Working hard to earn respect
For the first year she worked on a pro bono basis, earning money by doing consultancy and mentoring on the side, and taking on cases she believed in. “It was so unusually chaotic at first and it just made no sense to me at all,” she says. “Plus, I didn’t speak the language, so I had to use translators in court.” Kimberley still uses this group of official translators, but she also uses an iPad app to translate tracts of Sharia. “I worked hard, refused to take bribes, and gradually earned the respect of judges and other lawyers.”
Deciding she could do more good as a practising defence lawyer, Kimberly set up her own firm, Motley Legal Services, becoming the first – and only – female foreign attorney in the entire country. There are no other women in Afghanistan practising law, let alone with their own practice. “I took baby steps to start with,” she says. “When I arrived I had no idea I’d be doing what I am now, running my own firm.”
Unlike mostWestern women in Afghanistan, she refuses to wear a headscarf, saying, “I need to be strong and a lawyer. I cannot let down my clients.”
The respect she has gained from her peers seems to strengthen with every case. “I get compliments from judges. They say, ‘We’re so proud of you, here in our courts and fighting in our system’. They understand I’m there like them, doing a legal job just like them.”
Despite winning awards – including the Spirit of Marquette Award for those under 40, awarded in 2012 by Marquette Law School and the Tom C Clark Award (a former US Supreme Court of Justice) in the same year – Kimberley insists it’s the work she does that matters.
As Kimberley and her work become more high-profile, the risks are increasing. “I’ve had death threats over email and phone,” she says. “It’s because what I do is effective and it’s embarrassing for some people. They want these issues, things that happen [in Afghanistan] that I’m highlighting, pushed under the rug.”
“During the Gulnaz episode my house was ransacked and my electricity cut off. The harassment was daily and became so intense I was forced to move out and slept in my car for a month in freezing December weather. In the mornings I’d wash at the International Security Assistance Force base, then go to work. It was good for me though, it made me stronger.”
She estimates there have been eight arrest warrants issued against her to date, none of which has held up. “I’ve been detained twice, but they don’t have anything on me – it’s bullying tactics that frankly don’t work. On the flip side it’s a back-handed compliment.” She hasn’t reported any threats to the police. “No, to my embassy, but not the police,” she says. “There’s not a lot [the police] can do. I don’t want to sound like this big macho woman, but I’m not scared. I don’t have time to be scared.”
Five years on Kimberly spends eight or nine months of the year in Kabul, and the rest of the year in North Carolina with her family. “I still miss them enormously but I talk to the kids several times a day and watch their sporting events or school plays on Skype, and fly home when I can. It’s always a wrench to leave, but I know how much I’m needed in Afghanistan.”
To relax she’s got those spin classes to teach to soldiers serving with the International Security Assistance Force – the allied coalition. And back home she likes to “dance for fun, or just sit quietly with no distractions”, and spend time with her family, “away from the chaos”. It’s pretty clear she misses that chaos, though.
“I have no intention of going anywhere. I’m passionate about what I do, and that’s helping the little people – women like Gulnaz, punished for being victims of brutal crimes. They don’t have a voice. Until they do, I’ll use mine to say what needs to be said.”