The Junior League of San Antonio (JLSA) Active Member took a 12-month assignment with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Rule of Law Program in Kabul where she is a Senior Legal Advisor who mentors Afghan women prosecutors and judges. In this exclusive interview she shares some of her first impressions of the culture, the justice system, and the women she counsels.
What is the nature of your work over in Afghanistan and what are your responsibilities?
I deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan as part of the United States Department of Justice’s Rule of Law Program. I am serving as a Senior Legal Advisor under the authority of the Justice Attaché at the United States Embassy in Kabul. My primary duties are to train and mentor Afghan prosecutors.
How long have you been on this assignment?
Since February 1, 2012. This is a temporary 12-month assignment, after which I will return home to San Antonio.
What kind of work do you do at home in San Antonio?
Back in the United States I am a prosecutor for the Western District of Texas in San Antonio. There I federally prosecute child exploitation cases, firearm cases, and white collar crime cases. I thoroughly enjoy my job and the opportunity to put bad guys in prison. I never get tired of it, and if anything, it energizes me.
When did you join The Junior League?
I have been with the JLSA for almost five years. I initially joined the Junior League in Beaumont, Texas, and then moved and finished my new member year with the Junior League of Austin.
How did you wind up on this assignment?
I learned about the Afghanistan program from two prosecutors in my office who had previously served as Senior Legal Advisors. In talking with them, I was intrigued by the unique opportunity to mentor Afghan prosecutors, especially female prosecutors. As an aside, the sheer adventure of coming to a war zone seemed exhilarating, and I looked forward to the world travel.
How are you navigating the cultural divide?
I have been fortunate in the three months I have been here so far to meet some very talented, smart, and intelligent female prosecutors and judges. In fact, my favorite days are those when I get to interact with them. They are just as excited to talk with me as I am to talk with them. Girl talk isn’t as easy when you have to speak through a male translator, but it is still fun. Through building relationships with the prosecutors, I am able to discuss their cases with them and hear about the issues they are facing.
Did you acquire any skills during your tenure with The Junior League that you’ve been able to use over in Kabul?
My favorite part about being a member of The Junior League is the opportunity to foster and encourage young leaders. As Membership Development Chair and New Member Chair, I had many occasions to encourage and support my friends and colleagues in the League. My leadership philosophy is to give young leaders the freedom and opportunity to excel, but I am there to catch them if they fall or need support. The beauty of The Junior League is that while we get to foster women as leaders, we also get to help the community at the same time. I would suppose that this is why I was so attracted to the opportunity to mentor and train Afghan women. Not only would it help them as individuals, but it would also help the entire Afghan community.
We read a lot about the gender discrimination that goes on in Afghanistan and other Muslim countries. What is your perception of the situation now that you are on the ground?
While women are still grossly under-represented in the Afghan Criminal Justice System, there are several courageous women who have stepped up to take on these criminal justice jobs. Not only is the job of a prosecutor or judge hard for anyone, but Afghan women must also fight cultural norms that do not support women as professionals and equals. However, every day I see women judges, prosecutors, and investigators that are breaking out of a culture that is oppressive to women. I continue to be impressed by their courage and strength.
How are you dealing with the language barrier?
The main language spoken in Kabul is Dari. (Pashto is the other language common to Afghanistan.) When I arrived in Kabul, I began taking Dari lessons to be able to communicate. It is a difficult language! Fortunately, we have a staff of Foreign Service Nationals (Afghans) that work for us as translators. We take a translator with us everywhere we go in order to communicate with the Afghans. Some Afghans do speak English, but very few. Fortunately, half of our translators are in college and law school and are able to accurately translate legal words and ideas.
How do you cope with the dangerous aspects of your work?
Because this is an active war zone, we balance our mission-related duties with security considerations. While we have all taken on a certain amount of risk by just being here, we are always mindful of the danger that lurks. That said, the Afghan judges, prosecutors and investigators that I have worked with are tremendously grateful for the mentoring, training, and assistance.
Are you homesick?
It was hard to leave my family and friends in Texas to come to Afghanistan for 12 months, but the chance to make a small difference makes it all worthwhile. I regularly email, call, and Skype with my family and friends. The care packages they send always make my day. A piece of America is always fun! At the Embassy, I live in a 10 by 20-foot room called a “hooch.” It is the size of a college dorm room. Every meal is served in a dining facility known as the “dfac.” The food really isn’t bad, and most of the time there are a handful of choices. There is always a salad bar and a sandwich bar. Speaking of bars, there is one bar on the Embassy called the Duck and Cover. It is fun to meet people there after a long day!
What do you most miss about The Junior League?
I miss being involved with The Junior League. It would be fun to start a Junior League of Kabul, but there simply aren’t that many women here. Plus, most of the U.S. women are here on a temporary basis, so no one would ever get through a new member year. When I accepted this detail, I was serving on the Board of Directors as the Membership Development Chair. Prior to that, I served as the New Member Chair. My sister is also a member of the JLSA, and I am sorry to be missing her First Active Year.
Have you ever envisioned a Junior League that included Afghan women?
It would be a difficult task. We would need to create the framework of the organization and then start to fold in the Afghan women. Afghan women don’t drive; they’d have to have a male Embassy member bring them to the Embassy because we could not leave it in order to have a meeting. Even if they work during the day they are still responsible for their household duties.
If you were to send a message to your friends and fellow League members back home, what would it say?
While I really miss breakfast tacos, lasagna, Mexican food, and draft beer in a cold mug, the opportunity to serve on a global level, at such a pivotal time in the history of Afghanistan, is an honor. My hope at the end of this tour is not world peace or total stabilization in Afghanistan, my hope is to make a difference in the life of an Afghan woman.