The case of Farkhunda Malikzada, an Afghan woman killed by an angry mob in March 2015, had far-reaching consequences for Afghan society. The 27-year-old student of Islamic law was pummelled to death and her body was burned after she was falsely accused of destroying a copy of the Koran.
On March 7, 2016 the Afghan Supreme Court upheld reduced sentences for her attackers, a step that critics call a failure of justice. Rights campaigner Maya Pastakia says Afghan leaders now have a rare opportunity to mobilize public outrage at the crime and the perceived inadequacy of its punishment to push for substantial legal and social changes to protect women.
Pastakia is the Afghanistan campaigner at Amnesty International, where she focuses on women’s rights, safety and justice for human rights defenders and other civilians, and internally displaced people. She spoke to Freshta Jalalzai of RFE/RL’s Afghan Service, Radio Azadi, in an interview for Lady Liberty.
Lady Liberty: Why was justice for Farkhunda so important?
Maya Pastakia: Justice for Farkhunda Malikzada was important for Afghanistan because it would have sent a clear signal to the public that violence against women will not be tolerated, and those who commit such acts will be brought to book. But Farkhunda’s case should be put in context. Only a fraction of cases of violence against women are reported, and very few of those go to trial. Even Farkhunda’s trial was riddled with flaws, including a deeply inadequate investigation which failed to arrest all of the attackers caught on camera, and a lack of legal counsel for the majority of defendants.
Lady Liberty: What made Farkhunda’s case so different from the countless other Afghan women who experience violence on a daily basis?
Pastakia: All cases of violence against women should be treated with equal importance, no matter the circumstance, and those responsible must be held to account. But what is different about Farkhunda’s case was the reaction of the Afghan public. The horrific lynching of Farkhunda in broad daylight brought into clear view the violence that so many women suffer in Afghanistan. Her murder became a rallying point for people in the country disturbed by the gravity and extent of violence facing Afghan women.
No longer are women and men turning the other way at such brutal acts of violence. Both men and women turned out in the thousands on the streets to protest in Kabul and other cities.This is profoundly encouraging as it indicates that deeply rooted negative cultural attitudes are at least now being challenged publicly.
Lady Liberty: As a woman and an advocate for women’s rights in Afghanistan, what does the killing of Farkhunda tell you about the status of women in Afghanistan?
Pastakia: Given Afghanistan’s past history and prevailing cultural norms, progress was never going to happen overnight. That said, the status of Afghan women is changing but change must be sustained and supported by the Afghan government and the international community. To this end, women human rights defenders – the women and men who champion the rights of women and girls – must be supported and protected. They work in an extremely dangerous and difficult environment, and many have told Amnesty International that they’re censoring their words, restricting their activities and their associations, as well as their movement in areas where they operate. The government must do more to protect women human rights defenders. As other women in public life, human rights defenders continue to be threatened and attacked by state and non-state actors. Many defenders and high profile women, such as Angiza Shinwari, a provincial council member in Nangahar in 2015, and Najia Sediqi and Hanifa Safi, two former Department of Women’s Affairs directors, in 2012, have been targeted and killed for promoting women’s rights.
Lady Liberty: What should be done to better protect Afghan women?
Pastakia: President Ghani should capitalize on the public sentiment generated by Farkhunda’s murder and take immediate action, including education among police and judicial officials on the 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women law and ensure its full enforcement. He should also order police and judges to stop prosecuting and imprisoning women and girls for so-called “moral crimes” such as running away from home, and ban the current practice of “virginity examinations” which violates the absolute prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment under international law. More female police and law enforcement officials should be recruited and afforded a safe working environment. The government should tackle the causes of endemic violence against women and girls that are rooted into tradition and culture through culturally sensitive programs and public campaigns.