By: Annette Brinckerhoff
On Tuesday, eleven Afghan police will go to jail for failing to protect a woman from being lynched after being falsely accused of burning a Koran. Farkhunda, a 27-year-old woman from Kabul, was beaten to death by an angry mob after a witness declared she had burned a Koran.
The conflict originated when Farkhunda approached a local vendor scamming women into buying amulets. After confronting the vendor, an argument broke out, and he accused her of burning a Koran. Several individuals in the vicinity overheard the allegation and began a mob. The angry hoard of people beat the 27 year old woman to death before running her over with a car, dragging her body down the street, burning her, and then dumping the body in the Kabul River.
A total of 49 suspects were put on trial, 19 of which were police officers. Eight civilians were given lengthy jail sentences, and four were sentenced to death. Of the 19 police officers on trial, eight of them have been acquitted. Eleven, however, are being given one year jail sentences. The officers’ sentences were passed “for negligence of duty,” decreed Judge Sufiullah Mojaddidi, though many feel like it’s not enough.
In response to this shocking event, the Ulema Council, Afghanistan’s highest religious authority declared that the acts were justified if Farkhunda had in fact burned a Koran. This statement ignited women’s activists concerned with the justification for the actions of the mob.
There is growing discontent in Afghanistan over the treatment of women. In particular, dissatisfaction with the judicial system and the influence of religious leaders has materialized in protests spreading from Kabul across Afghanistan. The sentiment is that Ghani, a president who has attempted to elevate moderate Islamic ideals and democratic values, hasn’t done enough for Afghanistan’s women. The murder of Farkhunda became a sort of tipping point for activists; and the shocking violence of the crime in combination with the innocence of the victim rallied a movement, the culmination of which has led to a massive national protest over the treatment of women.
The brutal crime was filmed and posted on social media by participants of the mob. As the video spread across the internet, outrage over the brutality erupted. Although such startling acts of violence are not uncommon in societies plagued with war for decades, the murder has sparked women’s rights protests across the country. The protestors can be heard chanting slogans such as, “Death to Mullah’s!” and “Death to the Koran”. The Ulema have called on current president, Ashraf Ghani, to shut down the protests on the grounds of insulting Islam, a criminal offense in Afghanistan. The Ulema have lost power since the fall of the Taliban though their ability to raise support for politicians through the network of mosques is still valuable. The council, which consists of leading Muslim scholars and clerics, threatened to contain and repress the protesters, and withdraw support from Ghani if opposition continues.
On the other hand, protesters fighting for greater gender equality and a less extremist mindset have been gaining popular support. Their grievances attack the failure of the police to stop the lynching in broad daylight, failure of the judge to pass harsh enough rulings, and Ghani’s inability to make significant progress concerning the physical security of women. The arrests of 13 individuals, including 4 death sentences, can be seen as progress from the repressive governance of the Taliban. It also shows however that there is still a long way to go. A country which has been occupied or at war for decades needs time to rebuild its institutions and weed out the sources of instability. For this reason, these women’s rights activists must be brought to the international spotlight, praised for their courageous efforts, and empowered to make real change. By allowing civil society to flourish it allows institutions to develop accountability and through it legitimacy. It also encourages moderate discourse. As protesters are speaking out against extremist Islam they are showing popular support for a more centrist role of religion in society. Extremism and the fragility of Afghanistan’s social institutions are two of the biggest threats to its domestic security.
To ensure that these men and women, who are practicing their freedom of speech, aren’t subjugated, we must ensure that there is enough international political pressure to counteract that of organizations like the Ulema. The success of a movement such as this will lay foundations for a newly established Afghanistan, increasing the separation between its future and its violent past.