Pushing her son on a playground swing on a sunny winter day in Madrid, former Afghan prosecutor Obaida Sharar expresses her relief at finding asylum in Spain after fleeing Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban took over.
Sharar, who arrived in Madrid with her family, is one of 19 female prosecutors who found asylum in the country after being left in limbo in Pakistan without official refugee status a year after the Taliban returned to power.
She feels selfish because she is happy while her loved ones suffer, she said.
“Most Afghan women and girls who stay in Afghanistan have no right to study, have a social life or even go to a beauty salon,” Sharar said. “I can’t be happy.”
Women’s freedoms in her native country are abruptly curtailed in 2021 by the arrival of a government that enforces a strict interpretation of Islam.
The Taliban administration banned most female aid workers from working, and last year prevented women and girls from attending high school and college.
Sharara’s work and the work of her peers while living in Afghanistan was dangerous. Female judges and prosecutors were threatened and targeted for revenge attacks as they began overseeing the trial and sentencing of men accused of gender-based crimes, including rape and murder.
She was part of a group of 32 female judges and prosecutors who left Afghanistan only to be stuck in Pakistan for a year trying to find asylum.
The prosecutor, who gave only her initials SM out of fear for her safety and who specializes in gender-based violence and violence against children, said: “I was the only prosecutor in the province … I received threats from Taliban members and criminals that I sent to jail.”
Now she and her family are also in Spain.
Many women said they felt abandoned by Western governments and international organizations.
Ignacio Rodriguez, a Spanish lawyer and president of Bilbao-based 14 Lawyers, a non-governmental organization that defends accused lawyers, said the women were held up as symbols of democratic success only to be rejected.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was not in a position to comment on specific cases.
“The government of Pakistan has not agreed to recognize newly arrived Afghans as refugees,” UNHCR said in a statement. “As of 2021, UNHCR is in discussions with the government on measures and mechanisms to support vulnerable Afghans. Unfortunately, no progress has been made.”
Pakistan’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Pakistan is home to millions of refugees from Afghanistan who fled after the 1979 invasion of the Soviet Union and during the civil war that followed. Most of them are yet to return despite Pakistan’s efforts to repatriate them under various schemes.
The Taliban said any Afghan who fled the country since it took power in 2021 could safely return through the repatriation council.
“Afghanistan is the common home of all Afghans,” said Bilal Karimi, deputy spokesman for the Taliban administration. “I can live here without any threat.”