An Afghan woman sheds her headscarf in a March 23 demonstration for women's rights in Kabul, where Farkhunda's lynching drew hundreds of protesters to the streets. (Photos: Zafar Shah Rouyee)
The collective lynching and immolation of Farkhunda, a woman rumored to have burned the Holy Qur’an, and the subsequent dumping of her body into the Kabul River before the eyes of police officers and countless spectators revealed just how easily, blindly and readily young urbanite Afghans can kill.
The March 19 tragedy comes at a crucial time for the National Unity Government, whose women’s rights policies came under scrutiny as civil society actors pushed for the adoption of the UN’s National Action Plan to ensure women’s participation in the country’s peace-building process. Previously, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) reported a rise in instances of domestic violence.
The Afghan political establishment failed to immediately react to the tragedy, which should have been condemned regardless of the legitimacy of the Qur’an burning allegations. Instead, they relied on rumors spread by the mob and local mullahs, only responding when Farkhunda was proven innocent. By reacting too late, incumbent politicians jeopardized their own legitimacy by failing to respect the rule of law.
The debate over the applicability of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Muslim societies is prevalent throughout the Islamic world. Afghanistan, however, has its own equivalent. Pashtunwali, the Afghan honor code, is fundamental to the fabric of Afghan society. Though largely incongruous with the modern understanding of gender equality, the Afghan code of conduct still regulates most aspects of Afghan life.
In solidarity with Afghan women, male activists wore burqas and held up signs stating "We say 'no' to all forms of violence."
Nang and Namus are synonymous with the ancient Greek concept of law. In the Afghan context, Namus means upholding one’s own honor, usually by protecting female relatives, but also property and land. However, the terms are widely applied to the protection of women in general. Nang, or chivalry, defines honorable behavior in battle. It calls for the protection of civilians and mandates the fair distribution of spoils. These patriarchal concepts obligate men to ensure the safety and protection of women. They are also complementary to Sharm and Haya, which define rules of respect and modesty and regulate interaction between genders and generations. Unfortunately, they are also often invoked to deny women basic rights like education, healthcare, employment opportunities and mobility.
The lynching of Farkhunda has been a slap in the face for Afghans. This culture has always prided itself on egalitarian principles: protecting the weak, the needy, the elderly, women and children. Even if the realities of the last four decades have drawn a different picture of Afghanistan, the illusion of an honor code brought hope to the Afghan people and diaspora.
Afghan police officers, public personalities, and politicians should accept a collective sense of responsibility for the March 19 tragedy. After decades of war, the Afghan government cannot afford vigilantism and lynch law to usurp rule of law and the old honor code.
Maryam Baryalay, 29, is an Afghan-German political scientist working with the German Council on Foreign Policy in Berlin.