Is There Hope for Afghanistan’s Other Daughters?

The latest round of convictions in the brutal public murder of an Afghan woman was mob justice -- not real change.


In what has become Afghanistan’s most infamous murder case, justice has been done quickly, if not necessarily scrupulously.

Exactly two months after an Afghan woman named Farkhunda was lynched at a Kabul mosque, a judge on Tuesday, May 19, delivered the latest in a series of verdicts in what has come to be called “the Farkhunda case.” Eleven policemen were sentenced to one year in prison for dereliction of duty as they failed to protect the 27-year-old woman. Eight other policemen were found not guilty and acquitted.

The family of the victim was initially represented by Milwaukee-born lawyer and former American beauty queen Kim Motley, who has been making waves in Afghanistan as a champion for change in the country’s legal system. But Motley left the case after the start of deliberations.*

Earlier this month, Judge Safiullah Mujadidi sentenced four men to death in the Farkhunda murder case. Eight others were handed 16-year prison terms and 18 suspects were acquitted. The May 6 verdicts were delivered after a trial of just two days. The accused had approximately five minutes to present their case and not all had access to defense lawyers.

Less than 48 hours to try 30 suspects — that’s justice on speed.

But then this is no ordinary Afghan case. An Islamic studies student, Farkhunda was at Kabul’s Shah-Du-Shamshaira mosque in the heart of the Afghan capital on March 19, when she got into an argument with a charm-seller who falsely accused her of burning a Quran — an allegation that turned out to be her death sentence. Within hours, a mob set upon the burqa-clad woman, beating, kicking, and hurling rocks at her before dragging her to the banks of the nearby Kabul River, where she was run over by a car and then burned.

The savagery and public nature of the attack, recorded on mobile phones by several onlookers, shook the country and triggered a public outcry, the likes of which Afghanistan has never witnessed before. At Farkhunda’s funeral — attended by more than 1,000 people — Afghans broke with tradition as a group of women carried her coffin in an unprecedented display of girl power to cries of “Maa hama Farkhunda yem,” [“We are all Farkhunda”]. Forty days after her death — a mourning period traditionally marked by Muslims in the region — activists reenacted the crime outside the historic Shah-Du-Shamshaira mosque. At an international conference in New Delhi weeks after the attack, Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani noted that Farkhunda’s death marked a turning point in Afghanistan. “People are finally facing the ugliness brought on by violence against women,” she said. And as thousands took to the streets of Kabul and other Afghan cities demanding justice, President Ashraf Ghani himself met the victim’s family and promised them justice.

Something had to be done and something had to be seen being done. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, senior Afghan officials and policemen were suspended, and dozens of suspects arrested. When a presidential inquiry released its findings two weeks after the attack, Farkhunda was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Justice, it seemed, had to keep up with this furious pace.

Farkhunda had turned into “Afghanistan’s daughter.” And once a victim becomes a daughter of her country, a quick death sentence — or two or three — to satisfy the calls for justice, is almost par for the course. It is intended to convince citizens that this particular shocking, high-profile case will mark that elusive turning point or watershed moment in the campaign against violence against women. But most likely, it won’t.

* * *

Farkhunda’s case bears a striking resemblance to another savage attack that captured the world’s attention: the brutal gang rape of “India’s Daughter,” a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern who was brutally assaulted in December 2012 and later died from her injuries. When the verdicts in what came to be called “the Delhi gang rape case” were delivered in September 2013 — barely 10 months after the attack — the four adult assailants were found guilty of rape and murder and sentenced to death. The death sentence cases are currently working their way through the appeals process — as they will in Afghanistan.

It will be interesting to see if any of the death sentences in India or Afghanistan get commuted. Now that the attackers have been thoroughly vilified, the fundamental questions — the soul-searching into society’s culpability in brutal crimes against women — is all too easily overlooked. The reality is that the much-awaited turning point is nowhere near.

Earlier this year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government banned a BBC documentary called India’s Daughter, which explored the Delhi gang rape case. It was the latest blow in a saffron censorship rampage that has seen national pride and religious sentiment pummel freedom of expression in the world’s largest democracy.

Under colonial-era censorship laws, the apostles of the gospel of a gloriously Hindu India have been silencing authors, academics, and human rights workers who questioned the reigning nationalist, extremist line or risked offending thin-skinned Indian sensitivities. Foreigners have a particularly tough time — as did Leslee Udwin, the British-Israeli director of India’s Daughter. The film features, among other things, a prison interview with one of the convicted rapists who shows no remorse for the savage crime. One of the defense lawyers featured in the film took it even further when he declared he would burn his daughter if she did “improper” things like going to the cinema with a male colleague — as the victim did that fateful night. Gang rape and murder, of course, is perfectly justified if a woman does improper things.

The film — which was slated for release on March 8, International Women’s Day — was not screened in India, but was posted on YouTube and promptly went viral, defeating the purpose of the ban. India’s Daughter has been repeatedly slammed in India, including by local feminists, many of whom oppose the government ban, but who accuse Udwin with having a “white savior complex.” (This fight reached its peak at last month’s Women in the World Summit in New York, when Barkha Dutt, India’s leading news anchor, lashed out at Udwin.)

New Delhi’s stated reasons for banning India’s Daughter are pretty much standard fare: “inciting violence against women” and defaming India’s international reputation by providing a rapist a platform. It’s a view supported by many Indians. But the accusations, and those who fall in behind them, miss the point of the film: that violence against women is still defended by tired patriarchal justifications. Udwin’s interview with convicted rapist Mukesh Singh in Delhi’s Tihar jail is an important and disturbing examination of how his crime is normalized by a society that still asks, “Why was she out after dark? What was she wearing or drinking or consuming?”

By providing a window into the lives of the convicted rapists — the impoverished backgrounds and patriarchal values that persist despite rapid economic growth Udwin provides an insight into the utterly common context that breeds endemic violence against women in a country where females (who are not daughters of entitled Indians) are discriminated against from birth — if they make it past the gauntlet of female infanticide — to death. Painting perpetrators of sexual violence as monsters is an easy way to avoid society’s culpability in brutal, public crimes against women. Getting to the root of the evil is a lot harder.

* * *

In Farkhunda’s case, the personalization of evil was the lowly charm-seller, identified as Zainuddin, who falsely accused the young woman of burning the Quran and inciting her death. The presidential commission’s report described Zainuddin as “an illiterate man” — thereby supplying a classist explanation for a phenomenon that we know often transcends class. Zainuddin is one of the four men sentenced to death in the case.

But what the debate over Farkhuda’s murder has brought to the fore is more complicated than that. It has highlighted the polarization in Afghan society between an increasingly articulate women’s rights movement, publicly mobilized and emboldened by the incensed reaction to Farkhunda’s lynching, and conservative Islamists — including the country’s powerful clerics — who view the so-called “Westernized” women’s rights groups as a threat to their authority.

The brewing backlash by Islamists can be traced in the reactions to Farkhunda’s killing and how they changed as the facts of the case emerged. Initial reports that the 27-year-old woman had burned the Quran sparked a storm of social media posts condoning her lynching, including by some Afghan officials, according to Borhan Osman of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network in his excellent report, “The Killing of Farkhunda.”

Here’s just a taste: “This is the horrible and hated person who was punished by our Muslim compatriots for her action. Thus, they proved to her masters that Afghans want only … Islam and cannot tolerate imperialism, apostasy and spies,” parliamentarian Zalmai Zabuli wrote on Facebook shortly after the attack. “Our Muslim compatriots beat her … and set her on fire, giving her the punishment [she deserved].” When the police, hours after the attack, declared that Farkhunda was mentally disturbed (in an effort, her family has said, to maintain public order), Semin Ghazal Hasanzada, deputy minister of information and culture, wrote, “Dear friends, it is not a mental [problem], but a deliberate [act]. She was working for the infidels. If you overlook that, you are also one of them [an infidel] and putting your religion in danger.”

As later reports revealed, however, Farkhunda was a devout Islamic studies student. She opted for the severe all-black niqab (a garment favored in the Gulf kingdoms, but not a form of veiling native to Afghanistan), and she died defending her faith by railing against the “superstitious” practice of charms, considered “un-Islamic” by austere practitioners of the religion. But it was only after these facts emerged that apologies were made and the national public opinion began to change.

Even so, Afghanistan’s powerful clerics have bristled at the way the Farkhunda debate has proceeded.

Barely a week after the murder, in response to protests by progressives, the ulema, or Islamic clergy, hit back. On March 25, they staged a “thousand-plus-strong” demonstration near the Shah-Du-Shamshaira mosque. “I warn those who use this opportunity [the killing of Farkhunda to insult the mullahs],” thundered one mullah, “that women will be killed more heinously than our sister [Farkhunda], and many people will be eliminated in a far worse way. Then, nobody will dare raise their voice.”

Members of the Ulema Council — Afghanistan’s highest religious authority comprised of 3,000 clerics and scholars – have threatened to withdraw support for Ghani. In a country with a history of conservative clerics turning against and successfully ousting modernizing leaders, it’s a potent threat. In an interview with Reuters, Ulema Council member Enayatullah Baligh called on Ghani’s government to “tell [the civil rights groups] to stop. Otherwise, we know how to stop them,” ominously adding, “I have 7,000 supporters who will obey any orders I give them. I can turn Kabul city upside down.”

What prompted this kind of backlash? By Western standards, not much. A few anti-clerical posts on social media in the immediate aftermath of the March 19 attack, and reports of the odd “Death to the mullahs” chant from a fringe leftist group during a Kabul demonstration.

But it speaks to a deeper frustration among the orthodox with the direction the country is taking.

Afghanistan’s ulema have become increasingly frustrated with Ghani’s failure to establish the sort of relationship of appeasement with religious leaders his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, adopted. “They see the current government as evil, a foreign conspiracy that is allowing a struggle against Islam,” said Osman in an interview with Reuters.

Ghani, a former World Bank official and champion of the Afghan civil society crowd, will have to play this one carefully. I don’t envy him, but on the other hand, he knew what he was getting into. Sitting in the Arg, the Afghan presidential palace, Ghani has to make all sorts of compromises — as do the men and women in the White House, the Elysée, and other state houses across the world. But in Afghanistan — with the Taliban waging their most bloody spring offensive to date (while incredulously, allegedly, talking peace with Afghan representatives) — the stakes are that much higher.

The fervor that has surrounded Farkhunda’s case laid bare the change Afghan women so badly want. But it has also exposed the tough fight ahead.

In the end, the processes in the Farkhunda and Delhi rape cases are the same: a woman hailing from a class that’s neither too rich, nor too poor, is killed in a grotesquely violent way. Her death sparks massive public outrage aided by mainstream and social media, turning her into a victim poster girl, a “daughter” of her country. This is followed by hopes that the case will change the status quo. But as the furor dies, and the old reactionary forces reclaim their lost public space and the old patriarchal values and justifications re-emerge, it becomes obvious that this much-awaited “moment of change” will not live up to its name. But by then we’ve already moved on.

*Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that Kim Motley, the lawyer originally representing Farkhunda’s family, was removed by the judge. She removed herself from the case after arguments were heard and deliberations had begun. (Return to reading.)


 Twitter: @leelajacinto

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