Farkhunda's death - 'turning point' for Afghanistan?

By Daud Qarizadah
BBC Afghanistan reporter

image copyrightReuters
image captionAfghan women's rights activists hold flowers at Farkhunda's grave

Memorial services are being held for Farkhunda, the Afghan woman brutally killed by a mob last month. The 27-year-old was beaten to death by a crowd of men near a Kabul shrine after being falsely accused of burning the Koran.

The ceremonies mark the end of the traditional 40-day mourning period.

Can the case be a watershed for Afghanistan?

The shrine

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image captionFarkhunda was killed near the Shah-Du-Shamshaira mosque in Kabul

The Shah-Du-Shamshaira mosque and shrine are within walking distance of the presidential palace and Kabul's main bazaar.

Crowds of young men were a common sight here, as were women looking for help with their problems.

Many came to seek out the "guardians of the shrine", men selling charms and amulets promising help with difficulties like childlessness, health or family issues.

Some of these guardians have long family ties with the shrine where they work, but they don't have a formal religious education and rely on their trade for money.

But the Shah-Du-Shamshaira shrine has been locked up since Farkhunda was set upon by the mob, beaten, stamped on and driven over. Her body was then set alight.

The brutal killing - captured on mobile phones with the video footage shared widely on social media - followed an altercation between Farkhunda and one of the shrine guardians. Farkhunda had challenged the man over the "superstitious practices" there.

In turn she was accused of having burned the Koran and a crowd of men soon began the deadly attack.

The family

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image captionPresident Ghani hugs Farkhunda's father as the family visits the presidential palace

Farkhunda was training to be a religious teacher. Her father, Mohammad Nadir told the BBC that she was interested in Islam from childhood:

"From the age of seven or eight she went to the mosque to learn the Koran which she knew by heart," he said. "She was always keen to help poor people, especially women."

Farkhunda had been to the shrine only once, when the family decided to stop there for prayer a week before her murder.

"She saw women shivering from the cold," Muhammad Nadir said. "Next time she went, she took a sweater to give to one of the women there; that was the day it happened."

Her brother, Mujib says the family were not told at first what had happened when they were brought into a Kabul police station. He says they were told Farkhunda had been accused of burning the Koran and was being interrogated.

"The police suggested that we should say Farkhunda had a mental problem to avoid things getting out of hand," he told the BBC. "My dad just wanted her released and went along with it."

The family says it was only later that night that they were told Farkhunda had been killed and that they should leave Kabul for their own safety. Since then the family's life has been turned upside down.

"None of us go out," her brother said. "We don't go to work and our children don't go to school."

He says the family want justice.

"If we just let it go, tomorrow another woman could be killed just like Farkhunda," Mujib said.

The police

image copyrightAP
image captionAfghan police watch a protest demanding justice for Farkhunda

The police came under heavy criticism by the family for not protecting Farkhunda. Her father accused officers of standing by and doing nothing as she was killed.

Videos of the incident show that officers made an attempt to disperse the crowd and fired warning shots in the air.

But an official investigation said police had lost control of the situation and recommended urgent training, better communication and management.

It also said that suspects had not been apprehended quickly enough, allowing some to go into hiding.

Several policemen who were at the scene of the lynching have been arrested.

The head of the interior ministry's crime investigation unit, General Zahir Zahir, told the BBC, that 20 policemen were currently suspended and remained in detention, pending instructions from prosecutors.

The protests

image copyrightReuters
image captionMembers of civil society organisations chant slogans during a protest to condemn the killing of Farkhunda

The unprecedented killing was followed by unprecedented protests.

When Farkhunda was buried on 22 March, it was women's rights activists who carried the coffin, a complete break with tradition as the role is always performed by men.

In the days that followed, thousands protested in Kabul and other Afghan cities, demanding justice.

Some demonstrators carried banners bearing a picture of the bloodied face of Farkhunda. Others painted their own faces red.

There were solidarity gatherings in many countries, including the United States, Australia and the UK.

Religious clerics condemned the killing, but some warned that the case should not be used to attack Islam.

The investigation

image copyrightAP
image captionKabul police chief Abdul Rahman Rahimi shows an education certificate of Farkhunda at a press conference following the arrest of suspects

After a nine-day investigation, a special commission formed on the orders of President Ashraf Ghani published its findings.

It said the "savage killing" had lasted 25 minutes.

It said accusations that Farkhunda had burned the Koran were baseless and that she could not be a perpetrator given her higher religious education and detailed knowledge of the holy book.

The commission was unable to identify a definitive motive for the attack, but said it was likely that Farkhunda had encouraged visitors to the shrine to abstain from buying charms, upsetting shrine guardians and leading to the false accusations.

The report found no evidence that a mullah or religious scholar was involved in the murder. "All the suspects arrested are illiterate and cannot read the Koran," it said.

The authorities are still looking for more suspects and have offered a reward of 100,000 Afghani ($1,700; £1,130).

No date for a trial has been set.

The law

image copyrightEPA
image captionAfghanistan first lady Rula Ghani talked about Farkhunda at an international conference in Delhi

Women's rights activists, politicians and journalists have been discussing whether Farkhunda's death could bring change.

First lady Rula Ghani has spoken of her hope that the tragedy might be a turning point.

"In many homes people are finally facing the ugliness brought on by the violence against women," she said in a speech to diplomats in Kabul. "Already, many women have told me that when walking down the streets of Kabul they feel more confident and they seem to encounter much less harassment."

Shukria Barakzai, a prominent female MP, told the BBC that people needed to be better educated on the laws protecting women.

Former President Hamid Karzai approved the Elimination of Violence Against Women law in 2009 but parliament has still not passed it.

"Even though the law punishes harassment and abuse, the understanding of the law is very low and implementation is limited," Ms Barakzai said.

But she, too, hopes Farkhunda's killing can bring lasting change:

"The cruelty and horror against Farkhunda will remain alive forever in the heart of our history," she said. "And this heart should be kept beating until no other woman, no other human being has to suffer this violence."

The Afghan religious authorities have introduced a number of changes in the wake of the killing.

Dae-ul Haq Abedi, the deputy religious affairs minister, told the BBC that the selling of charms and other superstitious activities had been stopped in many shrines across the country and some personnel had been replaced.

"Farkhunda's killing gave us a courage we had not imagined before," he said. "We will continue her struggle against superstition and people are welcoming it."

He also said new regulations for shrines had been prepared as well as a licensing system to help distinguish between religious scholars and those without proper education.

"Those who manipulate religion are the real losers in this case," he said.

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