The South Asia Channel
A Lynching, Then Anger in Afghanistan
After a brutal killing, Afghanistan’s women turn their anger toward men. But will the protests and outrage result in a change for women's rights in the country?
Standing across from the Shah-Do Shamshira mosque in Kabul this week, Jorgia was furious. “Since this happened, I hate all men, including my husband. I won’t talk to him,” she said bitterly. Turning around to directly address the crowd of men listening in, the 25-year-old teacher, who like many Afghans goes by only one name, yelled insults. “Everyone only watches. No man thinks before punching. Why did no one do something?”
On March 19 in central Kabul, a woman named Farkhunda was falsely accused by a mullah of burning pages of the Quran at the mosque where she, according to a friend, taught religious classes. Incited, a large crowd of men brutally attacked Farkhunda. They beat her with wooden planks, threw large stones, and eventually ran over her with a car before burning her body on the banks of Kabul’s main river. The hourlong ordeal, captured in cell-phone videos by onlookers, was broadcast almost instantly on social media.
The videos, which graphically show a bloodied and disoriented young woman surrounded by her attackers, has shocked Afghanistan. In a country where many have become hardened to violence from years of conflict, it has caused an unprecedented outcry, drawing thousands of men and women to protest in front of the Supreme Court on Tuesday, March 24. In particular, it has outraged Afghanistan’s women and galvanized women’s rights activists, who blame the police, the government, and the lack of respect for women’s rights in Afghanistan.
“I’m speechless,” Samira Hamidi, an activist with the Afghan Women’s Network, told me. “We have spent so much money and effort on human rights and women’s rights … and then there is such a violent incident. It’s very alarming to understand the amount of hatred that exists, particularly in men in Afghanistan. The lack of rule of law and justice in this country has allowed this.”
Protection of women’s rights and ensuring their access to justice have been major priorities for the Afghan government and international community since the fall of the Taliban. While there have been significant improvements in awareness of women’s rights, women’s participation in public life, and access to basic services for women, deeply ingrained social attitudes demonstrating a lack of respect for women remain an enormous problem in Afghanistan. In fact, a 2014 report by the U.S. Institute of Peace called Afghanistan the world’s most dangerous place to be a woman, stating that 62 percent of women have experienced multiple forms of violence.
On Monday, inside the Shah-Do Shamshira mosque, a handful of women talked their way past police barring public entry. They came to pay their respects to Farkhunda, crying and mournfully muttering to themselves, and leaned against the wall in the small courtyard where the attack took place. “This was one girl and 20 men,” said Shukria, a cleaner and mother of six daughters and two boys. “Since it happened, I hate men, I hate my husband. It might be today or tomorrow, the same thing could happen to my daughters.”
Shukria’s friend, Benazir, also directed her anger toward men, saying the attack against Farkhunda was emblematic of the daily harassment and insults women in Kabul endure going about their daily lives. “This is a country where a woman cannot wear her beautiful clothes to go shopping because she will get harassed by men,” she said angrily. “I have three daughters. Every day when they come home they start crying because men bother them. The same thing [that happened to Farkhunda] could happen to them.”
Last week’s tragic events have scared many women in Kabul, with many too afraid to leave their homes or even allow their daughters to go out in public. Soraya, another woman at the mosque, and a police officer, said she now cries every time her daughters leave the house, and she has switched her youngest daughter to a new school so the commute is much shorter. Shukria was adamant that her daughter would not go to school until her safety could be ensured by the government, adding that men had mocked her in the street that day for crying about Farkhunda.
But many Afghan women, usually rarely seen at protests, have publicly rallied to demand justice for Farkhunda. At her funeral, women broke with tradition and carried Farkhunda’s coffin on their shoulders, chanting: “We want justice.” At large-scale protests on Monday and Tuesday in Kabul, women wore paper masks and painted their faces red, evoking Farkhunda’s bloodstained face. The failure of police to intervene, as well as comments made by Kabul police spokesman Hashmatullah Stanikzai on social media (who was fired Tuesday) supporting the killers, has drawn the ire of protesters.
Soraya, the female police officer, was similarly incensed at the lack of action by her fellow officers. “My husband and son are [also] police officers,” she told me. “When this happened I told them to take off their uniforms.” Yalda, a university student who knew Farkhunda and had attended her classes at the mosque, said she had come to the mosque to pass on information to the police about Farkhunda’s enemies, including the mosque’s mullah. “They told me to go away; they’re ignoring me,” she said.
According to Hamidi, Farkhunda’s death shows just how much the justice system in Afghanistan has failed to protect women and how little the government has done to support women’s rights. “There are attacks happening against women because we are agitating and we are talking about rights,” she said. “Every time a woman does advocacy, calls for action to address sexual and social harassment, we are not taken seriously.”
Late on Tuesday, Interior Minister Noorolhaq Olomi said in a statement that 20 police officers had been dismissed over the incident and that it “is clear there was failure to carry out police duties.” He further said it was his ministry’s “mission to earn the trust of Afghan women that the police serve them equally.”
But Jorgia, the teacher, said that there was an inherent culture of victim-blaming in Afghanistan. “Whenever there is this kind of event, everyone says the woman is at fault,” she said. “Most of the women are staying at home [scared] now. Their men want them to stay at home. But no one is asking why this kind of behavior even exists.”
Jalil, a young man who stood by listening to Jorgia, disagreed. “This is not the fault of all men, only a few,” he said. “I don’t have six sisters anymore; I have seven now, and one of them died here,” he said, referring to Farkhunda. “But I won’t allow my sisters to go to school anymore until the government fixes this situation.”
Photo credit: SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images