I am thinking of the case of Farkhunda. It is probable that six years ago you read any news about your case and they were outraged at the Afghan men who killed her. All that represents Farkhunda now is the sad drawing of a clenched fist emerging from a block of stone, silently pointing to the sky near the site where she was publicly tortured and murdered in 2015, a well-known Kabul shrine where pigeons flutter and pigeons. Street vendors and beggars approach the crowds of pilgrims. His “sin” was burning pages of the Qur’an, a false accusation directed against her by the amulets seller whom she had criticized.
Its outcome should also be a reminder that the brutal corporal punishment inflicted by mobs for religious reasons, especially a woman, is not just a matter for the Taliban. Most worryingly, it should also serve as a reminder that even in the so-called “new Afghanistan” a troubling undercurrent of misogyny persisted in some sectors of society.
That day, the Afghan security forces stood idly by as the crowd raged on the young woman. I suspect that all the frustration accumulated by the masses for decades at being obliged to grudgingly respect women’s rights in public was discharged onto the young woman’s tiny and weak body.
I was not surprised. In the many years that I worked in different regions of Afghanistan, I made an effort to meet women, to develop projects with women, to employ women, to protect women, to listen to devastated women … I was about to be lynched, kidnapped, estranged, verbally abused, belittled, marginalized, sexually harassed and abused on more occasions than I can remember, by Afghans and by “internationals.” All for being a woman in a man’s world. All because women’s problems were considered irrelevant.
Farkhunda was probably emboldened by all the rhetoric about women’s rights and thought she was in a brave new era where she could advocate for the rights of people teased by a religious street vendor. He thought he had a voice. He thought he was safe. But he struck a chord and did not understand that he was still in mined territory.
The crowd happily recorded the torture inflicted on the poor girl. If anyone has ever wondered about the atmosphere of medieval witch burnings, that day they could have felt it. The government was forced to arrest those responsible for the young woman’s death. They could not turn a blind eye to this heinous abuse and murder. Some men were imprisoned, but most were released, as other powerful men interceded on their behalf.
Advancing women’s rights will remain a challenge in Afghanistan for decades, and perhaps centuries. Throughout all the years that international bodies congratulated themselves on advances in women’s rights, the same horrors that Farkhunda faced loomed in the shadows, just outside the awards ceremony for a women’s rights advocate or a project to teach girls basic skills.
Aid for women has always been insufficient. The few women Westerners saw in their projects might be safe, but the illiterate woman who made money on a sewing project was punched in the face. The young woman who entered the police academy was told to empty the bins, make tea for the men, and put her body at the disposal of men’s sexual pleasure.
If a woman was imprisoned for adultery, in the reign of Hamid Karzai or Ashraf Ghani, when she was released from prison in a northern province she feared for her life and the well-being of her children, as there are no well-paying jobs for women. illiterate women in rural areas of the interior.
I was part of the movement made up of many Afghan and foreign women who tried to get millions of girls to go to school and hopefully high school and possibly university. But I had to face reality and assume that they would have a hard time finding work because the economy is still dominated by institutions in the hands of men. Many of these girls would leave school, married and having forgotten how little they learned.
In fact, last year, in a victim assistance project, I had to rebut the arguments of young Afghans I was working with. I wanted the widows we helped to be the direct beneficiaries of our grants, in their own right.
Their argument was that any man who was related to these women, no matter how distant, was a better option because a grieving woman “was not in her right mind.” Some even brought up the old excuse that women are naqes ul aql, according to their interpretation of Islam; a rough translation would be that they have “half a brain”.
We have a long way to go and the challenge remains, long after the chaos at Kabul airport has been ended. The dollars invested in the last 20 or 30 years in projects for women and the superficial paragraph inserted on page 60 of the project description that says that “gender equality will be respected” lull some women into a state of trance in which they feel safe and emboldened. But there is a long way to go and the money to make real progress is fading in a context where donor fatigue is evident.
Farkhunda’s case is a warning that the Taliban did not need to come forward to make women feel insecure. Afghanistan had just started a challenging journey towards democracy with women as citizens with equal rights, a journey that has been interrupted today.
What I saw was a country ravaged by poverty and war, with a stark contrast between obscene wealth and absolute poverty, in which women and children continued to bear the brunt of bad policies, corruption , the absence of a rule of law and generalized conservatism. I’ve been through a bug-ridden help process that has had both good and bad results.
Aid to women was always a small trickle until a crisis highlighted the difficult situation of a specific group and then large sums of money were allocated, with an unsustainable impact over time. The struggle to help Afghan women lead a normal life requires long-term collaboration and an understanding of what Afghanistan really is.
It cannot be fixed with the blow of effect of a regime change or inserting women in institutions that are not prepared to value their contributions. It can only be solved with a long-term commitment, with humility and understanding of the dangerous uphill journey that women and their families have just started.
Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghaddam has worked in Afghanistan for the past 26 years with civil society, government, donors, and military institutions, addressing issues ranging from gender and social exclusion to land reform.
Translation by Emma Reverter.