One year after the lynching of Farkhunda, has anything changed for Afghan women?


A shining new white monument stands tall on the banks of Kabul River in Afghanistan, on the spot where a mob lynched a young woman and then burned her body one year ago.

It was there on 19 March 2015 that a group of men attacked 27-year-old Farkhunda Malikzada after hearing she allegedly committed blasphemy at a nearby shrine.

The woman, who had criticised the sale of amulets at the mosque as un-Islamic, was falsely accused of burning a Quran.

Not many in this war-torn country paid attention to the initial news reports. Until later, when images of the lynching spread via social media, not only stunned the country but shocked much of the world.

Since then Farkhunda has become an icon of women rights and resistance in the conservative Afghan society. Emboldened by their anger, women’s rights campaigners have staged public shows of defiance.

Afghan women defied the norms and traditions to carry Farkhunda’s coffin on their shoulders last year. Marking the first anniversary of her death, those same women, now newly emerged women’s rights leaders, unveiled the monument on Thursday 17 March.

Not one high-ranking male government official attended. There was no stated reason for the officials’ absence, though women’s rights are known to be a delicate issue in Afghanistan.


Violence increasing

Following the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the relative peace in a few urban centres encouraged women to push for their rights. The journey however, remains long and thorny. Incidents of violence against women persist in Afghanistan, particularly in remote rural areas.

In fact, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has noted that conditions have been getting worse for women in this Central Asian country, where Taliban attacks rebounded in the second half of 2015.

“Afghan women continue to be confronted by enormous challenges that exclude them from political processes vital for peace and security,” UNAMA said as it marked International Women’s Day on 8 March.

“Additionally, the escalation in conflict continues to take a heavy toll on Afghan civilians, and Afghan women in particular, with a 37 per cent increase in women casualties in 2015 compared to 2014,” it said.

The UN mission said that in Afghanistan, the last decade has seen significant progress in the promotion of gender equality. It includes constitutional guarantees against discrimination and a law for “Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW), criminalising harmful traditional practices.

The Afghan government also adopted a National Action Plan on UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000), a commitment to promote women in leadership and their meaningful participation in conflict-prevention, peace negotiations and post-conflict processes.

But persistent violence against women and harmful practices stemming from ‘pervasive discrimination’ continues to be of serious concern. In 2015, the United Nations observed increased incidents of targeting, threats and intimidation of women across the country, particularly against outspoken activists promoting women’s rights.


Anger and determination

So has Afghanistan changed anything, if at all, since Farkhunda was murdered?

Equal Times has asked a number of leading women’s rights activists. Most acknowledge huge challenges remain in realising the dream of equal rights for women in Afghanistan.

Humira Saqib runs the Afghan Women News Agency, the leading news outlet of its kind. She fears that if justice is not done in Farkhunda’s case, lasting negative impact would make women afraid to even walk on the streets.

“We have and will keep fighting and pushing for our rights; it was our efforts that compelled the authorities to pursue the case,” she says.

Pressure from the media, civil society and the international community led to a quick initial verdict in Farkhunda’s case with four suspects being sentenced to death on 5 May last year. Eight others were sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Meanwhile, earlier this month, President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani ordered the case reopened. His spokesman, Syed Zafar Hashmi, told journalists in Kabul that the newly appointed attorney general has been directed to make justice for Farkhunda his top priority.

Due to the delicate nature of the case (a religious matter), the legal proceedings remain closed to the media. Of the 46 total individuals arrested, 19 were policemen and 27 civilians.

Of those 46, 13 men have been convicted by the Supreme Court. Three among the convicts received 20-year sentences while the remaining 10 were sentenced to 14 years. Punishments criticised as inadequate.

The court found the fortune-teller who investigators believe set the attacks on Farkhunda in motion was found innocent on appeal. The shrine’s custodian was first sentenced to death for originating the false charge that Farkhunda had burned the Quran, though that sentence was commuted to 20 years.

“It’s a bitter irony that the latest blow to justice for Farkhunda Malikzada occurred on the eve of International Women’s Day,” said Patricia Gossman, Senior Researcher for the Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Fawzia Koofi is one of the country’s best-known female politicians. She too is not happy with the verdicts and the drawn-out proceedings.

“The judicial branch is an independent institution and its activities should be in accordance with the law and time of their activities should be clear,” she said. For Gossman, the legal limit to wrap up such cases should be about nine months.

Back at the site where Farkhunda was murdered, the Afghan women rights activists present for the unveiling of the memorial were saddened with the lack of progress, but were not ready to give up.

Shahla Fareed, senior member of Afghanistan Women Network, stressed that the lack of justice has compelled Farkhunda’s family to leave the country.

“We do not merely want the young men who beat Farkhunda to death to be hanged; we want justice to prevail across the country so that such incidents do not take place in the future.”