Violence against women is so commonplace in Afghanistan that it rarely registers a public response. But something changed with the lynching of 27-year-old Farkhunda.
Her brutal death at the hands of an angry mob on March 19 triggered an outpouring of anger within the country, prompting protests, memorial ceremonies, and calls for justice.
A criminal investigation, involving the Interior Ministry and the country’s highest religious authorities, has led to the arrest of nearly 30 people connected to the attack, as well as the suspension of police officers.
And women’s rights — with the organized support of political parties, the government, and rights groups that had toiled in relative obscurity for years — are receiving unprecedented attention in the country.
There are many reasons why the attack on Farkhunda has hit a nerve within Afghan society, but the sheer brutality and high exposure of the attack are key.
“The images entered every Afghan home, and people saw how a young woman covered in blood was pleading with the mob beating her violently,” explains Waheed Mozhda, a Kabul-based political analyst and former Taliban official. “The images have had an enormous effect on people who imagined themselves and their family members in the victim’s shoes.”
Farkhunda was punched, kicked, beaten with sticks, and struck with objects thrown by participants of a lynch mob that formed in the false belief that she had burned a Koran inside a famous Kabul shrine. Her body was then set alight and thrown into the Kabul River.
Outrage Against Officials
The lengthy attack took place in broad daylight outside the Shah-e Doshamshira shrine, in full view of police, and just a few kilometers from the presidential palace.
The police inaction and the impunity with which the attack was carried out has become the source of much anger. “Police were supposed to protect people, but they acted as indifferent spectators there,” says Selay Ghaffar, a rights activist and member of the Solidary Party.
The incident, she adds, demonstrates that the government and its police force are incapable — or even unwilling — to protect the people.
The authorities quickly went into damage control, with President Ashraf Ghani ordering the Interior Ministry, Ulema Council, and leadership of the shrine to take part in the investigation.
In the course of the probe, 28 people have been arrested, with some admitting to their participation in the attack. Twenty police officers have been suspended, and a police spokesman was fired after posting comments on Facebook that supported the lynching.
Political groups, religious figures, and rights activists have joined forces in the wake of Farkhunda’s death. Defying tradition, women’s rights activists carried Farkhunda’s casket during her March 22 funeral and have demonstrated in rallies since. Political parties like Solidarity Party and Afghanistan Green Trend have also taken part, as has the Afghanistan-1400 civic-political youth organization.
On March 26, clerics met in the Kabul shrine where Farkhunda met her end and called her killing un-Islamic. On March 27, a memorial in honor of the “martyred Farkhunda” was scheduled after Friday Prayers in front of the shrine.
“We are all Farkhundas” has been a common refrain at the rallies, as has “Death to the killers! Farkhunda is an Icon!”
“We have seen women’s breasts were cut off,” says the Solidarity Party’s Ghaffar. “Girls as young as 6 or 12 years old were raped by mullahs. Acid was thrown on our girls’ faces.”
Farkhunda’s death was the last straw for a society that has witnessed all kinds of violence and injustice. “People are increasingly running out of patience,” Ghaffar says. “Enough is enough.”
As discussion of Farkhunda’s death has exploded on social media, organizers of the rallies hope some good will come out of it; that it will spur a change in society and how it deals with women’s issues. “Farkhunda is an icon of struggle against injustice and lawlessness,” Amrullah Saleh, the leader of the Green Trend, wrote on his Twitter account.
Farkhunda’s family, meanwhile, has tried to keep the media at bay as it mourns her death. This week, the family announced that it would no longer comment to the press, and that it was setting up a foundation to raise awareness about violence against women.
“She was my sister,” her brother Najib told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan this week. “She is everybody’s sister now.”
By Farangis Najibullah
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – 26th March 2015.