Kimberley Motley: How Can The Rule Of Law Bring "Justness" And Not Just Justice? Sharing cases from her international legal practice, Kimberley Motley, an American litigator practicing in Afghanistan, shows how a country's laws can bring both justice and "justness."
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How Can The Rule Of Law Bring "Justness" And Not Just Justice?

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How Can The Rule Of Law Bring "Justness" And Not Just Justice?

How Can The Rule Of Law Bring "Justness" And Not Just Justice?

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Can you introduce yourself, please?

KIMBERLEY MOTLEY: I'm Kimberley Motley. I'm an international litigator, and I'm from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

RAZ: And so we've asking, obviously, everybody this question. What do you think of when you hear you hear the word courage?

MOTLEY: What courage means to me is someone who recognizes that they are afraid of things and tries to attack those things head on.

RAZ: Are you courageous? Do you think of yourself as a courageous person?

MOTLEY: No, I don't. I think my clients are courageous.

RAZ: And her clients are mostly Afghan women and girls. Kimberly's law office is in Kabul, and when her clients challenge the social order, it's like a death wish and not just for them, but for Kimberly as well. Do you ever get scared?

MOTLEY: Yeah, I get scared, but I don't operate well under fear. I operate very well under anger. And so I think a lot of times I translate fear into anger.

RAZ: Kimberly Motley is the first foreigner to argue cases in Afghan courts, and she wins most of those cases. She travels without a bodyguard or a driver or any weapons because she says it would interfere with her work. Here is her story from the TED stage.


MOTLEY: In 2008, I went to Afghanistan on this nine-month program to train Afghan lawyers. In that nine months, I went around the country and I talked to hundreds of people that were locked up, and I talked to many businesses that are also operating in Afghanistan. And within these conversations, I started hearing the connections between the businesses and the people, and how laws that were meant to protect them were being underused while gross and illegal punitive measures were overused. And so this put me on a quest for justness. So, as a result, I decided to open up a practice, and I became the first foreigner to litigate in Afghan courts. Let me tell you a story about a little girl named Naghma. Naghma lived in a refugee camp with her parents and her eight brothers and sisters. Every morning her father would wake up in the hopes he'd be picked for construction work. And, on a good month, he would earn $50. The winter was very harsh and, unfortunately, Naghma's brother died and her mother became very ill. In desperation, her father went to a neighbor to borrow $2,500. After several months of waiting, the neighbor became very impatient, and he demanded the he be paid back. Unfortunately, Naghma's father didn't have the money, and so the two men agreed to a jirga. So, simply put, a jirga is a form of mediation that's used in Afghanistan's informal justice system. It's usually presided over by religious leaders and village elders, and jirgas are often used in rural countries like Afghanistan, where there's deep-seated resentment against the formal system. At the jirga, the men sat together, and they decided that the best way to satisfy the debt would be if Naghma married the neighbor's 21-year-old son. She was 6. Now, stories like Naghma, unfortunately, are all too common. And, while jirgas are built on long-standing tribal customs, even in jirgas, laws are supposed to be followed. And it goes without saying that giving a child to satisfy a debt is not only grossly immoral, it's illegal.

RAZ: There's a photograph that you show in your talk which is you sitting cross-legged in a circle. There are about a dozen Afghan men, and there you are, an American woman, a non-Muslim foreigner, no headscarf. How are you able to convince this group of Afghan elders to have - not just meet about this and resolve it - but have you preside over the meeting?

MOTLEY: First of all, to get them to come together, the Holy Quran teaches that women are to be respected. And the Holy Quran teaches that a woman is supposed to choose who she wants to marry and that women are...

RAZ: And you show them - you show them the passages in the Quran? Like, you carry a Quran with you? Or you, like, have a translator explain to them that this is in the Quran?

MOTLEY: My translator translates what I say. And I cite chapter and verse of where it's in the Holy Quran. And so, you know, I didn't come at them and say, hey, the Holy Quran says this and let's sit together and, by the way, I want to be in charge. That was a process. It was like - me asking to preside over it was sort of one of the last things I asked to do, right before we had the meeting. And by that time, I had created a rapport and relationship with them, where they had a certain level of trust with me, which is why they allowed for me to preside over it.


MOTLEY: Now, let's get back to Naghma. Several people heard about this story, and so they contacted me, because they wanted to pay the $2,500 debt. And it's not just that simple. You can't just throw money at this problem and think that it's going to disappear. That's not how it works in Afghanistan. So I told them I'd get involved. But, in order to get involved, what needed to happen is a second jirga needed to be called - a jirga of appeals. And at the end of this jirga, it was ordered by the judge that the first decision was erased and that the $2,500 debt was satisfied. And we all signed a written order where all the men acknowledged that what they did was illegal, and if they did it again that they would go to prison. And, most importantly, the engagement was terminated and Naghma was free. Now, with my job there's above average amount of risks that are involved. I've been temporarily detained. I've been accused of running a brothel, accused of being a spy. I've had a grenade thrown at my office - it didn't go off, though. But I find that, with my job, that the rewards far outweigh the risks. And, as many risks as I take, my clients take far greater risks, because they have a lot more to lose if their cases go unheard or, worse, if they're penalized for having me as their lawyer. With every case that I take, I realize that, as much as I'm standing behind my clients, that they're also standing behind me, and that's what keeps me going.

RAZ: And it's how Kimberly Motley saved the life of a 12-year-old girl name Sahar - that story coming up in just a moment. Our show today - ideas about courage. I'm Guy Raz. Stay with us. It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. On the show today stories of courage and justice, ideas about why some people risk everything to do the right thing. So before the break we were hearing from Kimberley Motley. She's an American lawyer in Kabul who mostly represents women and girls. So let me get this straight. You get Afghan clients, go to villages and confront the abusers or the transgressors. You argue cases in front of Afghan courts without the language and without any sort of specialized legal training in Afghanistan, right?

MOTLEY: Right.

RAZ: So have you heard the word chutzpah?

MOTLEY: (Laughter) Yes.

RAZ: You have a lot of that.

MOTLEY: Thank you.

RAZ: I mean, courage and - it's the same thing, right? I mean, it takes a certain kind of person to say yeah, I'm going to do this. And I'm going to do this because it's the right thing to do. Like, how does that happen? Where does that come from?

MOTLEY: You know, when you grow up poor in America I think often you feel very invisible. And I think you feel like you don't have a voice - just like many Afghans feel. I grew up in Milwaukee. A grew up in the projects. My mother is Korea. My father is black. My father was fired from his job based on the fact that he had a disability, which we all know is very, very illegal. And so just seeing him fighting this big corporation for, you know, like a decade and ended up losing seeing how that really crushed him and seeing how invisible he felt, you know, it really affected me.

And it made me want to be a person that always listened to what people had to say. And so I think that's why I'm able to go to the villages or talk to the - within the tribal courts. If something is wrong I'm happy to say that is wrong.

RAZ: I have to assume that throughout your journey people constantly discouraged you or tried to block you or made it really difficult for you to do what you do. How did you keep going?

MOTLEY: You know, I do have a lot of days where I'm just like why do I do this? You know, because I get haters from all sides. You know, it's not just Afghans. It's also foreigners or embassies sometimes.

RAZ: And probably people that are, like, you know, philosophically allied with you may say oh, you know, you don't understand the system here, you and your American ways, thinking that you can just change the country. People must have said that to you.

MOTLEY: Oh, yeah, they always say that. And I think they're idiots because that's not what I do. You know what I mean? I'm not there to be the U.N. or to be the embassy. I'm there to be a lawyer for my clients. And I use their laws. I don't come in and say, well, in America we do this because you know what? If I did that then I would fail.


MOTLEY: There are currently over 280 million boys and girls who are married under the age of 15. Child marriages prolong the vicious cycle of, poor health, lack of education. At the age of 12, Sahar was married. She was forced into this marriage and sold by her brother. When she went to her in-laws house they forced her into prostitution. Because she refused she was tortured. At one point she managed to escape to a neighbor's house. And when she went there instead of protecting her they dragged her back to her husband's house and she was tortured even worse.

You know, as a lawyer I try to be very strong for all of my clients, but seeing her - how broken and very weak as she was - was very difficult. It took weeks for us to really get to what happened to her when she was in that house. But finally she started opening up to me. And when she opened up what I heard was she didn't know what her rights were, but she did know that she had a certain level of protection by her government that failed her. And so we decided to take this case to the Supreme Court. Now, this is extremely significant because this is the first time that a victim of domestic violence in Afghanistan was being represented by a lawyer.

So there we were at the Supreme Court arguing in front of 12 Afghan justices - me as an American, female lawyer and Sahar, a young woman, who, when I met her, couldn't speak above a whisper. She stood up. She found her voice. And my girl told them that she wanted justice and she got it. At the end of it all, the court unanimously agreed that her in-laws should be arrested for what they did to her. Her [bleep] brother should also be arrested for selling her.


MOTLEY: And they agreed that she did have a right to civil compensation. What Sahar has shown us is that we can attack existing bad practices by using the laws in the ways that they're intended to be used. And by protecting Sahar, we are protecting ourselves. Thank you.


RAZ: Kimberley Motley is an American lawyer who works in Afghanistan. You can hear the whole incredible story at

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