The mob-lynching of a 27-year-old girl last month provoked an unprecedented show of anger and defiance from Afghan women, but even this watershed moment may not be enough to end the oppressive treatment of women in the country, say activists.
Farkhunda Malikzada was beaten to death before being set on fire and thrown onto the banks of the Kabul River after she was falsely accused of torching a copy of the Qur’an.
A crowd of men beat Farkhunda with sticks and stones, kicked and stamped on her before, dragging her body through the streets behind a car, running her over and then setting her on fire.
Her horrific murder was filmed on mobile phones by passersby.
The incident took place near the Shah-e-Do Shamsher shrine right in the middle of a bustling market place.
Despite the defiant and callous response of those who commended the “killing of a blasphemer,” the initial reaction to news of this unprecedented act of brutality was shock.
But as soon as police investigations proved Farkhunda’s innocence (she had been arguing with a mullah about the fact that he was selling amulets to women at the mosque, something she said was un-Islamic) there was a public outpouring of anger, disbelief and despair.
Roshan Siren, a former Member of the Parliament and leading women’s rights advocate in Afghanistan, believes Farkhunda’s murder is a stark example of the appalling violence and subjugation that women face in Afghanistan.
“A sort of consensus and unity for the protection and progress of women has emerged out of Farkhunda’s death,” she told Equal Times.
Siren said women have always been fighting for their rights, both before and during the darkest days of Taliban rule.
“But now, you can see so many younger girls taking to the streets in defiance of this culture of oppression,” she said.
In the wake of Farkhunda’s death there were numerous protests both in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan, in which large numbers of women and girls marched while chanting slogans like, “We want justice” and “The death of Farkhunda is the death of humanity”.
At her funeral, female activists even broke with tradition and carried Farkhunda’s coffin – an act usually performed by men.
According to Siren, this was a landmark moment where a younger generation of activists took charge of the fight for gender equality in Afghanistan.
“We do not want any more than what our religion and the Afghan Constitution guarantees us but we will no longer be denied our rights,” she told Equal Times.
“Change can only come from within”
However, Shukurya Jalalzai, director of the Organization for Promoting Afghan Women Capabilities (OPAWC), is less optimistic about what the protests represent, and even suggests that the lynching was, to some extent, connected to awkward attempts to impose change on Afghan society.
“I see the horrific incident of Farkhunda’s death as a stern reaction to some prior provocative incidents,” she told Equal Times.
One of the incidents she refers to was the artistic intervention by Kubra Khademi, a young woman who walked the streets of Kabul in metal underwear to protest the harassment of women.
In a separate incident, a group of young men wore women’s burqas during a solidarity march for International Women’s Day.
For Jalalzai, these interventions – and others like them – are sponsored by western donors, who do not always understand local sensitivities, thus aggravating existing tensions.
“Change can only come from within and in line with the local customs. It cannot be imposed [on us] – in fact, that would only cause more troubles for us,” she said.
Afghanistan has endured four decades of conflict, leaving deep its people deeply scarred.
For young women’s rights activist and filmmaker Dil Afroz Zeerak, the international community has played an important part in the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the country.
“It has contributed a lot towards health, education and creating jobs. But had our own people and system been truly free and fair, there would be no need for outsiders to do any good or bad to us.”
Zeerak told Equal Times that despite the fact that more women and girls are taking to the streets to demand their rights, despite the fact that there are currently more girls in school than ever before and despite the fact that the Afghan parliament has record numbers of female lawmakers, the situation for Afghanistan women is still unjust and oppressive.
“We are being ruled by warlords and powerful men who are always beyond the law. They can do, and they do do, whatever they want in this country,” she said.
In a new report, Amnesty International criticised the Afghan government for turning its back on the country’s women’s rights defenders.
The report details the mounting violence faced by women’s rights activists, from threats to sexual assault and even assassinations – and the almost complete lack of justice.
Salil Shetty, Amnesty International Secretary General, recently told a crowded press conference in Kabul that with the troop withdrawal nearly complete, the international community seems only too happy to sweep Afghanistan under the carpet, despite the fact that the liberation of women was cited as one of the key reasons for the initial allied invasion.
“We cannot simply abandon this country and those who put their lives on the line for human rights, including women,” he said.