Of Superheroes and Humans: Kimberley Motley’s Fight for Human Rights in Afghanistan

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Attorney Kimberley Motley shares her creative approaches to justice for women in Afghanistan and the psychological toll of her most harrowing cases.

Gulnaz, Afghanistan, Kimberley Motley, feminism, women's rights, human rights, Islam

Kimberley Motley. Image courtesy Steven Pollock, Pollock Fine Art

The Disrupters

After a brief precursory exchange over some tea, Kimberley Motley reaches into her laptop case, pulls out a few loose papers, and delves into an animated presentation of what I have before me on the table: illustrated panels and word bubbles–dramatic, dynamic fragments of a comic book. In a neat line, characters stand long and formidable from a low-angle perspective, featured on the cover against a bright red background.

“Justice League?” I say, joking, referencing a scene in her documentary Motley’s Law in which she tells her translator and driver they are part of the DC Comics superhero team.

“The Disrupters,” she replies. “They’re a superhero team of investigators and lawyers who travel around the world on different cases.”

These pages tell a story of North Korean guards, smuggled flash drives, torture, defectors, and a woman who escapes and gives birth on a ship in the middle of the ocean, in foreign waters. To which nation will her baby belong? This question and more are explored through the eyes of the team members, each with his or her unique Achilles’ heel, weaknesses that render the story relatable and the superheroes, human.

“These pages tell a story of North Korean guards, smuggled flash drives, torture, defectors, and a woman who escapes and gives birth on a ship in the middle of the ocean, in foreign waters.”

“Their main weapon of choice is the law,” Motley says, with the enthusiasm of a creator. And that of a lawyer, no doubt.

She is the brain behind the operation, I learn, though some of the original, draft sketches are the product of her children. My first reaction is to remark on the unconventional medium. Why comic books?

“To inform people about these issues in a non-traditional way,” Motley explains. “To get people interested in the law who might not be otherwise.”

The debut comic, released on May 28th at the Oslo Freedom Forum, centers on North Korea and the issue of immigration.

“But we are going to get into the issues of child soldiers in Congo, human trafficking in Dubai, gun rights in the U.S., and so on,” she explains.

The comic is peppered with footnotes, references that lead to the website Laws4Me, an accessible, comprehensive database of the world’s laws.

The endeavor, ambitious much like its architect, is not Motley’s only project. The Identity Project aims to restore a fundamental right to women the world over–the right to identification.

According to the World Bank, an estimated 1.5 billion people do not exist. Many live primarily in Africa and Asia, with women and children forming the overwhelming majority of this category, and are either intimidated by the costs of registration or, quite simply, are unaware of the importance of identification, which make them prime targets for exploitation. Perhaps most surprising is the fact that over 3 million Americans, the majority of whom are women, also don’t have ID. Poor and illiterate, many are homeless and thus without the proof of address needed to obtain an ID in the first place.

“According to the World Bank, an estimated 1.5 billion people do not exist.”

Motley intends to supply as many women in the world as possible with a form of identification, beginning with women in Afghan prisons. She is currently raising money and has invested much of her own resources into the project. The goal, she explains, is to change the system from within, to prompt women in the general population to ask, ‘If women in prison have ID, why can’t I?’

“Would you be working within Afghan law?” I ask.

In Afghanistan, cultural norms dictate a woman must have her husband’s permission to obtain an ID card, which is, in turn, necessary to receive medical care and to vote, among other things.

“The culture says they need a man. Afghan law doesn’t specify that. The law says that everyone has a right to vote and to go to school.”

Much like the superhero protagonists of her new comic, Motley’s weapon of choice is the law. But what happens when the existing laws are not in favor of human rights?

Dishonor culture: when victims are seen as criminals

Give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man and I will find something in them with which to condemn him – Richelieu.

“Laws are like songs I put on my playlist. You have to figure out which ones will make people dance when you go to court.” An encyclopedic command of international law endows Motley with the dexterity necessary to balance the scales in favor of human rights. Even if state laws do not offer the breadth with which to do so, however, most countries are signatories to international conventions. Like Afghanistan.

Although human rights cases make up thirty percent of all her cases, the international attorney does not call herself a human rights lawyer but, instead, an investor in human rights.

“I encourage other lawyers and business to invest in human rights. You can be a business owner and invest in human rights.”

And Motley has most heavily invested in Afghanistan, having worked there since 2008, when she first went to help train local defense lawyers. Officially known as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the country operates on a hierarchy of laws, with Sharia at the top, followed by Afghan laws, then international conventions.

“In Afghanistan, I bring those up as an afterthought,” she says, speaking of international laws. “I focus on the Quran, because that is what they will listen to first. And I’ve found there are some really great things from a legal standpoint within the Quran.”

Motley reserves similar praise for some facets of Afghan law, which, as she explains, is based on an inquisitorial system as opposed to the adversarial system known to the U.S. The positive aspects seem paltry, however, when confronted with the glaring abuses, systemic misogyny, and general corruption that tarnish Afghan courts.

Rape, rife in the country, goes unreported. Understandably so. The victims bear the judicial weight of the crime–not the rapists. A deeply entrenched honor culture, or, as Motley calls it, “dishonor culture,” places the burden of a family’s moral rectitude and community standing on a woman’s reproductive system. Rape is rarely distinguished from adultery, which implies the consent of both parties involved, and women whose bodies have been violated or ‘sullied’ by the act are either considered unworthy of marriage or, if they fall pregnant, are often forced to marry their rapists.

“Rape is rarely distinguished from adultery, which implies the consent of both parties involved, and women whose bodies have been violated or ‘sullied’ by the act are either considered unworthy of marriage or, if they fall pregnant, are often forced to marry their rapists.”

The harrowing, high-profile case of Gulnaz, who was raped and impregnated by her cousin’s husband and subsequently imprisoned for adultery, perhaps best illustrates the plight of Afghan women who are punished for the abuses inflicted upon them. Motley took on her case and Gulnaz was eventually offered a presidential pardon. A rare case, if there ever was one.

Gulnaz, Afghanistan, Kimberley Motley, feminism, women's rights, human rights, Islam

Gulnaz was raped and impregnated and subsequently imprisoned for adultery. Image: CNN

“No woman in Afghanistan will come to court to say she was raped,” says Motley. “If Gulnaz hadn’t been in prison, she almost certainly would have been killed. Her family and brothers wanted to kill her.”

Hijab-less at the head of a tribal council

In a country where her sex would have mired her in cultural obstacles, Motley adroitly sidesteps the barriers to be able to use the legal instruments at her disposal, which she then employs according to the specific situation at hand. To illustrate, she recounts the case of a ten-year-old girl who was given in marriage to a fifty-year-old man. He pushed the girl off the roof of their house, repeatedly struck her in the head with an axe, and decapitated the boy who had taken notice of the girl’s plight and tried to help her escape.

“I didn’t go the police and say, ‘This girl has been raped.’ They would have asked why she had run away from home. It would have been entirely ineffective.”

Instead, Motley presented the crime as a security issue, not a women’s or even human rights issue. If the man had been capable of the above, where would he stop?

“You have to be creative,” Motley explains.

Creative, but also confident, equally crucial in an environment as unfavorable–and antagonistic–to women as Afghanistan.

It is no small task to command the respectful attention of Afghan men, and yet, the attorney has sat at the head of local tribal councils, or jirgas, on a number of occasions. How does a woman navigate such hostile territory?

“I spent quite a bit of time with them beforehand. People want to be listened to. I didn’t come there to impose myself on them. But there was another thing as well. I needed to look like a man as much as possible,” she explains.

Which meant that a headscarf was out of the question.

“I wore it twice,” she says. “And I was invisible. It was like sitting at the adults’ table versus sitting at the kids’ table.”

Gulnaz, Afghanistan, Kimberley Motley, feminism, women's rights, human rights, Islam

Kimberley Motley negotiating with Afghan men in a traditional tribal council, or jirga. (Courtesy of Kimberley Motley)

She is careful to highlight the personal nature of this choice, but firm in her insistence that, despite objections to the contrary from well-intentioned advisors, donning the garment should not be equated with respect, whether for the culture itself or as something automatically granted to those women who do wear it.

“In a country where over eighty-five percent of women are victims of some type of abuse, don’t tell me wearing a headscarf makes people any more respectful of women. You’d best believe one hundred percent of the women abused were wearing a headscarf.”

““In a country where over eighty-five percent of women are victims of some type of abuse, don’t tell me wearing a headscarf makes people any more respectful of women.”

She follows this up with choice words for the hypocrisy of some to cherry-pick, flouting only that which they deem inconvenient:

“I’ve had Western women say to me that I should be wearing it out of respect for the culture. I ask them, ‘Do you drink? Do you have male friends or a boyfriend? Don’t try to be the Rosa Parks of Islam and pick the parts of it that are cool for you.”

We share a laugh over this, as we do over other stories involving the petty, self-aggrandizing potential present in the world of diplomacy, politics, and journalism. The reality suffered by the ordinary person in Afghanistan is less humorous.

A horrific detail: the plight of girls in Afghanistan

Gulnaz, Afghanistan, Kimberley Motley, feminism, women's rights, human rights, Islam

Ghazi Balkiz/ NBC News

Though I go into the interview with a background in Motley’s work and a taste of her character, I learn, over the course of the conversation, that sparing her uncomfortable or direct questions is utterly unnecessary.

For someone who has seen what she has, the trivialities of our culture wars are an affront to the horrors that plague women in Afghanistan. “Feminism,” she says, “is being diluted. The fact that women here can protest anything at all is miles ahead of what women elsewhere can even fathom doing. We need to move past our myopic approach”.

We don’t linger too long on the domestic state of affairs and I approach the subject as delicately as I can. I ask her to tell me one of the worst things she has ever witnessed at the frontlines of the battle for human rights.

“I ask her to tell me one of the worst things she has ever witnessed at the frontlines of the battle for human rights.”

She obliges my request at this point. I omit here the most graphic aspects.

“I received a phone call from a lady who works at a women’s shelter. They had found a girl in the streets, about seven years old.”

The girl had Down syndrome, and she had been gang raped. That isn’t the full story. Motley relates to me a detail. It is in that horrific detail, I believe, that the full story lies.

She tears up at the recollection.

“When you are that young and have been sexualized and abused, you do anything to avoid the pain. And you learn that the best way to please, to placate adults is to touch them.”

The little girl was in the waiting room, touching strangers, men, on the leg.

“We’d have to snatch her up. She didn’t know any better,” Motley explains.

At the hospital, doctors wanted to call the police. The women from the shelter were terrified. Not only were they faced with the strong possibility that police would imprison the girl, but also that they would receive threats for the work they were doing.

“What was her best case scenario? The best this little girl could hope for was to live peacefully in a shelter for the rest of her life. She would never get married. She now had mental issues in addition to Down syndrome. Even if she were ever to receive help from psychiatrists or psychologists, they would never approach the sexual abuse she had suffered.”

The conversation turns to the woeful state of mental health care in Afghanistan. As an aside, Motley mentions meeting another child with Down syndrome in prison. He had been recruited as a suicide bomber.

What is the emotional toll of these encounters?

Red light, green light: reconstructing trauma

Gulnaz, Afghanistan, Kimberley Motley, feminism, women's rights, human rights, Islam

Sadness ceases to be an option in matters of life and death, it seems. Motley works off just the appropriate amount of anger.

“I can’t work with sadness or fear. It’s debilitating. Your clients don’t want someone to cry with them as they’re sitting in an Afghan prison. They don’t want someone to feel sorry for them. They need someone who is going to kick ass.”

Her understanding of the delicate psychological processes involved in trauma is uncommonly sharp for someone untrained in mental health care. Tools of the trade, she explains, where the resources normally at the disposal of the justice system are absent. It is interesting to learn what she considers within her remit, what U.S. lawyers would otherwise delegate to professionals like forensic scientists, police, and mental health experts.

“As a defense attorney in Afghanistan, you’re forced to take initiative, to collect everything. When I’m representing someone, I’m like a method actress. I have to get inside their head and draw out the details.”

Which is precisely what she does for her women in Afghanistan.

Motley explains her technique to me.

“Sex is so taboo in Afghanistan that women who are raped will often say ‘Well, he touched me, and after he was done with me, then he left.’ I need to be able to get that information from them. So I say ‘red light’ when I need them to pause on a detail and expound upon it.

Imagine you are reconstructing a scene. You see before you a door. Red light on the door. What color is it? Let’s say it was brown. Was there a knob? Turn the knob. Green light on the story. She will tell me that she walked in the room and he was sitting there and they had sex. So I’ll say, ‘Red light on where he first touched you.’ ”

It sounds emotionally taxing on the clients, but it nevertheless allows them to be as specific as possible on their own, while significantly reducing the potential of suggestion from an external source.

Motley uses the word ‘justness’ to explain the essence of her work. The term–the state or condition of being just–aptly describes a concept that transcends the connotation of justice in the service of a legal system that is often void of humanity. By striving to achieve justness, Motley humanizes the bureaucratic face of the law.

“I really want a world without borders,” she says. “I see people living miserable lives simply because of their geography. Why is opportunity confined to certain countries?”

Her words are bare and youthful in their sincerity and idealism, with little of the professional restraint that so often curbs passion.

“I just want to do something nice for these women. No one has ever done that for them. I have them sign contracts saying they agree to have me represent them. This is the first document they have ever been asked to sign in their lives. They don’t even know how to write. They sign with their thumbprint.”

Motley’s courageous work is not only restricted to Afghanistan. On May 16, Malaysian former opposition leader and reformist politician Anwar Ibrahim, on whose case Motley had worked, was released from prison, after having been convicted of sodomy in what many saw as a politically motivated charge. The news bodes well for the country, and Motley expresses her hope at what she considers “a turning point for Malaysia.”

It is a rare case indeed in which a person’s reputation underserves the personal encounter. The glamorous epithets ‘badass’ and ‘beauty queen’ gracing many an article title preceded my encounter with Motley. While accurate, I found myself in honest conversation with someone who, in addition to the fortitude that perhaps best characterizes her, has a significant reserve of empathy. And it is precisely this balance that is most striking, between the anesthetization to evil that is often a result of repeated exposure to it and the fighting spirit most typical to the innocent, inexperienced.

I have faith that this Disrupter will continue to upset the status quo, in true heroic fashion, for a long time to come.

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About Author

Sarah Mills is a managing editor and writer at Conatus News.

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