and problems in Afghanistan, where the judiciary did not represent all minorities, especially those from the Shi’a community. Her own family is Hazara, a predominantly Shi’a Muslim ethnic group that have long been targeted by the Taliban.

Parsa participated in Duke Law’s Summer Institute on Law, Language, & Culture (SILCC) program for foreign students, attorneys, and scholars, and will join other courses and programs at Duke this academic year as well as pursue her own research into topics pertaining to the rule of law and women’s rights. She hopes to one day be an advocate for immigrants in the U.S. and for women’s rights in Afghanistan. 

“While I am alive, I do not give up. I fight for the rule of law, equality, and women’s and minorities’ rights, even from exile.”

— Judge Tayeba Parsa

“I would like to build my knowledge of law, to learn from my experiences in the United States and from other judges, and use my knowledge to be able to work in the field of law and for the future of Afghanistan,” she said. 

“I would like to dedicate the knowledge that I get through this opportunity at Duke to the service of the people of Afghanistan, to rebuilding Afghanistan, and bringing back the rule of law, equality, and justice to the people of Afghanistan. While I am alive, I do not give up. I fight for the rule of law, equality, and women’s and minorities’ rights, even from exile.” 

Share this article:

Cover Fall 2023 - Lady Justice with AI Symbols

Fall 2023
Volume 42 No. 2