What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
By Langston Hughes 1902–1967
The case of Farkhunda’s brutal killing is now closed. Thousands came to the streets of Kabul to demand justice for horrendous and vicious crime of misogyny against Farkhunda. The justice system of Afghanistan swiftly prosecuted the civilians and the police officers. Now, we know the result.
49 people were brought to trial. 27 were found not guilty – eighteen civilians and nine police officers. 12 convictions have been given to civilians – eight guilty of violence against women and four sentenced to death for mob killing. 10 police officers have been convicted for their failure in protecting Farkhunda and dereliction of duty after failing to stop the public lynching. After the brutal killing of Farkhunda, the height of the anger and violence perpetuated by a group of men in the capital city of Kabul stroked a cord in the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Particularly women protested the injustice from Kabul to Hamburg to the Afghan community of Fremont in California.
Was Justice served in the case of Farkhunda? Was this case a “turning point” for women’s rights in Afghanistan? Is it true that the incidences of violence against women are on rise? Was there any political motivation for handling such a publicized case so quickly?
On March 19, two days before the Afghan New Year, a 27-year-old woman, named Farkhunda, was brutally killed by a mob of angry men for allegedly burning a copy of Qur’an in Kabul, the capital City of Afghanistan. The violence sent shock waves to the world as investigations revealed that Farkhunda had not burned the Qur’an. In fact, she worked as a religious teacher. The intensity of violence that was perpetuated against Farkhunda was shocking.
Farkhunda was beaten to death, then her body was ran over by a car and then burned. This violence was done in presence of police officers, who did not take any action when she was asking for help with her last breath. This cruel and inhuman incident ignited explosion of the “deferred dream” of Afghan women for security and protection from violence. Afghan women and men came to the streets in Kabul to protest this crime and demand justice.
The investigation revealed that Farkhunda got into an argument in front of the mosque where she worked with a mullah selling charms. The wicked and evil hearted mullah accused Farkhunda to get even with her. According to CBC news on March 22, “The mob of men beat 27-year-old Farkhunda before throwing her body off a roof, running over it with a car, setting it on fire and throwing it into a river near a well-known mosque. According to an eyewitness, protesters were chanting anti-American and anti-democracy slogans while beating the woman.”
Farkhunda’s mob killing exploded the anger of Afghan women, the human rights community and female activists. The killing also raised many questions as the incidences of violence against women is on the rise. Most recently on Dec. 30, 2014, Tolo News reported about the rape of a twelve-year-old girl by the Afghan Local Police (ALP) forces in Nijrab district of north-eastern Kapisa. Many other such incidences of violence against women and girls are happening on daily basis, often unreported.
The global as well as Afghan media captured the sentiments of people and outburst of their anger to what happened to Farkhunda. As the details unfolded of what happened, it was revealed that Farkhunda was neither mentally ill nor disturbed. Rather, this cover was used initially by the family to hide the shame and dishonor of allegedly burning Quran.
Many female activists were skeptical about the “mental illness”. They guessed that since Farkhunda’s behavior was a disgrace perhaps, her father said so to save face. Although being mentally ill is also considered shameful in many countries including west and south Asia, it is considered less shameful than blasphemy. Burning Qur’an is considered such as “despicable” crime to a Muslim that most sane persons would not commit this.
On March 22, Mirwais Harooni in a report for Reuters wrote: “Farkhunda was a teacher of Islamic studies, according to her brother, who denied media reports that she had been mentally ill. He said this was a made-up defense by their father, who wanted to protect the family after police told them to leave the city for their own safety. ‘My father was frightened and made the false statement to calm people down,’ said Najibullah, who is changing his second name to Farkhunda in memory of his sister.”
UN officials in Afghanistan strongly condemned the brutal killing but picked up on the “mental illness” and stated that “We are particularly worried by reports that the woman had suffered from mental illness for many years.” Later, Mark Bowden, acting head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said “The brutal murder of this woman is an unspeakably horrendous act that should result in those responsible being prosecuted, to the fullest extent possible, under Afghan law.”
In the aftermath of this crime, contrary to the Islamic tradition, Farkhunda’s casket was carried by a dozen women to the gravesite in north Kabul’s Khair Khana neighborhood, while the public outpoured grief and demanded that the perpetrators were brought to justice. Violence against women is major barrier to human rights and dignity. Despite the fact that the Elimination of Violence against Women Act (EVAW) was passed in 2009 during the era of Hamid Karzai Ex Afghan President, the rampant violence in public and private spheres is a major concern. Indeed, Afghan women’s security and human rights is at a critical juncture.
The Elimination of Violence against Women Act (EVAW) criminalizes twenty-two offenses, starting from forced prostitution to denying women their inheritance. The law prescribes punishments for offenders and summarize a number of state responsibilities. Most particularly, Article 6 enshrines seven victims’ rights, including the right of prosecution, legal representation and compensation. While the 2009 Act marked a major turning point in the legal status of Afghan women. But, passing a law in the absence of political will to implement it will not curtail the rampant violence against women. Afghanistan is also signatory to numerous international rights treaties and obliged under international law to respond to reports of violence against women. According to UN statistics, out of 650 reported cases between October 2012 and September 2013, the law was applied in a mere 109 cases. On average, over the past three years, the EVAW act has only been applied to between 15 and 17 percent of reported cases.
The Independent Human Rights Commission of Afghanistan (AIHRC) in a report published in Dec 2013 stated that:
“During the first half of the current year, 4154 cases of violence against women have been registered by 1179 complainants referred to different office of the AIHRC. Therefore, 1179 women have suffered from one or other forms of violence against women during the first six months in 1392. Usually the victims are faced with more than one form of violence at the same time. For this reason the number of violations is higher than the number of complainants.
The above-mentioned figure shows about a 25 percent increase in the number of cases of violence against women that were registered in different offices of the AIHRC during the first half of the last year. This figure indicates that the situation of in the country is terrible. The increased number of such cases registered in different offices of the AIHRC can imply several meanings. It may mean a high level of public trust on the Commission or it can be interpreted as weak rule of law and corruption in the justice and judicial system or limited access of women to justice. Anyway, the high level of violence against women indicates an appalling and shocking condition of in the country.”
On November 12, 2014 in the finalized Statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, asked for sustainable measures to address the causes and consequences of violence against women, including at the individual, institutional and structural level.
At the end of a nine-day mission to Kabul, Jalalabad and Herat regions of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan she stated,
“I have been mandated by the Human Rights Council to seek and receive information on violence against women, its causes and consequences, and to recommend measures to eliminate all forms of violence against women. Violence against women and girls is a widespread and systemic problem that has an impact throughout the lifecycle of women and girls, whether it occurs in the public or private spheres. It precludes the realization of civil, political, economic, social, cultural, and development rights, and is a barrier to the effective exercise of citizenship by women and girls.”
Manjoo’s sentiment is also shared by Rona Popal, Executive Director of the United States based Afghan Coalition. In her interview statements with me she spoke of the brutal killing of Farkhunda:
“What happened in Kabul Afghanistan is all due to 35 years of wars in Afghanistan. Wars completely destroyed our religion and culture of Afghanistan. More than 80 % of Afghans have mental problems. They see every day people are being killed in front of them in pieces so people have no feeling toward each other and to their community,” outlined Popal.
Rona’s comment about the decades of war in Afghanistan and the region’s insensitivity to violence is also shared by the UN Special Rapporteur Rashida Manjoo. “The four decades of prolonged armed conflict across the country has contributed to significant levels of instability, insecurity, violence, rule of law challenges, and poverty and underdevelopment, which have obstructed the effective realization and enjoyment of human rights for people ofAfghanistan. It must be stressed that the insecurity, pervasive levels of gender-based violence and an ever-present climate of fear has had a disproportionate impact on the promotion, protection and fulfillment of human rights of women and girls,” said the Special Rapporteur.
In response to the question I asked Rona if she is concern about women safety in today’s Afghanistan and why? She responded:
“I am very much concern about safety of women in Afghanistan. They are not safe even from their families. I always think they have to be trained how to take care of themselves.”
The fact that most of the young men participated in Farkhunda’s killing were “city boys” reminds us that not only these young men in their twenties but perhaps their fathers lived through the three decade of war. The culture of violence and the unprocessed anger instilled over 3 decades, continues to be passed on to the young generation.
After Farkhunda’s brutal murder, a dozen of men suspected to be involved were arrested and few police officers were removed from their position. Rona believes that “Afghanistan government want to do something to stop people’s anger but they cannot do that much. To change people to bring their trust back to government, the government has to bring a system, rules and regulation that be acceptable by people. Also culturally competent sociologists and psychologists need to be at work to heal the psychological effects of the long lasting decades of war of various communities.”
The US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor released its Report on the Taliban’s War Against Women on November 17, 2001. The report concluded, “The Afghan people want, and the US Government supports, a broad-based representative government, which includes women, in post-Taliban Afghanistan…Only Afghans can determine the future government of their country. And Afghan women should have the right to choose their role in that future.”
The report included the transcript of the radio address delivered by first lady Laura Bush and she concluded that because of the military occupation of Afghanistan “women are no longer imprisoned in their homes.” But this was a premature declaration of victory!
Ending the atrocities of the Taliban and ensuring that women’s rights and freedom are being honored was one of the prime justifications for US intervention. But after 14 years which costs US taxpayers nearly $1tn, the country still lacks the basic infrastructure to protect the safety of women under the rule of law.
“Many activists are concerned that the transition for the withdrawal will increase the incidences of violence against women. Particularly contextualizing the fact that women were pushed to the sideline and neither US not Afghan Governments did not honor Security Council Resolution 1325 which calls for presence of women at peace negotiations,” says Sima Samar.
Chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), told Reuters in January 2014 that as the withdrawal deadline draws near for international troops, women in tribal areas are less protected, leaving them vulnerable to violent assaults.
“The presence of the international community and provincial reconstruction teams in most of the provinces was giving people confidence,” Samar said. “There were people there trying to protect women. And that is not there anymore, unfortunately.”
She also noted that poor economic conditions and the lack of security are also contributing factor to the rise of incidents.
“Killing women in Afghanistan is an easy thing. There’s no punishment,” Suraya Pakzad, who runs women’s shelters in several provinces, told Reuters.
According to UN Women Chief Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcukain January 2014 violence against women in Afghanistan is “pandemic,” with 87.2 percent of women experiencing some form of physical, psychological, sexual, economic or social violence.
In my interview with Rona Popal, I asked her in what ways Afghan community outside Afghanistan and other global women activists who care for respect, dignity and safety of Afghan women can help so we don’t have another Farkhunda?
“We need the world to listen to Afghan women. We’ve had a bad experience after 9/11. The world came to help but it backfired on Afghan women: for example women are right not to take the veil off from women. After 9/11 in our trip to Kabul we did talk to lots of women and we asked them why they wear the burqa? They said because of security if these warlords see that I am young or beautiful, they will kidnap me or my daughters. So they can help but they should be sensitive to the people believes. Let the people decide what is good for them,” outlined Popal.
The deferred dream of Afghan women for peace and security in public and private spheres of their lives exploded with the manifestation of deep rooted misogyny in lynching Farkhunda. Many women activists, those who painted their face to resemble the atrocities inflicted on Farkhunda and participated in widespread demonstrations, those who broke the patriarchal traditions of only men carrying the casket and took Farkhunda on their shoulders to the cemetery, the journalists who penned their anger and frustration and demand justice, the community that raised the hope that Farkhunda case be a turning point and the beginning of an end to the deep rooted gender injustice in Afghanistan demanded justice for Farkhunda.
The case is now closed and many activists and Farkhunda’s family are questioning if justice was served. Faridullah Hussain Khail in an article on Tolo News reported that Kabul Primary Court Judge Safiullah Mujadidi sentences “evoked fierce criticism among some people in Kabul with one MP claiming the judge’s decision had been politically motivated.”
“I am very sorry that political compromises have been seen in the court. The Kabul Police chief has close ties with the president and the crime investigation chief has close ties with the CEO,” said Farkhunda Zahra Nadiri MP.
Another critic was the mother of Sharaf Baghlani who was sentenced to death. She asked why the driver of the car that ran over Farkhunda and the person who set Farkhunda on fire were not sentenced to death.
While efficiency of court proceedings is a desirable quality, but efficiency should not compromise serving justice. It took only less than two months for the judicial system of Afghanistan to arrest, investigate and put on trial 49 men accused of being engaged at different stages of this horrendous crime and handing down sentences from one year to death sentences. The response of the judicial system was prompt as many demanded, but was it thorough? Some argue that it was not and the case was wrapped up quickly for political consideration and in response to the public pressure. Ahmad Shuja, an Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch was quoted in an article published on May 20 in Foreign Policy that “We now see what has become a pattern in highly publicized cases.” He continues, “The government tries to expedite the proceedings to put the issue behind it. That not only adversely impacts due process rights but also demonstrates the lack of seriousness with which the government approaches cases of violence against women.”
The view expressed by many human rights activists also indicates that the hearings lasted only three days, and defendants were given few minutes and no opportunity for their defendants to introduce their own witnesses and even more serious fraudulent and misconduct aspect of this trail was that some defendants, including one ultimately sentenced to death, did not had a defense lawyer at trial.
Kimberley Motley, the American attorney who represented the family of Farkhunda, in an article published by The Telegraph on May 20, stated, “There can be little doubt that this case was a defining moment for Afghanistan, women’s rights.” She continues, “How it (this case ) has been prosecuted will show the world what Afghanistan is really made of and what the legacy of billions of dollars investment – and a 13 year international intervention that recently came to an end – has resulted in.” The above unfounded optimism assessment of the importance of the case and particularly highlighting the “legacy of billions of dollars investment ” by Kimberley Motley would be better understood in the context of the history of her presence and her legal capacity in Afghanistan. As stated on Motley Legal she “worked as a Justice Advisor with US Department of State funded project in Afghanistan. In this capacity she was given the remit to raise the capacity of Afghan Defense Attorneys and has trained of hundreds of Afghan Attorneys throughout the country.”
The reality is that while many cases of violence against women go unreported or being ignored Farkhunda was killed in public, forcing Afghans as a whole to confront their society’s brutal realities, especially as the lynching was filmed on mobile phones, the footage widely shared on social media and shown in court. Farkhunda lynching “exploded” as the women’s rights activist who endured the bleak years of Taliban, who endured the military occupation of US for the last thirteen years are holding the government of Afghanistan accountable to respect them as equal citizens as reflected in the constitution of Afghanistan that “the citizens of Afghanistan – whether man or woman – have equal rights and duties before the law”. Afghan women are inspired by the global movement to end violence against women and striving to make their deferred dream of peace and security at home and in society a reality.
When I asked Rona Popal about the result of this case she stated:
“I am very upset to see all the injustices in everyday life of Afghan women. Abuse of women is part of the culture inAfghanistan. Women are invisible in the society. Women still being discriminated abused and persecuted. There is more work need to be done before we reach equality and respect for women’s rights. The everyday reality of Afghan women is that the political instability pushes back all the reforms. Khaled Hosseini was right when he wrote in his novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, ‘Like a compass facing north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always.’ Afghan women need more support to bring justice.”
The reality is that despite close to fifteen years presence of US military forces in Afghanistan and donor driven projects of “empowerment” of women, both the US and Afghan governments did not keep their promises to Afghan women.
I recall when I was leaving Kabul to return back to US in May 2003. I asked a group of women working in NGOs in Kabul if they have a message for their sisters in US and they said. ‘Elahe, tell them not to forget about us”. Let us stay committed to the cause of safety and security of Afghan women. The global women’s movement needs to listen to Afghan women.