I am thinking about Farkhunda. You may have read about her six years ago and felt outrage at the Afghan men who killed her. All that represents Farkhunda now is a forlorn clenched fist emerging from a block of stone, silently aimed at the sky near the place where she was publicly tortured and murdered in 2015, a popular shrine in Kabul where pigeons circle and hawkers and beggars approach crowds of pilgrims. Her “sin” was burning pages of the Qur’an, a fake accusation aimed at her by the vendor of charms whom she had criticised.
Farkhunda’s fate should also tell us that brutal corporal punishment meted out by the mob on religious grounds, especially to a woman, is not just the domain of the Taliban. More disturbingly, it should also tell us that even in the “new Afghanistan” there remained a troubling undercurrent of misogyny in some quarters of society. On that day, Afghan security forces stood by and watched as people tried to rip the young woman apart. I suspect the frustration of decades of being told to grudgingly accept women’s rights in public was unleashed on one small crumpled body.
I was not surprised. In the many years I worked across Afghanistan, I fought to meet women, fought to have projects with women, fought to employ women, protected women, listened to broken women… I was almost lynched, kidnapped, shoved around, verbally abused, belittled, sidelined, sexually harassed and manhandled on more occasions than I care to remember, by Afghans and “internationals”. All for being a woman in a man’s world. All because women’s issues were considered irrelevant.
Farkhunda was probably emboldened by all the rhetoric on women’s rights and thought she was in a brave new era where she could champion the rights of people being taken for a ride by a religious hawker. She thought she had a voice. She thought she was safe. But she touched a nerve and didn’t understand that she was still in dangerous territory.
People gleefully recorded the torture inflicted on the poor girl. If anyone has ever wondered about the atmosphere of medieval witch burnings, they would have felt it on that day. The government had to arrest people. They could not turn a blind eye to this egregious abuse and killing of a citizen. Some men were arrested but most were eventually and quietly squirrelled out of prison as powerful men interceded on their behalf.
The struggle for women’s rights will not stop in Afghanistan for decades, and maybe centuries, to come. Through all the years that international bodies congratulated themselves for gains in women’s rights, the horrors faced by Farkhunda loomed in the shadows, just beyond the edge of the award ceremony for a women’s rights defender or a project to teach girls basic skills.
The assistance allocated to women has never been enough. The very few women seen by westerners in their projects may have been safe, but the non-literate woman who earned money at the sewing project would get a fist in the face. The young girl who got into the police academy would be told to empty bins, make tea for the men and make her body available for the sexual pleasure of men. The woman who was put in prison for adultery, in the reign of Hamid Karzai or Ashraf Ghani, would be terrified of leaving prison in a northern province because she feared for her life and for her children’s welfare because there are no well-paid jobs for illiterate women in rural hinterlands.
I was one of the many Afghans and foreigners who tried to make sure that millions of girls would go to schools and, if lucky, high schools and possibly university. But I had to face the truth that they would struggle to find jobs because the economy is still dominated by male-run institutions. Many of those girls would have come out of school, married and having forgotten what little they learned.
Women and children bore the brunt of bad policies, corruption, lack of rule of law and pervasive conservatism
Even last year I was fighting with educated young Afghan men in my victim assistance project. I wanted the widows we were helping to receive assistance in their own right. The argument from them was that any male relative, however distant, was a better choice because a grieving woman was “not in her right mind”. Some even wheeled out the old excuse that women are naqes ul aql, according to their interpretation of Islam, roughly translated as having half a brain.
We have a long way to go and the struggle will continue, long after the mess in Kabul airport has been cleared. The past 20 or 30 years of dollars thrown at women’s projects and the perfunctory paragraph inserted on page 60 of a project document saying “gender equality would be adhered to” lulled some women into a trance state of feeling safe and emboldened. But there was a long way to go and the money to make things happen was disappearing too fast as donor fatigue set in.
The fate of Farkhunda is a warning that there was no need for the Taliban to turn up to make women feel unsafe. Afghanistan had just started on a challenging journey towards democracy with women as citizens with equal rights, a journey halted for now. What I saw was a poverty-stricken, war-torn nation of stark contrast between obscene wealth and grinding poverty, where women and children continued to bear the brunt of bad policies, corruption, lack of rule of law and pervasive conservatism. I have seen a flawed assistance process that had good and bad outcomes.
Assistance to women was always a tiny trickle until some crisis shone a spotlight on the plight of a specific group and then large funds would be torpedoed in with little sustainable impact. The struggle to help Afghan women have ordinary lives requires long-term partnership and an understanding of what Afghanistan really is. It cannot be fixed with the wand-waving flick of regime change or inserting women into institutions not ready to value their contributions. It will be fixed by a long-term commitment with humility and understanding about the dangerous uphill journey women and their families had just begun.
Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghaddam has worked in Afghanistan for the past 26 years with civil society, government, donor and military institutions, addressing issues from gender and social exclusion to land reform