KABUL — In life, Farkhunda would have been an unlikely role model for empowering Afghanistan's women.
In death, however, Farkhunda has become a champion for women's rights and the rule of law. The 27-year-old's brutal murder by a mob last week has galvanized this nation in a way no other recent atrocity has. It has unleashed a society's deep-rooted frustrations with the unchecked violence in everyday life, highlighting the continuing struggle between Afghanistan's ancient customs and modern laws.
“Until now, I don’t know why my daughter was killed,” her father, Mohammad Nader Malikzadah, said in an interview at the family’s home Tuesday. “She was innocent.”
Earlier, thousands of Afghans marched in front of the nation’s Supreme Court in a steady pouring rain, in the biggest rally yet to demand justice for Farkhunda’s death. “Punish the murderers,” some chanted. “Sack the police chief,” others shouted. Some women painted their faces red, emulating the bloodied face of Farkhunda, who like many Afghans used only one name.
That face was one of the last images of her after a mob beat her with sticks and stones in front of one of Kabul’s most venerated mosques Thursday. She was accused of burning a copy of the Koran, a crime punishable by death in Afghanistan, according to Islamic law — a crime authorities later said she did not commit.
Although details are unclear, some witnesses suggested that the attack was sparked by a dispute Farkhunda had with the mosque’s imam. Whatever the case, the mob was bent on killing her in the most horrific manner. They dragged her body with a car, then burned it and threw it into the Kabul River.
It took two hours to murder her, the brutality unfolding as hundreds of people and armed policemen watched, doing nothing to save Farkhunda from her assailants. The neighborhood police headquarters was about a five-minute walk from the mosque. Many witnesses shot photos and videos with their smartphones.
Azizullah Royesh, a well-known activist, said many Afghans were shocked that Farkhunda died so publicly with no one to help her. Her death has forced a collective soul-searching among people, he said, “to see the miserable situation they are living in themselves.”
“This outrage is a kind of reaction by the people against their own silence, against their own indifference,” Royesh said. “It’s the start of a rethinking for Afghans.”
The killing, and the public outcry that has followed, could not have come at a worse moment for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. It has overshadowed his first official visit to Washington, where he is seeking to portray Afghanistan as a nation on the right track, committed to democracy and the rule of law, yet still in need of much military and economic aid from the United States.
Before he left for Washington, Ghani called the attack “heinous” and promised a full investigation. Authorities have acted swiftly, more than in any other murder case. On Tuesday, the interior minister, Noor ul-Haq Ulumi, announced that 28 suspects in Farkhunda’s murder have been arrested and that 20 police officers, including the neighborhood’s police chief, have been fired.
“All are being questioned to determine the reasons behind the failure to protect Farkhunda and to control the situation,” said Ulumi.
But the negligence of the police was only the latest in a long history of failures to protect Afghan women. Under the Taliban regime, women were denied education and employment and were forced to wear head-to-toe burqas.
Since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, the United States and other Western nations have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into Afghanistan in an effort to engineer gender equality. Girls are now educated in greater numbers, and equal rights for men and women have been enshrined in the constitution.
But in many parts of the country, tribal customs, traditions and religious perceptions still result in the suppression of many women. They face high levels of domestic violence and are forced into marriages, even as children; some are victims of honor killings.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Ghani promised to better protect women and bring the country under the rule of law. But for many activists who protested on Tuesday, Farkhunda’s murder was a reminder of the threats Afghan women continue to face.
“Farkhunda’s killing shows that Afghanistan is still the most dangerous place in the world for women,” Fawzia Koofi, a prominent Afghan lawmaker and women’s rights activist, said at the march Tuesday. “If there is no rule of law, not only women, but any human being in this country is not safe.”
Koofi, who is a member of the government team investigating the murder, worried that powerful traditional leaders could obstruct the probe, fearing that the findings could taint the mosque and its followers, and by extension Islam.
“These traditional leaders think they are the only ones who can protect the religion,” Koofi said.
Moments later, she looked at the large groups of policemen, clutching riot shields and batons, dispatched to keep the protest orderly.
“Hundreds of police are here to protect us,” Koofi said. “Where were they when this brutal act happened?”
Other female activists said they were startled by the killing of Farkhunda, whose conservatism would have won the approval of most Afghan men. Her death, they said, highlighted that any woman can become a target here.
“If the mob deals with a woman in a full veil in that brutal manner, they will deal much worse with ladies who don’t wear a full veil, like me,” said Zulfia Zulmay, a defense lawyer and vice president of the Afghanistan Independent Bar Association, who wore a cream head scarf and fashionable sunglasses.
At Farkhunda’s family home Tuesday, her father and two brothers greeted streams of male friends and relatives who came to offer condolences. Her seven sisters and mother were in another part of the house, as is customary. Farkhunda was remembered as a devout, kind-hearted woman who volunteered as a teacher at a nearby school. She studied Islamic law and wanted eventually to become a prosecutor, her father said.
He offered one explanation for his daughter’s killing. She was critical of the imam who ran the shrine for selling charms and amulets to poor, desperate women, claiming the trinkets had magical powers. Some witnesses told local media that Farkhunda had gotten into an argument with the imam over the charms. He then allegedly accused her of being a non-Muslim and of burning the Koran, triggering the mob killing.
So it was fitting, her relatives said, that women carried her coffin at her funeral last Sunday, bucking long-held traditions of males serving as pallbearers.
In death, Farkhunda had become a role model.
“The international community for the past 13 years hasn’t been able to empower women in the way my sister’s blood did,” said Mujibullah Malikzadah, not hiding his pride. “That was unique in the history of Afghanistan — a woman was buried by other women.”
In 2004, I met an Afghan girl sold into an abusive marriage at age 9. This month, I set out to find her