KABUL: When news first spread last year that a young woman had been beaten to death in one of the Afghan capital’s most famous shrines, it left many in the nation with conflicting feelings of anger and confusion.
In the initial hours, the woman — still anonymous in her black chador — had been accused of burning pages of the Quran in central Kabul’s Shah-Do Shamshira shrine. This left many, including the mullah of one of the capital’s most famous mosques and a female deputy of the ministry of information and culture, praising the mob of angry men and women who beat her to death.
By the evening, the family of the woman identified as Farkhunda Malikzada had been coerced by security officials to claim their daughter suffered from an unspecified mental illness, leading to further confusion among the public.
The next day saw the spread of false rumours that Malikzada had run away from home and came to the shrine with 20 verses of the holy book in her hand.
However, by the following evening security and religious officials had declared that the papers Malikzada — a 27-year-old student of Islamic Studies — was accused of burning were in fact Dari-language tawiz, charms, and not pages of the Muslim holy book.
Suddenly, the conflicted feelings of the people turned to outright anger.
A young woman who dared to speak out against the commercialisation of religion and traditional superstitions had been viciously murdered after the guardian of the shrine — whom she accused of being a charlatan — falsely claimed she had desecrated the Quran.
In the following weeks, a massive public outcry, including a protest of nearly two thousand people outside the Supreme Court, was supposed to mark a red line in the sand.
No longer would the Afghan people stand for the abuse and harassment of women across the country.
However, in the year since her death, activists and politicians deride the trial that was meant to punish the dozens of people who beat Malikzada and dragged her dead body from a car before ultimately setting it on fire in one of Kabul’s most-trafficked areas.
What’s more, attendees at an event meant to inaugurate a monument in Malikzada’s honour say the impunity of people accused of abuses against women persist.
The red line quickly faded and the status quo has been maintained.
“It should have set a precedent, but what we’ve seen is that nothing has changed,” said one young woman in attendance at the gathering.
The woman, who would not disclose her name due to security concerns, said what happened to Malikzada is the ultimate embodiment of failed Western efforts to help Afghan women.
“In the 15 years since the US occupation we’ve seen small changes, but nothing meaningful or foundational,” said the 20-something who hid her face with a blue surgical mask.
When the US-led coalition first set out to topple the Taliban government in 2001 the condition of women during the group’s six-year rule was often heralded as one of the main impetuses behind the invasion.
“Rather than helping the Afghan people, including women, the foreign presence shows that the West has only driven our own people apart and led to more death and destruction.”
Others say the government itself failed to do their duty and protect Malikzada at the time of her murder.
“There’s no way a dozen or so police could have controlled a crowd of hundreds by themselves, but why was there no backup sent, why didn’t the higher ups intervene and send re-enforcements,” said Selay Ghaffar, spokeswoman for the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan, who organised the gathering.
Looking at the dozens of police in riot gear standing watch over the 200 attendees, Ghaffar said the police failed to do their jobs on that day.
Last year, a court handed 11 police officers one-year sentences for dereliction of duty and acquitted eight others.
The police sentencing once again ignited anger among the public as amateur mobile phone footage captured at the scene seemed to show police doing little to stop the mob who beat Farkhunda with large stones and sticks and ran over her body twice with a Toyota hatchback.
The verdicts for the men accused of taking part in her death — including the guardian of the shrine who initially provoked the mob — proved even more disenchanting.
Initially, the three-day trial resulted in death sentences for four of the men and 16-year terms for eight others. However, earlier this month it was confirmed that the death sentences were commuted to three 20-year terms — including an intelligence agent who had bragged about his role in the killing in a now deleted Facebook post — and one 10-year term.
A police commander, who did not want to be named because he was not allowed to speak to media, said it was a tragedy that never should have happened and it showed how stretched the police are everywhere. “At that time they were especially under pressure because there were preparations for Nowroz, the Persian New Year, the following day.”
For Ghaffar the verdicts along with other cases of violence and abuse against women in the last year — including the public stoning of a 19-year-old woman accused of adultery in the central province of Ghor — prove the situation for the nation’s women has only gotten progressively worse.
Though cases like Malikzada’s received massive public attention, thousands of other cases of abuse against women go unreported each year.
According to the United States Institute for Peace, 87 per cent of Afghan women have been subject to domestic abuse at least once in their lifetime.
“Afghanistan has become a hell for women.”
Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2016