I went to Kabul, Afghanistan, in March to see old friends. By chance, I arrived the day after a woman had been beaten to death and burned by a mob of young men. The world would soon come to know her name: Farkhunda. The name means “auspicious” or “jubilant.” She was killed in the very heart of the Afghan capital, at a popular shrine, the burial place of an unnamed ghazi, a warrior martyred for Islam. Years ago, I worked only a few doors away. I knew the neighborhood well as a crossroads for travelers and traders, a market street beside the Kabul River, busy with peddlers, beggars, drug addicts, thieves, and pigeons. It was always a dodgy neighborhood. Now, it had become a crime scene.
In April, at the end of the traditional 40-day period of mourning for the dead woman, that crime scene became the stage for a reenactment of the murder by a group of citizens calling themselves the Committee for Justice for Farkhunda, which was pressing the government to arrest and punish the killers. Shortly after the performance, the office of the attorney general announced formal charges against 49 men: 30 suspected participants in the woman’s murder and 19 police officers accused of failing to try to stop it. On May 2, a trial began at the Primary Court, carried live on Afghan television. Farkhunda is now dead and buried, but her story has had staying power. It seems to mark the rise of something not seen in Afghanistan for a very long time: the power of people to renounce violence and peacefully reclaim themselves. This makes it worth recalling just how events unfolded and what messages they might hold for Americans, in particular, who have been fighting so fruitlessly in Afghanistan for 13-plus years.
Punched, Kicked, Stomped, Stoned, Crushed, Dragged, and Burned
On Thursday afternoon, March 19, Farkhunda visited the Shah-e Du Shamshira shrine. There, about 30 other visitors watched as a few young men began the attack that would end her life. Some of the onlookers took up a cry that summoned yet more: Allah-u Akbar (“God is great”). When, less than an hour later, the woman’s body was torched, police estimated that the crowd had reached 5,000 to 7,000 people. From the start, onlookers used their mobile phones to take photos or videos, many of which were later posted on Facebook and watched by tens of thousands more throughout the country and eventually the world.
Ashraf Ghani, who had been president of Afghanistan for only six months and had not yet formed a working government, was preparing to spend five days in the United States. During that time, the shocking murder would assume an alarming life of its own, for even in the capital the great mass of illiterate Afghans maintain a word-of-mouth culture in which rumor, gossip, and guesswork travel faster than the speed of social media, and mullahs more often than not have the last word. Before leaving Kabul, Ghani wisely named 10 distinguished Afghans, six men and four women, to a commission charged with uncovering the facts in the killing. Among them were Islamic and legal scholars, parliamentarians, and specialists in human rights.
He also released a statement about the case, pitched straight down the middle between the contending voices already speaking out. He assured one side in the developing argument over Farkhunda’s death that dispensing justice is the duty of courts, not individuals, who would be “dealt with strongly” for taking the law into their own hands; while, with a nod to the other side, he also condemned “any action that causes disrespect to the Holy Quran and Islamic values.” While the president then cajoled Americans in Washington and New York to support his new regime, the commission in Kabul worked as a single force to retrieve from the stream of accusation and conjecture the hard facts of the death of the woman known only as Farkhunda.
This is what they found: at age 27, she was a very religious woman who had not married but had graduated from high school and devoted herself to religious studies at a private Islamic madrassa, aspiring to become a teacher of Islamic law. She lived at home with her parents, the fourth of their 10 children. That Thursday, she went to the shrine wearing the black abaya of the devout believer, with a black half-veil covering the lower portion of her face. There, she said her prayers and spent some time cleaning the area of the shrine where people pray. After that, she exchanged words with a man who worked as a cleaner at the Shah-e Du Shamshira mosque across the street, while running a little sideline business at the shrine selling tawiz, bits of paper bearing handwritten Quranic verses, widely credited with magical properties.
The commissioners could not discover just what Farkhunda and the cleaner Zainuddin had said to each other, but that gap in the story has since been filled in by Farkhunda’s family and friends. She evidently expressed to the cleaner her disapproval of his business of peddling un-Islamic amulets to poor, superstitious women. That story serves to explain—and justify to some—what the cleaner did next. While the commissioners found no witnesses to their exchange, the cleaner himself told them that he had shouted out to the people gathered at the shrine: “This woman is an American and she has burned a Quran.” Farkhunda turned to people in the courtyard and said in a strong voice heard by many witnesses, “I am not an American and I have not burned a Quran.”
Though the accusations were false, they stirred a quick response. As angry young men approached the accused woman, a policeman intervened and with the help of another young man took her to a room within the shrine. That young man then planted himself in front of the door, saying to others, “Leave her alone. Don’t do this.” (He was roughly the same twenty-something age as those who would kill Farkhunda and seems to have been the only citizen to offer her help that day.)
The policeman wanted to take her to the police station for her safety. Farkhunda insisted on a female escort, but when a policewoman arrived and opened the door to the inner room where she waited, angry men rushed in and dragged her out. Some of them hit her, tearing off the veil that covered her hair and bloodying her face. She fell to the ground but managed to sit up, supporting herself with one arm and raising the other in defense. Photographs of that moment show the legs of a uniformed policeman beside her.
That policeman or others pulled Farkhunda up and dragged her onto a low roof over which she might have escaped the mob. Another policeman, gripping her leg, pushed her from below, but an attacker struck his wrist with a stick, causing him to let go. Farkhunda then slid from the roof and fell to the sidewalk below. One or more of the police fired shots into the air, but it was too late. Menace had turned to frenzy. Some 10 or 12 men beat, punched, kicked, stomped, and stoned Farkhunda to death. One raised a great stone block and threw it down on her head. Later, to excuse himself, he said, “She was already dead.”
Then come significant gaps in the photographic record. Farkhunda lay in the middle of the street and a car ran over her. How she was moved from the sidewalk to the street is uncertain. Mysterious, too, is the appearance of the car that crushed her and then in some undetermined but deliberate way dragged her down the street. There, unknown people seized her and threw her over a low wall running beside the river onto the stones of the partially dry riverbed. A man poured gasoline on his scarf and on Farkhunda. He set the scarf alight and dropped it on her body. As the flames roared skyward others in the crowd threw their own scarves and jackets onto the pyre. In their eagerness to stoke the fire, they stifled it. All the while, armed policemen stood in the riverbed and watched Farkhunda burn.
At last, the riot police appeared and took charge. It had been hard to break through the thousands of onlookers crowding both sides of the river and two bridges to see the burning of the woman who was said to have burned a Holy Quran.
“Working for the Infidels”
Within hours, everyone knew that the murder of Farkhunda was nothing like so many other commonplace acts of violence in Kabul. It was not an act of war, nor was it terrorism, nor political assassination. It was not a revenge killing, nor an honor killing, nor a family murder. In broad daylight, at a popular shrine, a mob of ordinary young men had murdered a young woman unknown to them with their fists and feet and whatever weapons came to hand. While shocked Kabulis struggled to make sense of this, some public figures were quick to tell them what to think.
A number of government officials immediately turned to Facebook to endorse the murder, assuming that if the Quran-burning woman were not actually American, her ideas must have been so. The official spokesman for the Kabul police Hashmat Stanekzai, for instance, wrote that Farkhunda “thought, like several other unbelievers, that this kind of action and insult will get them U.S. or European citizenship. But before reaching their target, they lost their life.” The Deputy Minister for Culture and Information Simin Ghazal Hasanzada also approved the execution of a woman “working for the infidels.” Zalmai Zabuli, chief of the complaints commission of the upper house of parliament, posted a picture of Farkhunda with this message: “This is the horrible and hated person who was punished by our Muslim compatriots for her action. Thus, they proved to her masters that Afghans want only Islam and cannot tolerate imperialism, apostasy, and spies.”
The day after the murder, a great many imams and mullahs also endorsed the killing during Friday prayer services in their mosques. One of them, the influential Maulavi Ayaz Niazi of the Wazir Akbar Khan mosque, warned the government that any attempt to arrest the men who had defended the Quran would lead to an uprising.
The next day, however, when Niazi showed up at Farkhunda’s burial, mourners asked him to leave. Within days, the police department dismissed its spokesman and, after the Deputy Minister of Culture and Information appeared on television to defend her views, she, too, was sacked. This time, it seemed that the threat of an Islamist uprising in Kabul, a menace that had intimidated government officials for a decade, had hit a wall. This time, the uprising turned out to be on the other side.
Facts and Memory
President Ghani had asked the commission he appointed to consider the murder of Farkhunda from three perspectives: Islamic Sharia law, Afghan law, and Afghan society. The commission itself included three eminent Sharia scholars who instructed their colleagues on the difference between Islam and its Afghan extremist distortions. Under Sharia, they said, a man who repudiates Islam by burning a Quran should be imprisoned for three days and offered a chance each day to repent. If he has not by then returned to the faith, he should be executed. A woman who commits the same crime should also be jailed and offered a similar chance to change her mind. If she refuses, she should not be put to death. Instead, she should be held in prison indefinitely. It followed that those who killed Farkhunda must be held accountable not only because she was innocent of the offense alleged against her, but also because to take her life in the belief that she had burned a Quran was itself a violation of Islamic law.
The question of Afghan law required less erudition. Murder is murder. The police had found no mitigating circumstances at all: no physical evidence of a Quran burning, no witnesses to such an event, no photos, nothing. Working from photographs and tips from citizens, the police quickly detained most of the principal instigators and assailants, and more than a dozen negligent policemen who stood by and watched the murder unfold. Within 10 days they had arrested almost 50 people. But at least four of the killers were still at large. They were known to be members of a popular body-building club sponsored by a prominent and influential man. This being Afghanistan, such simple facts immediately raised the question of whether the offenders would ever be “found,” or if found charged, or if charged prosecuted, or if prosecuted convicted, or if convicted sent to prison, or if imprisoned actually kept behind bars for the duration of their sentences. The previous Afghan president Hamid Karzai had a habit of ignoring crimes against women and pardoning men inconveniently charged with committing them. Legal procedures under the new president had yet to be tested.
To place this murder in the context of Afghan society was the hardest task the presidential commission faced. For even after 35 years of war and brutality, few could recall a public event that had elicited as much grief—as much shame among men, as much anger and fear among women—as this enthusiastic murder. The victim had been a devout Islamic woman, beyond reproach. Her killers were not bad men, neither criminals nor mercenaries nor drug addicts nor foreign thugs, but ordinary Afghan citizens, as were the thousands who stood by and looked on. Across the country, men and women watched the murder on Facebook and wept. Men and women alike said they could not sleep afterwards, that they had to struggle to hold themselves together, and repeatedly broke down in tears. Few, it seemed, could talk about anything else. In Kabul, young women students left the university to stay at home. Women of any age were scarce on the city’s streets. People of all social ranks kept their children and their friends close. They asked themselves a hard question: Is this who we have become?
The Afghan historian and political commentator Helena Malikyar had the answer: yes. In an article for Al Jazeera, she recalled Afghanistan before the long wars: a poor, underdeveloped country to be sure, but characterized by dignity, a code of honor, and an “Islam, heavily influenced by Sufi culture, [that] was moderate and tolerant of the ‘other.’”
“Above all,” she wrote, “the pre-war Afghan leadership always maintained moral authority and used it to implement the rule of law and reforms.” Three decades of war had changed all that, codifying a culture of violence that was passed from one generation to the next. She summed up the disaster of twenty-first-century Afghanistan this way: “Since the U.S.-led international intervention of 2001, strongmen have thrived tremendously, having become financially rich and politically powerful. Using force and brutality, therefore, pays off. Crime is rampant and goes mostly unpunished. Corruption among the police, prosecutors, and judges has emboldened criminals, and citizens have little faith in the rule of law. The lines between morality and immoral behavior, lawful and illegal acts, and righteous and sinful deeds have blurred to the point that most people are not even aware of their wrongdoings.”
It would be nice to believe that the historian exaggerated, but the clerics and the public officials who reflexively praised the murderous mob illustrated her point perfectly. So, too, did a confused and divided public. Was beating a woman to death in the street the right thing to do? Or not? A male parliamentarian from Herat made a predictable point, if further proof were needed. Farkhunda, he said, should never have gone to the shrine in the first place.
The Collective Crisis of Kabul
Even before the murder, Kabulis were facing a collective identity crisis. It seemed as if they no longer recognized themselves. Over the previous decade, the city had almost tripled in size. It now teemed with displaced people driven into the capital by never-ending combat in the countryside, as well as refugees returning from Pakistan and Iran with new beliefs and behaviors. They brought music and violence from Pakistan, makeup and religiosity from Iran. Television boomed. Especially popular with the non-literate public, it drew viewers in to alluring imported lifestyles: the sexy song-and-dance sagas of Bollywood, the overheated family dramas of Turkish soaps, and the endless high-tech violence of American films.
The city itself had been brutally transformed by “developers” laundering excess cash skimmed from the country’s flourishing narco trade or copped from foreign-aid projects or delivered by the CIA for secret schemes. Until recent years, Kabul had been a collection of distinctive districts differentiated by style and function. In many neighborhoods, high walls had concealed traditional low-lying adobe houses and grass-carpeted gardens of flowering almond and apricot trees. Now, these remnants of that old city are dwarfed by immense, garish, colonnaded Pakistani palaces and unfinished Persian-Gulf-style office towers made of glass and wrapped in tattered green tarpaulins (their owners presumably having skipped to Dubai when the aid caravan left town as the international contingent of troops began to draw down). Afghans old enough to remember, like novelist Rahnaward Zaryab, see this new foreign city half-built upon the rubble of the old and mourn the burial of Afghan culture itself.
Many foreign visitors and journalists new to Kabul mistake this development for “progress.” That’s how they commonly describe it in official reports and in the international media. Yet they have only to look around at this disorienting urban chaos to note, as Afghans do, that all those billions of dollars in corrupted foreign aid scarcely touched the city’s poor. Thousands of small boys and girls, who should be in school, still sell phone cards and other items in the streets; old men still push their heavily laden delivery carts amid the traffic, and shabby laborers still wait near the Haji Yacub Mosque for the offer of a day’s work. In the midst of ostentatious ill-gotten affluence, the poor represent the country’s deepest, saddest, most permanent reality. They are timeless reminders to a people who no longer seem to remember who they were or wished to become.
The murder of Farkhunda suddenly opened their eyes. Afghan and foreign commentators who sought to explain the public outcry that followed her death often claimed that a nation already traumatized and deeply depressed by never-ending wars had been retraumatized by the crime. But trauma commonly shuts down the sufferer, numbing the emotions and blunting the compassion that binds us to others. The murder of Farkhunda did just the opposite. People said it cut them like a knife. It made them feel again. Men described their hearts as “bleeding.” Women spoke of being “emptied” of tears. They wept for Farkhunda—and for themselves.
Well before the murder, young women complained that men constantly harassed them in workplaces and in the streets, that men regularly treated them with disdain and contempt. After the murder, some women confronted such men. Others insisted angrily that they were sick with fear. Some even said that the faces of their own fathers and brothers now seemed hateful to them. Men swore that they were overcome with shame, and that they now recognized in the sadistic public murder of Farkhunda the private violence so many Afghan women regularly experience in their homes.
A Casket Borne by Women
On the third day after the murder, Farkhunda was buried in a Kabul cemetery. For the first time in memory, it was not men but women who lifted the casket to their shoulders and carried it to the grave. The photographs of that procession were reproduced everywhere. The sight was shocking and brave and new.
The following day opened with a hard rain falling through air so dusty the first drops came down as mud. A demonstration was to be held in front of the Supreme Court to demand justice for Farkhunda. I was apprehensive. Six years ago I had taken part in one of the first demonstrations ever held in Kabul on behalf of women. If memory serves, there were no more than 30 of us, protesting the adoption of the Shia Personal Status Law, known in the international press as the “Rape in Marriage Law” for legalizing that crime and many others against Shia women.
A handful of international volunteers and our Afghan colleagues (encased in burqas or wrapped in scarves to conceal their identities), we faced a mob of hundreds of men who shouted obscenities and hurled stones. A cordon of Afghan police encircled and protected us where we stood. I can’t recall that we ever even marched anywhere and yet it was a victory of sorts, just to have survived without serious injury. Afghan women in greater numbers have held many other demonstrations since then, marching proudly, faces uncovered, carrying banners announcing their claims to personhood. Yet they marched alone and their lives remained much the same.
This demonstration for Farkhunda was something new. Thousands of men and women came together to march through unrelenting drizzle. They came individually and in groups, representing all sorts of organizations from Afghan civil society. I walked with colleagues from an Afghan women’s organization that aids survivors of violent abuse. Beside us were a group of university men, scholars of Islamic studies.
Our chants—more sonorous in Farsi—resonated: “Farkhunda is our sister,” “Justice for Farkhunda,” “Don’t misuse Islam,” “Islam is for humanity, not cruelty,” “Stop violence against women,” “Silence is a crime.” A young man thrust a homemade sign into my hand, a cardboard placard on a stick that said, “Punish the Killers.” I carried it until, soaked through (like the Afghans around me, desert dwellers unacquainted with raincoats), it fell apart.
In front of the long iron fence that shields the courthouse, a hundred or more men lined the way, shoulder to shoulder, hard-faced and silent. Most appeared to be ordinary workers, ragged and drenched, yet at attention, and draped in the green scarves of the martyred in homage to the murdered woman. At intervals along the line stood large portraits of Farkhunda, as tall as the men who supported them. In the picture she was wearing the black abaya, but with her face uncovered. She seemed to gaze at the passing thousands chanting her name. She was, that is, a presence at her own parade. We marched for hours past the court and back again, time after time.
Here at last was public evidence of a basic truth that men in suits in Washington, American men for whom “women’s rights” is a cynical slogan, seem eternally unable to grasp: behind every Afghan woman asserting her right to study or work or pray where she pleases is a man or men who let her out of the house. Here on the march were like-minded, modern women and men fed up with the militarism and corruption that made war criminals wealthy, fundamentalist mullahs powerful, and ordinary young men dangerous—young men without education, jobs, the money to acquire a wife, or anything much to do but sadistically slaughter an innocent woman in the name of their god to defend a book they cannot read.
Impunity, Change, and a Sister-Martyr
Upon his return to Kabul, President Ghani condemned the murder of Fahrkunda and summoned her family to the palace to receive his condolences. Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah called upon the family in their home and denounced the “heinous crime.” The commissioners, too, had visited the family in the course of their investigation and the women had taken Farkhunda’s weeping mother in their arms.
This was no ordinary mourning, for the events of the previous 10 days had made plain the true struggle that lay at the heart of Afghan society—a struggle that, in all these years, Washington had resolutely failed to understand. While the Americans, who had long ago lost sight of al-Qaeda, were still immersed in a civil war against the Islamist extremists of the Taliban (facilitated by Pakistan), they had also maintained in power for more than a decade their old Islamist extremist pals of the Mujahidin. Those were the warlords of the anti-Soviet struggle of the 1980s whom President Ronald Reagan had famously hailed as “freedom fighters.” All these years, the United States had supported one side against another that was eerily similar in its self-interest, patriarchal privilege, and religious fundamentalism. They had backed President Hamid Karzai against his “angry brothers,” as he called them, in the Taliban.
Now, with the death of Farkhunda, Kabul’s civil society took to the streets to reveal what the real contest has been all along: a struggle between ultraconservative Islamist mullahs and warlords, clinging not just to faith but to power, and progressive Islamic men and women intent on moving Afghanistan into the modern world. Not the secular world of the West, but a new Afghan world that would reclaim the old prewar values of a peaceful, humane, more equitable and tolerant Islam.
The commission met at the palace to discuss a draft of their findings with President Ghani. While he was away, unimaginable things had occurred in Kabul. Civil society had taken a stand and large numbers of ordinary Kabulis, perhaps even a majority, had stood with it in repudiating the ultraconservative religious and political authorities who had celebrated the murder of Farkhunda. Yet Ghani reminded the commissioners of the risks involved in disturbing the fragile balance of Afghan society—especially with no government yet in place and bombs exploding all around. What if the presidential commission’s report were to add further heat to the already simmering contest between civil society, with its interest in clean, transparent government, the rule of law, and human rights, and the deeply entrenched power of the ultra-conservative Islamist clerics? Would that provoke a violent confrontation? And in such a showdown, would the seemingly indestructible un-Islamic Islamists win?
Extreme fundamentalist mullahs have threatened the moderate Sufi inclinations of Afghans for a century. In 1929, King Amanullah banned ultraconservative clerics of the Indian Deobandi school from the country, denouncing them as “bad and evil persons” who spread foreign propaganda. But the modernizing king, an early proponent of women’s rights, was forced to abdicate and the ultraconservative mullahs came back. (Currently, the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Omar, though not fully qualified as a mullah, is Afghanistan’s most famous Deobandi.)
In 1959, when King Zahir Shah authorized the unveiling of women, his prime minister, Daoud Khan, took the precaution of throwing all the ultraconservative mullahs into prison, saying he would release them if they could find a passage in the Quran requiring women to be veiled. (They couldn’t.) Many years later, for unrelated reasons, Daoud overthrew the king, only to be overthrown and assassinated himself in a coup that brought communists to power. The result: little more than 20 years after King Zahir Shah came down on the side of modernity, the United States and Saudi Arabia were funding the return from exile in Pakistan of the seven ultraconservative Islamist parties of the mujahidin.
CIA Director William Casey, a conservative Catholic, believed that conservative Islamists would make ideal allies in Cold War combat against the “godless communists” of the Soviet Union. In that way, with the American urge to give the Russians their own “Vietnam,” the Cold War turned hot by proxy in Afghanistan. Thirty-five years later, many of those aging former proxies of the United States still wield power as members of the Afghan government, as members of the Taliban, and even more forcefully as authorities of a deformed and punitive version of Islam that has dominated the country’s political and social life throughout the American occupation.
But to many Afghans, the national shock of the murder of Farkhunda felt like a turning point. Frozan Marofi, a longtime fighter for women, wrote in the Guardian of her newfound hope for her country: “People all over Afghanistan, in Badakhshan, in Herat, in Bamyan, all are saying the killing of Farkhunda was bad. Even the Taliban have come out to say it was not a good thing.” Nader Naderi, formerly a distinguished member of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, agreed. “This is a turning point for civil liberties that is real,” he insisted. “It will be difficult to return to the former status quo when only self-proclaimed religious leaders held the high moral ground at the expense of justice and the constitution. If this struggle continues, the outcome will be what the country needs, to make rule of law clear and have religion understood in its place within the context of the law.”
At the same time, a thousand Islamist clerics gathered at the site of Farkhunda’s murder to denounce civil society and warn the Ghani government that, if it did not silence the advocates of women’s human rights and the rule of law, the clerics would withdraw their support and “bad consequences” would follow. Just how bad might those bad consequences be? Islam, in Afghanistan, is represented by the Ulama, a number of elite scholars such as those President Ghani appointed to the fact-finding commission, and by a much larger group of clerics that includes many illiterate, self-appointed mullahs who may hold extreme and violent un-Islamic views yet identify themselves as Ulama. Such men dominated the meeting.
One mullah proclaimed to the gathering: “I tell Ashraf Ghani and civil society to be heedful… the gun is still in the hand of the mullah. It takes the Ulama only a fatwa to take down… this government.” Another cleric called for the media to be punished for insulting the Ulama in reporting on Farkhunda’s murder. If the insults continued, he warned, “women will be killed more heinously… and many people will be eliminated in a far worse way. Then, nobody will dare raise their voice… If you value your life, shut your mouths.”
In the end, this meeting of the “Ulama” issued a statement that directly contradicted the view of the Islamic scholars on the presidential commission: the killing of Farkhunda was justifiable, the statement said, because the killers’ “action was based on the intention of protecting the Quran and divine rights.” The Ulama also commanded the government to adhere to the critical clause in the Constitution affirming that Sharia trumps all other laws. Chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah hastened to meet with the threatening clerics. (The substance of their conversation was not revealed.)
The next day, when the commission submitted its final report, it included a conciliatory demand: that both the Ulama and civil society activists “condemn concertedly and loudly those irresponsible statements under the name of civil society or spiritual society which are aimed at inciting people to turbulence and instability.”
However, the media chose to headline the commission’s most important conclusion: Farkhunda was innocent. It seemed a strange lede for a story of cold-blooded murder, focused as it was on the character of the victim instead of the conduct of the killers. But this was Afghanistan, where “innocent” meant only that Farkhunda definitely had not burned a Quran. What the media did not report was the Sharia experts’ explication of the essential point: that even if a woman does burn a Quran, Islamic law forbids that she be killed. Someone had decided the public would do better without that information. One of the capital’s most popular television stations added its own piece of counter-factual misinformation to its nightly news, reporting a stunning fabrication: that two of the 10 fact-finding commissioners believed the murder of Farkhunda was fully justified.
A few days later, Amnesty International released a major report on the failure of the Afghan government—the previous Karzai government—to protect women and men in public life who were defenders of women’s human rights. During the past decade, such brave women—provincial officials, television and radio announcers, policewomen, politicians, aid workers, and advocates for women—had been assassinated, one after another, without either investigation or comment from the Karzai government. Women who survived sometimes lost husbands or children to the assassins. Many such women had been forced to flee the country, while others continued their work, moving from house to house just a step ahead of their stalkers. Most of the dead defenders of women had been murdered by the Taliban, but others had fallen to powerful warlords and ultraconservative vigilantes, both in and out of the government.
In the 50 cases Amnesty International investigated, women under threat of death had repeatedly asked for and been denied the protection the government routinely provided to men in public life. Amnesty International concluded: “This institutionalized indifference on the part of the authorities to the threats, harassment and attacks that women human rights defenders face is a result of weak state structures, particularly within the judiciary and law enforcement and security agencies. It is reinforced by an enduring culture of impunity…”
That “culture of impunity” didn’t materialize from thin air. Nor was it a necessary consequence of the “culture of violence” instilled by the long wars. Rather, it had been cultivated for a decade by a government that simply took no notice of the slaughter of women. Indifference amounted to policy and was implicitly affirmed by the United States in 2011 when Washington’s aid agency, USAID, dropped “gender issues” to the bottom of its list of priorities, while an anonymous State Department spokesman joked about jettisoning aid projects intended to support and defend women. “All those pet rocks in our rucksack,” he said, “were taking us down.”
Within months, President Karzai had signed into law a medieval “code of conduct” for women, drafted by the Ulama Council, that in its key points directly contradicted the Afghan Constitution, Afghan criminal law, and CEDAW, the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to which Afghanistan (though not the United States) is a signatory. From that moment on, the pace of the assassination of women in public life picked up rapidly, while the incidence of violence against ordinary women increased at an extraordinary rate. In 2014, it jumped by more than 24% percent over the previous year. A culture of impunity had become so ingrained in Afghan life during the last several years that it seemed as if anyone could assassinate a woman, claim credit in public for the hit, and walk away free, a little taller than before.
Imagine, then, the dismay of Farkhunda’s killers when they were arrested for the very sort of thing other men had routinely gotten away with for as long as they could remember. Soon after, the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs raised the dead woman’s status to “Sister-Martyr,” officially converting Farkhunda from a symbol of women’s rights to a martyr for the cause of Islam. What could it possibly mean that the principal figure in this public battle had been flipped from the secular domain to the religious one? What would her status as a martyr imply for the legal defense of her killers who had set themselves up as defenders of the Holy Quran? Would they be hanged and then, on second thought, hailed as ghazi, warrior-martyrs for Islam?
On May 2nd, as the trial of the accused killers began, questions and rumors multiplied, while the arena of contestation shifted from the streets and mosques to a televised court of law. That in itself was a milestone: seemingly a triumph of judicial transparency. Any Afghans with access to a television set could see for themselves the band of handcuffed men packed together in the dock and hear the names of the suspects still in hiding read out in court by order of the presiding judge. Anyone could listen to the questions put to the prisoners in turn and take in the extraordinary answers. The tall man admits he dropped the big rock on Farkhunda’s head and says he is sorry. Others are less forthcoming and less repentant. Some say unconvincingly that they were never there at all.
Several years ago, a journalist colleague of mine witnessed in Kabul an impressively orderly criminal trial that proved to have been staged only for his benefit. But this televised trial seemed to be the real thing, hasty and disorderly: an intentional process in what you might call, if you were wondrously optimistic, the rule of law. But the trial was most notable for its speed. Like the crime itself, the trial was a rush to judgment aimed at ending things. The court heard testimony on the first day from 10 men charged with murder, and after only one more day of proceedings judge Safiullah Mojadedi was able to pronounce sentence on all 30 men charged with taking part in the crime. He sentenced four of the men to hang, including the tawiz peddler who had accused Farkhunda and an official in the Afghan intelligence service who had boasted on Facebook of taking part in the killing. He sentenced eight other defendants to 16 years in prison, though everyone knows that long sentences are usually dramatically reduced on appeal and shorter terms can be bought. He acquitted 18 defendants variously charged with assault, murder, and inciting violence. He separated and postponed the cases of the 19 police officers charged with neglect of duty. At least four of the principal killers, photographed in the act of murder, remain at large.
Predictably, the judgment satisfied no one. Too light for some, too heavy for others, and too fast to be fair. But it coincided perfectly with a prediction heard often in Kabul well before the trial began: they’ll hang a few and let most of them go. This was not the first time a controversial case was settled not on the evidence, but on the relative power of the contenders, giving something to both sides and justice to neither. You want rule of law? You’ve got it.
Well, maybe not quite. And that certainly won’t be the end of the story. When Afghans bury their dead, they put a stone on the grave so that an occupant who tries to rise will bump into it and be reminded to keep still. But that Farkhunda, the Sister-Martyr, she will not stay put.