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AAN Obituary: Mahbuba Hoquqmal, ‘friend of the law’ (1944-2020)

Thomas Ruttig 9 min

Mahbuba Hoquqmal was one of the most important legal scholars in Afghanistan. As a participant in two loya jirgas and with her working life dedicated to teaching and legal reform, she shaped the country’s constitutional history. She particularly focussed on the improvement of the legal situation of Afghan women. On 30 October 2020, she died from an illness that was triggered, according to colleagues, by a terrorist attack that killed one of her sons and his entire family. AAN co-director and senior analyst Thomas Ruttig, who worked with her at the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga commission, looks back at her life.

Late Mahbuba Hoquqmal with a photo of her son Yama's slain family. Photo: Zia Shahreyar's Twitter account (https://twitter.com/ziashahreyar/status/1322567135575592962 ).

Mahbuba Hoquqmal excelled from the very beginning of her career. When she graduated from Kabul University’s Faculty of Law and Political Sciences in 1965, she was top of her class. Over the course of four decades and through a series of key appointments, Mahbuba Hoquqmal would help to shape the country’s legal and constitutional history. She even made her professional devotion her name – her self-appointed takhallus (surname), Hoquqmal, means ‘friend of the law’. (1) Yet despite her life-long devotion to her career, she never sought the limelight. Meeting this contained woman with her slightly tinted glasses, one got the impression that this was not of importance to her.

Mahbuba Hoquqmal was born in Kabul province in 1944. She was the eldest of three girls and a boy. (2) Her father, Nur Muhammed, and her mother, a teacher (name not given in our sources) died when she was a small child. She was brought up by an uncle, a poet who was the head of the country’s Writers’ Association. Interviewed by Swiss journalist Judith Huber, who portrayed her in her 2003 book (in German) Risse im Patriarchat: Frauen in Afghanistan (3), she recalled that he “used to bring me books, also from Iran, so that I educate myself.” She followed in her uncle’s footsteps and wrote poetry and short stories while at school (Zarghuna Ana School in Kandahar and later, from 1955, Malalai High School in Kabul). There, she reportedly skipped two grades and graduated in 1961. Her uncle wanted her to become a medical doctor, but she insisted on studying jurisprudence. She told Huber: “The law fascinated me. I thought that law is an important part of social life. And that much could be changed by it.”

Upon her graduation, and given her top performance, Mahbuba Hoquqmal was employed at the same faculty as the first ever female lecturer there. She was employed as assistant to Professor Muhammad Musa Shafiq, who would later become one of the authors of Afghanistan’s 1964 constitution, until then the most democratic, and the last prime minister of the Afghan kingdom (1972-73). During the loya jirga (grand assembly) dealing with the draft for a new, republican constitution, Shafiq successfully bridged conflicts between conservatives and liberals to help the draft pass. (After Sardar Daud’s 1973 military coup, Shafiq was put under house arrest and later arrested and murdered in prison in 1979 by the Khalqi regime – see here for an interesting background article about him, in Kabul-based daily Hasht-e Sobh (8 am)).

At the faculty, Hoquqmal said she “was surrounded by professors of high quality and education. They trained me as a professor,” which she herself formally became in 1974. She said: “I never felt a difference between men and women. I am very grateful to them.” The faculty was supported by the French government, and she twice went to France for short courses.

During that time, Hoquqmal married a police officer, the late Sultan Mahmud. They had six sons together but, as she said, “unfortunately no daughter.” She also cared for a son from her husband’s first wife. She told Huber that, as with her choice of faculty, she had had the last word on who would become her partner.

In January 2011, one of her sons, Massud Yama, was killed, together with his entire family (his wife, Hamida Barmaki, a law lecturer at Kabul University and a commissioner of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), and their four children) by a terrorist attack on central Kabul’s Finest supermarket. The attack was claimed by both Hezb-e Islami (see this Tolo report here) and the Taleban (BBC report here). But the blame was largely attributed to Hezb, only five years before it struck a ‘peace’ deal with the Afghan government (see a report by an Afghan investigative journalism centre, quoted here, and AAN analysis here). (4)

In January 1977 Mahbuba Hoquqmal was one of 12 women members of the loya jirga convened by then-president Muhammad Daud to pass a new constitution. (Eight of them were appointed by Daud, among whom Hoquqmal; only four were elected.) (5) On the issue of the constitution, the jirga took a step back from that of 1964, which had contained elements of parliamentary democracy. Daud, after his 1973 coup, cancelled the forthcoming parliamentary elections, and Afghanistan officially became a one-party state.

In 1981, during the regime of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), Hoquqmal was appointed head of the international relations department of her faculty. In 1994, under the mujahedin government, she was promoted to the position of dean. From 1992 onwards, she also chaired the re-established Grand Women’s Organisation (GWO), a government-run social organisation founded in 1943 during King Muhammad Zaher’s reign. It trained and educated women, including those who could not enjoy formal education due to social restrictions. It also did charity work. Today, its headquarters in Kabul’s Shahr-e Now, is the venue of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA), located next to the Zainab cinema (the latter was named after a sister of the late King Amanullah, on whose initiative this plot of land had been purchased in 1945 and handed over to the GWO).

When the Taleban captured Kabul in September 1996, Mahbuba Hoquqmal was fired, as were all the other educated women in official positions. She said that “the Taleban even did not have the decency to tell us personally. They just announced this over the radio. I have been working all my life, and I could not bear to give all this up.” Thus, after having been invited to an NGO conference in Pakistan in her capacity as dean of the faculty, she decided to remain there. She told Huber that she had only been able to travel because the Taleban had approved her trip, apparently not realising that the ‘dean’ was not a man.

In Pakistan, she taught at various universities, including the Afghan University in Peshawar, which had been established as a kind of ‘replacement in exile’ of Kabul University during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. She was also active in civil society. She headed the Women’s Rights Defence Committee (Rowzana) and the Afghan Women Lawyers Society. Both strands of work were linked, as Rowzana provided legal aid to many female Afghan refugees who had no money or otherwise access to a lawyer in cases of domestic violence, sexual abuse, or tensions in their marriage.

After the Taleban were ousted, she participated in the civil society conference in Bad Honnef (Germany) in late 2001. This conference was held in parallel to the Bonn conference that worked out a blueprint for “provisional arrangements pending the re-establishment of permanent government institutions” in Afghanistan, as the official Bonn agreement’s title stipulated. Hoquqmal was cautiously optimistic about the country’s future, but also saw the hurdles ahead. In an interview with the Berlin daily, Tageszeitung, in December 2001 she said:

I came here to contribute to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. It was a first step. I hope we will continue progressing. … Only those who can win the people’s trust can reconstruct Afghanistan. … One can’t just count on those people who, for many years, fought each other with their guns and killed many people. One can’t expect much from them for the future.

After the conference, Hoquqmal returned to her job as dean of her old faculty at Kabul University, but not for long. Early the following year, she was nominated by the UN as one of 21 members of the Special Independent Commission for the Convening of the Emergency Loya Jirga (ELJ). According to the schedule set by the Bonn conference, the jirga decided on a new government and to start preparations for a new constitution and presidential elections (AAN background here). She was one of only three women in that commission, together with the late Soraya Parlika (AAN obituary here) and professor Homaira Nemati. The members selected her as the commission‘s first deputy chair. In her capacity as an ELJ commission member, she was also automatically a full delegate of the jirga. 

During that time, Hoquqmal was in the political limelight. While her ELJ colleague, Soraya Parlika, with her communist background, was also a revolutionary on women’s rights issues, Hoquqmal followed a more cautious approach. One of her statements runs like a common thread through all her interviews during that period, such as a second one with Tageszeitung in March 2002, namely that, “we should not hurry things” in Afghanistan’s “conservative society.” In full she said:

Our society is conservative and very religious. That’s why we cannot bring about larger changes at this time that would contradict the traditions. For changes, time is necessary. When we hurry it, as it happened in the 1920s under King Amanullah, then it will, as it happened then, cause a strong counter reaction. And then, all positive developments will be reversed again.

She also supported then-UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s and president Hamed Karzai’s controversial position that “peace and security” were needed before anything else could be achieved in Afghanistan. (On this discussion, see this AAN report).

In the Tageszeitung interview she also stated some of her more progressive personal convictions. She said she was in favour of a general women’s quota, of the banning of polygamy by the courts and was even in favour of a “secular state” as this was “better for women.” She repeated, however, that “the society” would “not allow this.” She also strongly believed in a strong pro-women government and the effect of education. She told Tageszeitung:

When we have a strong government which supports women, inequality will disappear. And women must be better educated. Education is essential.

The loya jirgas of 1977 and 2002, she said, were incompatible:

In the 1970s, we gathered in an environment that was characterised by a functioning government and the rule of law. In 2002, civil society was completely destroyed. We stood between war and peace. It was a very sensitive moment, always close to breaking down, like walking on a knife’s edge. … We had to bring together those who had fought each other before and hated each other. We did this with much passion and a lot of patience.

Insofar, Hoquqmal said, contradicting Soraya Parlika and others, what was achieved in the loya jirgas was

… a tremendous result, even if perhaps not visible at the first glance. In 1977, there were no extremists and fundamentalists in the jirga. Today, they are here; they are even in power. That’s why our task was much more difficult this time.

After the Emergency Loya Jirga, Mahbuba Hoquqmal was supposed to become Minister for Women’s Affairs, but at the last minute, president Karzai switched his choice to Habiba Sarabi. A new position was created and Hoquqmal appointed as presidential advisor for women’s affairs in the rank of a state minister, according to her official biography, working directly under Karzai in the palace. Talking to Huber, she recalled that the division of responsibilities between her office and the ministry was poorly defined and she had to fight to get an office and equipment. During that time, she was also the director of the Afghan Women’s Lawyers’ Association and continued teaching at her faculty twice a week.

In December 2005, Karzai appointed her to the upper house of parliament, the Meshrano Jirga, or ’senate.’ From 2010 to 2014, she served as the sole woman on the Constitutional Oversight Committee. An extension of this tenure was rejected by majority vote in parliament in 2014. From 2013 to 2016, she headed the board of directors of the Hamida Barmaki Foundation, established in memory of her assassinated daughter-in-law. 

During her academic career, Hoquqmal served on various academic councils, both for the Law and Political Science Faculty and on the university level, on a number of the university’s commissions, such as that of academic promotions, publications, and academic research. She also served on the editorial board of the university’s social sciences magazine, according to her biography on the Afghan senate’s website. She edited and wrote a number of books, including on the role of loya jirgas and their role in the constitutional process. She also wrote numerous academic articles. 

During her decades-long tenure at the law faculty, Mahbuba Hoquqmal played a key role in the education of several new generations of Afghan lawyers. After her death, she was praised as “a pioneer of women’s rights” at the legal front (AREU director, Orzala Nemat) and a “champion of major progressive legal reforms in the country” (Kawun Kakar from the Hassan Kakar Foundation). Palwasha Hasan, director of the Afghan Women’s Education Center, wrote “she will be remembered for her efforts for [the] rule of law [and her] women’s rights training [of] generation of young Afghan[s].”

Kakar added that she would have deserved a seat on the Supreme Court. However, Afghanistan’s ‘conservative society’, or rather, the influence of Islamist scholars, has so far prevented any woman from being appointed a member of this court. In 2018, parliament rejected one of Ashraf Ghani’s female nominees (not Hoquqmal) for the country’s highest legal body (see AAN reporting here).

After 2016, Mahbuba Hoquqmal became increasingly ill. According to colleagues, this was as a result of the pain related to the loss of her son and of his entire family in the 2011 terrorist attack.

Mahbuba Hoquqmal (1944-2020) leaves behind a large family, among them five surviving sons and a step-son, two sisters and ten grandchildren.

Edited by Ehsan Qaane and Christine Roehrs 


(1) [Added on 4 Nov. 2020: Mahbuba Hoquqmal has apparently chosen her takhallus after 1977. In Fahima Rahimi’s 1977 book Women in Afghanistan/Frauen in Afghanistan, published by the Bibliotheca Afghanica Foundation in Switzerland (p99), she was listed among the female delegates of the 1977 loya jirga as “Mahbuba.”]

(2) This is according to her interview with Huber (see footnote 2). The family’s obituary lists two brothers, one possibly a half-brother.

(3) Biographical data in this text draws from three main sources. The first is Judith Huber’s 2003 book, Risse im Patriarchat. Frauen in Afghanistan (Zürich, Rotpunktverlag 2003, ISBN 3-85869-260-3). It includes two other portraits, of Sima Samar and the late Soraya Parlika (see my obituary for AAN here). The second source is the Afghan Bios website, a compilation from different, often undeclared sources, including from the third source, Mahbuba Hoquqmal’s official biography on the Meshrano Jirga website. Where both sources diverged, the author relied on Huber’s book as based on interviews with Hoquqmal. Where facts are added from other sources, they are directly linked.

(4) Here is a US government “Reward for Justice” document linked to the case.

(5) [Added on 4 Nov. 2020: Their names were:

elected:

  • Kubra Nurzai, director of the Women’s Institute (Kabul) [this could be identical with the Wonen’s Society/De Mermano Tolena]
  • Aziza Amani, high school (lisa) director (Kunduz)
  • Najiba Siir [as in the English original], high school director (Kholm)
  • Najiba, high school director and had of the provincial women’s committee (Herat)

appointed:

  • Homaira Hamidi, high school director (Kabul)
  • Khaleda Ghaus, high school teacher (Kabul)
  • Khadeja, head teacher at a Kabul school
  • Zainab Amin, secondary school director (no location given)
  • Mahbuba [later Hoquqmal], teacher at Kabul University
  • Aziza Ehsan Omar, director of the tax department, Ministry on Finance (Kabul)
  • Dr Soraya Khadem, medical doctor, official at the Afghan Family Guidance Association (Kabul)
  • Zakia, advisor at the Afghan Scouts movement

source: Fahima Rahimi, Women in Afghanistan/Frauen in Afghanistan, Bibliotheca Afghanica Foundation, Liestal (1977) pp96, 98.]

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Loya Jirga legal history Mahbuba Hoquqmal

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