Justice Maura McGowan DBE
Justice Maura McGowan DBE

Today (Thursday 10 March) is the International Day for Women Judges, a day of recognition organised by the United Nations. To mark the day, and as part of the Bar Council's blog series for IWD 2022, Justice Maura McGowan DBE sheds some light on the links between Afghan and UK women on the bench.

We know that great improvement has been made in the progression of women in the judiciary in the UK. However the anxiety felt here about the speed of achieving greater gender diversity in the judiciary was thrown into sharp relief by the fall of the government in Afghanistan and the take over by the Taliban. There had been a number of women rising through the ranks of the judiciary there, sitting in all jurisdictions and regions. Suddenly they were no longer allowed to work and were being forced to go into hiding because the fact that they had sat in judgment under the previous regime was now considered to be blasphemy. Stories of the women burning their text books and their professional qualifications in case their homes were raided were a depressing indication of the immediate danger.

The UK Association of Women Judges had already been involved in a mentoring programme for their colleagues in Afghanistan. When the government fell they, and the IAWJ, immediately became involved in helping the women judges and their families to get out and find refuge all over the world. A small number of women have come to the UK and are trying to re-build their lives. Some of them have got into universities and are starting the difficult road to re-qualification. Others are still trying to find a way to re-train. All are desperately trying to learn or improve their English.

I have been incredibly impressed by the courage and resilience of these women. Many of them battled their way through the carnage at the airport and left with little more than the clothes they were wearing. Now, not much more than 6 months later they are working on Masters degrees and similar. I have also been heartened by the dedication of the women judges in the UK. Some of them were exchanging messages throughout long nights with women who were moving from house to house or sheltering from gunfire at the airport. They carried on with the day job whilst helping these women in the most extremely difficult situation.

The Rule of Law can only be maintained if all people are equal before the law. Helping the women judges of Afghanistan is not only a humanitarian act, it is action that promotes the universal understanding that we should all be entitled equally to the protection of the law.

CILEX, the Law Society and the Bar Council can join with the universities who are helping these women qualify as practitioners here. They are highly intelligent, well-qualified women who will bring skill and expertise. They come from a very different system but their capacity to study and determination to learn are very strong. There are very few of them and it would be a great shame if the legal profession in the UK could not offer them the opportunity to join and make a very substantial contribution.

Maura McGowan is a High Court Judge. She sits in the Queen’s Bench Division and was a Presiding Judge on the South Eastern Circuit. Maura was Chair of the Bar Council of England and Wales in 2013. 

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