No justice for Farkhunda means no justice for all Afghan women who are victims of violence. It is long past due for a rectification of Afghanistan’s laws protecting women writes Noorjahan Akbar
On March 19, 2015, Farkhunda Malikzada was murdered by a mob of angry Afghan men because a local religious cleric had falsely accused her of burning the Quran. The crowd threw stones at her, drove over her body, and set her on fire. On the day she died, Farkhunda had no protection from the state or those around her. The struggle to achieve justice for her has become a sign of the struggle to protect the rights of women throughout Afghanistan. Like many Afghan activists, I have spent the last year attending protests and writing about and working with local organizations to advocate for justice for Farkhunda. When we began speaking out along with thousands of Afghans around the world, we hoped that Farkhunda’s murderers would be brought to justice and that her case would set a precedent for the legal system to protect the safety and rights of Afghan women. But a year later, the lack of justice has had significant implications for women’s rights in Afghanistan, where the majority of perpetrators of violence against women never face legal repercussions. The government’s failure to maintain justice has emboldened criminals and left Afghan women more vulnerable to violence.
A year ago, following public demonstrations, the government moved fast to arrest those involved. President Ashraf Ghani promised a full investigation of the case and the Ministry of Interior announced that 50 suspects had been arrested. A trial of 49 of the arrested followed. No explanation was offered as to the fate of the other suspect. This swift action gave people hope. For the first time, it seemed the law was finally protecting Afghan women. This was especially important because videos showed police officers assisting the angry murderers or standing by idly as they tortured Farkhunda. Holding those police officers accountable would be a powerful sign that women can count on the state for their safety and security.
These hopes quickly disappeared during the initial trial when the public saw that many of the killers were met with benevolence by the court. Only 12 of the 49 men charged were convicted. While it was expected that at least the cleric who instigated the violence against Farkhunda would receive the death penalty, he did not. Of the 19 police officers arrested for participating in the violence or for not intervening to protect Farkhunda, eight of them were not penalized. The remaining 11 were punished with restrictions on their ability to travel while on the job. Even more infuriating to the public was that some of the men who were filmed participating in the violent attack, and later boasted about their involvement on social media, did not even face arrest. The Ministry of Interior argued that some of those involved could not be found and the degree of their involvement could not be proven. These unsatisfactory results led Farkhunda’s family and lawyers to request a retrial in front of the Supreme Court of Afghanistan.
In March 2016, the Afghan Supreme Court voted to confirm the reduced sentences of those convicted. Three death sentences were changed to 20 years in prison and another to 10 years. One more person was acquitted and the remaining criminals were given shorter terms as well. Following the fervent protests after Farkhunda’s murder, the government promised swift and exemplary justice, yet the past year has been little more than a legal charade meant to appease the protests of human rights groups—not a sincere attempt to achieve justice for a young Afghan woman.
Lack of justice for Farkhunda is not only a betrayal to her and her family, but it also sends a strong signal to Afghan women that the justice system is not there to protect them. When a public attack is met with such little justice, how can women who face violence at home hold hope that reporting the domestic violence they suffer will bring anything but dismissal? Why should an Afghan woman who faces abuse at home feel brave enough to pursue her case when she has seen a brutal public murder conclude in impunity and a few slaps on the wrists of criminals? How can we expect Afghan women to protest, work, and exist in public spaces if we cannot ensure their basic safety or guarantee justice when their rights are violated?
Justice for Farkhunda Sets a Precedent for Afghan Women
A few months after Farkhunda’s murder, a friend told me that a few men from work had made indecent comments about her and when she defended herself, they told her: “Shut up or we will do to do you what we did to Farkhunda.”
She believes that men feel bolder now when harassing her and other women in public because they know the repercussions will be negligible.
During the month of Ramandan, Faiqa, an artist who works at a women’s art collective in Kabul wrote me another troubling story. She was on a bus home from work when a man harassed her. She questioned his behavior and he responded by accusing her of not fasting, which is considered a sin – but not a crime – during the holy month. Much like it was for Farkhunda, the religious accusation made against Faiqa was immediately accepted by the men on the bus. The woman’s attempt to defend herself enraged the crowd. They began shouting violent threats at her and calling her an “infidel.” When she protested, the bus driver told her to get off the bus or “I will slap some sense into you.”
Faiqa stumbled off the bus, prevented from her legal right to use public transportation by the threatening actions of the men around her. “I was just happy to be alive,” she wrote.
Following Farkhunda’s murder and the lack of justice at her trial, dozens of women and girls have written about men in their offices and universities joking about her murder and threatening other women. Nearly every story mention the fear women have that violence against them would increase because of the lack of repercussions for Farkhunda’s killers.
One young female writer is Setara, a 19 year-old university student in Kabul. She wrote that a professor asked one of her classmates to leave the room because her headscarf had fallen off her head and onto her shoulders. He told her, “It is because of girls like you that Farkhunda was killed.” He went on to argue that the men who killed Farkhunda were angry at the lack of “hijab” and “Islamic morals” among young girls and hence easily enticed into violence.
Bismillah, a male writer, commented: “This case has made women lose confidence in the government and in the rule of law. They now feel more vulnerable and less safe.” The outpouring of accounts like those of Faiqa and Setera makes clear the truth to this claim.
Protecting the Culture of Impunity
Farkhunda’s murder did not start the culture of impunity for perpetrators of gender-based violence in Afghanistan, but it did strengthen it. While the Elimination of Violence against Women Act (EVAW), signed into law by President Hamid Karzai in 2009, exists to give women legal protection against violence, in most of these cases, it is largely ignored. This is the case with many laws in Afghanistan as the infrastructure recovers from years of conflict and war. 87 percent of Afghan women say that they face some kind of violence at home, but, partly due to the poor implementation of EVAW, the vast majority of gender-based violence cases never make it to court. Only a few thousand cases of violence are even reported every year. Only 7 percent of all those cases go through judicial process using EVAW. The lack of legal and tangible repercussions encourages continued violence.
Farkhunda’s case differed from the most common acts of violence in Afghanistan because it was so public. Videos of the crime were posted online and the faces of the criminals were clear to the public. The brutal evidence of the crime enraged the public and demanded a response from the government. Even when respected religious leaders, like Ayaz Neyazi, a prominent cleric, tried to justify the murder the public condemned them. When one of those involved, Sharif Baghdadi, bragged on social media about murdering Farkhunda, Afghan activists took screenshots of his online statements and demanded the government take action against him. His quick arrest, along with the initial arrest of many other perpetrators, offered a glimmer of hope that justice might be carried out.
Is there still hope?
Following the Supreme Court decision to uphold the reduced sentences, President Ghani announced the opening of an investigatory committee into Farkhunda’s case. More than 40 Afghan civil society and women’s organizations have formed an alliance and are using social and traditional media and events to demand that the Supreme Court decision be investigated and overhauled. Women’s Political Participation Committee, a civil society organization, held a press conference on March 19th to call on the government to reassess the Supreme Court’s decision and ensure more transparency in the process. However, this is not the first time the President has promised justice for Farkhunda. Nor is it the first time civil society is organizing for the cause—it remains to be seen whether these efforts will bear fruit.
If the investigatory committee that President Ghani has promised is able to get real results in prosecuting everyone involved in the brutality, it will have lasting impact. Listening to the voices of organizations like Women’s Political Participation Committee who ask for transparency and an end to secret court meetings and decisions can ensure that the legal system will do its duty to defend justice. Using EVAW to prosecute the murderers of Farkhunda will legitimize the law which is often attacked by religious clerics under the pretext of being “un-Islamic.” A fair and transparent legal process will give women like Faiqa and Setara hope that should they face violence on the streets of their cities, in their schools, or in their own homes, they have access to a legal system that will justly defend their rights. Meanwhile, every day that passes without justice, violence against Afghan women will continue without recourse.
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