Lawlessness and religious extremism leave Afghan women under constant threat of violence

“The accusation of being an infidel or a non-believer is the fastest way to send someone to their death in Afghanistan”

Activists from the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan (SPA) protest on July 6, 2015, against a court's decision over the case of Farkhunda, a young woman who was killed by a mob, in Kabul. (REUTERS/Ahmad Masood)

Last week, an Afghan court decided to decrease the sentences of four men who had participated in the public mob murder of a young Afghan woman, Farkhunda. She was killed while visiting a Kabul shrine where she spoke against local clerics profiting from the misinterpretation of Islam. Farkhunda was wrongly accused of burning the Holy Quran.

Farkhunda’s murder mobilized men and women around the country and the world to demand justice from the Afghan government. With swift action, officials originally arrested dozens of people, but slowly began decreasing sentences for some and acquitting others.

The recent decision to overturn the death sentence for four killers has led to increased fear among Afghan women who worry that it will encourage acts of gender-based violence.

“The government’s failure to guarantee justice normalizes violence in public. Without consequences there is no protection. Living in this country is becoming like living under ISIS,” said Humira Saqib, the head of Afghan Women’s News Agency.

For Saqib and other activists and journalists, one of the main concerns is the radical right using Islam as a tool to condemn ideas with which they disagree. In a country where an accusation about burning the Quran led to a brutal murder that is going largely unpunished, there is potential that such claims could lead to more violence, said Munera Yousufzada, an Afghan activist who was at the forefront of protests demanding justice for Farkhunda.

“The accusation of being an infidel or a non-believer is the fastest way to send someone to their death in Afghanistan,” said Yousufzada.

One Afghan woman experienced such a threat firsthand when she was on a bus returning home from work. Faiqa Sultani, 21, who is an artist at Shamama Gallery, an art collective, was forced off the bus and threatened with violence after she asked a bus authority not to allow more passengers onto the already full vehicle.

“There were too many people and we were all standing and sweating, yet the man kept stopping the car to bring more people in,” Sultani said.

When she objected, the assistant to the driver said “shut up or you will be on the ground under my kicks.” After Sultani asked why such violence was necessary, she was asked to leave the car.

However, leaving the car made things worse, as the driver’s assistant began shouting, “this girl is not fasting. She is an infidel. Don’t let her go.”

An angry group of men began to yell at Sultani and walk towards her. Many others followed her yelling, “Have you lost your religion? Why don’t you fast?”

Terrified, Sultani took a cab and left the area, afraid for her life.

“I cried all the way home. I was angry about what happened, but also relieved that I made it out alive.”

For Yousufzada the murder of Farkhunda is directly linked to other everyday safety issues Afghan women face. She argues that the threats against Sultani and other women are an example of how lawlessness and the government’s disregard for women’s safety has led to increased violence in public.

“The acquittal of some of the killers and the court’s merciful ruling towards others has led people to think there are no repercussions to emotional and violent actions,” said Yousufazada.

Saqib argues that the parliament should sign the Elimination of Violence against Women act and enforce it vigorously. Education, she adds, is also a key to changing mentalities around women’s roles in society.

“The decision by the court is a huge step back,” said Munera Yousafzada, “but we must continue fighting. There are many strong women here who believe in the fight for gender equality and we will continue to do so.”


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