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I left Afghanistan in 1979 at the age of six, carrying a little blue suitcase filled with a few belongings and a lot of uncertainty. I was told that we were going to visit my father in the United States, who was studying for a Ph.D., but as I turned around at the airport one last time to wave to my grandfather, the tears running down his face told me a different story. It was the last time I would see my grandfather. It was also the last time I saw most of my extended family, my home, and the country in which I was born — until last May, when I returned to Kabul Airport, this time with a large black paper-filled suitcase and a lot of hope. Growing up in the United States, I studied and worked hard, realizing how lucky I was to have the opportunities that millions of people in Afghanistan did not. During college, I helped found a student organization to raise funds for Afghan schools and orphanages, and I took part in efforts promoting human rights. Through years of humanitarian work, I met congressional representatives, leaders of organizations, and other activists. After graduating from Georgetown University Law Center in 1999, I began working as an associate at Dechert in Washington, D.C., and continued to work on humanitarian issues related to Afghanistan, then a forgotten country. After Sept. 11, 2001, everything changed, of course, and the world again focused on Afghanistan, where the devastation of a civil war had been compounded by the interference of its neighbors, by a fundamentalist regime previously unknown to Afghan culture, and by foreign extremists. Afghans, especially women, had suffered for too long, and I didn’t want the actions of a small group of individuals to be seen as a reflection of the country and of people I knew well. So I spoke at various events and on national television programs, hoping to bring light to the crisis that had been plaguing Afghanistan for years, which crisis the world had not paid any attention to. In January 2002, I was appointed to the Legal Affairs Working Group for Afghanistan, set up by the United Nations. Serving on the LAWG were 21 legal scholars, most Afghan expatriates, who were asked to provide legal advice to the new interim administration. I was the youngest person on the LAWG and one of only two women. Dechert fully supported my participation in the LAWG on a pro bono basis and my work was recognized by the firm’s pro bono committee in September 2002. The issue I was asked to address as a member of the LAWG was ensuring women’s rights in the new Afghanistan Constitution. It was the first time that this issue was being officially addressed after years of conflict, and being entrusted with this enormous responsibility was both exciting and scary. It was important to understand the political, cultural, and religious aspects of women’s rights in Afghanistan, and being an Afghan native and a woman did not provide all of the answers. My goal as a legal adviser to the interim administration was to be objective and to identify an approach that would represent the interests of Afghan women and society. After spending weeks on research, analysis, and writing, I shared my written recommendations at the LAWG’s meeting at the United Nations in Geneva in March 2002. DOING MY HOMEWORK I prepared for the meeting as I would for a court appearance, knowing all of my facts and formulating a strategy for questions that I knew would be asked. I think I surprised most of my colleagues on the LAWG since my recommendations for the principles of gender equality and equity in the new legal framework for Afghanistan were based not only on international law and Afghan law, but also on Islamic law. I felt that addressing the issue completely, rather than ignoring the most challenging and difficult part of the legal issues presented (which I was tempted to do), provided a more objective and complete legal analysis for the interim administration. My pro bono work on women’s rights did not end at the LAWG meeting in Geneva. Written recommendations on the issue were not going to get the attention that was needed to make a difference. What was required was advocacy on many different levels, including sharing information with women’s and human rights organizations, Afghan women leaders, and members of the country’s new Constitutional Commission, Judicial Reform Commission, and Human Rights Commission. One of the most rewarding experiences related to this project was organizing a training seminar for a group of Afghan women invited to the United States on a two-month program through the U.S. State Department. Since the group would be in New York during the time the training could be given, Dechert offered to host the program at the firm’s Rockefeller Center office. With the assistance of a renowned expert on women’s rights in Islamic law, Azizah Al-Hibri, and a young Afghan law student, the program presented the rights of Afghan women under Afghan law, under international treaties and conventions to which Afghanistan is a party, and under Islamic law. The women did not just observe silently, but actively participated in the program and provided their views and input on the issues, while I listened and learned from them. As the process of reconstruction began in Afghanistan, I had another opportunity to assist in legal reform efforts. In January 2003, I was asked by the Center for International Management Education, a nonprofit organization that had agreed to assist the new government of Afghanistan with a review of its commercial laws, to participate in that process. CIME was working with the American Bar Association-Asia Law Initiative to provide the support and assistance requested by the Afghan government on the Afghanistan Transitional Commercial Law Project. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and ensuing years of conflict largely destroyed Afghanistan’s infrastructure, institutions, and legal system. Afghanistan had developed a unique legal system outside of British colonial rule in Asia, but the Soviet invasion and ensuing turmoil halted and then dismantled that progress. The Afghan government identified the key to reconstruction as building sustainable economic progress; one of its top priorities is to move Afghanistan toward privatization and create a climate that promotes private foreign direct investments. These investments would not only benefit investors, but also help create jobs, income, and deliver essential goods and services to the people of Afghanistan. The Afghan government understood that for this type of economic progress to occur, its legal system would have to provide certainty and protection for investments and international business transactions. Thus, the Afghan government initiated the Commercial Law Project to provide the necessary framework. The areas of law that were deemed essential to encouraging direct private foreign investment by the Afghan government and participants in the project include not only the Law on Domestic and Foreign Private Investment, which Afghanistan amended in 2002, but many others: contracts, real property, personal property, intellectual property, arbitration, commercial, banking/negotiable instruments, creditor and debtor rights/bankruptcy, customs/trade, secured transactions, taxation, corporate, partnership, agency, registration of business entities, labor/employment, antitrust and unfair business practices, and law of state enterprises. TEAMWORK More than 100 talented lawyers and legal scholars are volunteering their time on this project. Participants include lawyers from small to multi-city law firms; experienced private practitioners; professors of law; corporate counsel; and legal scholars from nonprofit organizations, think tanks, and international organizations. As the coordinating attorney, I organized teams for each area of law to be reviewed. Teams are responsible for reviewing, commenting upon, and drafting proposed changes to their respective area of law. The work of each team is being coordinated through a team leader. On each team are American, Afghan, and other international experts in that area of law. Experts on Islamic law are also available to consult with the teams on the application of Islamic law to commercial transactions. On May 11, 2003, more than 24 years since I had left Afghanistan, I arrived at Kabul Airport with one suitcase filled with my belongings and one filled with documents and, with them, hopes for a new Afghanistan. I returned with a purpose — not just to see the country and family I had left behind, but also to bring resources and knowledge that could help in the country’s reconstruction. With me were seven project team leaders, as well as the president of CIME, Russ Deane. We spent our time in Afghanistan discussing the laws with technical staff, meeting with ministers, and experiencing the harsh realities of a war-torn nation. Being in Afghanistan made the project even more meaningful to us all and helped us to better understand the everyday challenges that the Afghan people face just to survive. After the team leaders for the project left, I stayed on to work on the women’s rights project, meeting with members of the Constitutional Review Commission, women leaders in the legal field, and women working for nongovernmental organizations. Experiencing present-day life in Afghanistan, a very different place than the one I once knew, helped me to gain a new appreciation for the problems faced by Afghan women and an understanding that education, health care, economic resources, and sustainable development would assist them more than anything else. I know that documents and laws will not solve Afghanistan’s problems, but sharing knowledge, information, and ideas will help to rebuild the country. After giving all the documents I had prepared to government officials, women leaders, human rights activists and legal scholars, I left Afghanistan, my suitcase filled with souvenirs and memories of an amazing experience. Mariam A. Nawabi is an associate in the Washington, D.C., office of Dechert.

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