On December 17, 2016, five women and their driver were gunned down and killed on their way to work at Kandahar International Airport. They were employed by a private company to carry out luggage and body searches for female passengers. Their names were Asila, Shafiqa, Noorzia, Najla, and Farida. They were individuals with unique aspirations, hardships, and histories.
Asila, 23, was the second youngest among the victims and the oldest sibling in her family. She was in her final year of medical school and had decided to take the job at the airport after her father ran into financial difficulties as he struggled to pay to educate his 14 children. He told me in a phone interview that his daughter was never threatened during the two and a half years she worked at the airport, though some of the other victims had received death threats warning them to give up their jobs.
Based on my interviews with family members of the other women, it’s clear they were all the breadwinners for their families. Najla, 25, was a high-school graduate and had worked at the airport for two years. Her husband, Niaz, worked as a taxi driver, but he hasn’t taken any shifts since his wife’s death, opting instead to stay home with their four children.
“She wanted our children to be like her,” Niaz told me. “Independent and educated. They would rush to the door when they heard a knock around the time she came home from work. Now they ask me, ‘When will our mother come back?’ She was a very kind woman; she recently helped her friend Farida get a job at the airport.”
Farida, 22, was forced into marriage at a very young age, according to her brother, who now cares for the son and daughter she left behind, in addition to his own family. He alleges his sister’s husband threatened their family until they agreed to the marriage and later became a drug addict and thief. He said Farida was fed up with their poverty and her husband’s unreliability and had decided to earn the family income herself. The morning of the attack would have been her first day of work at the airport.
Shafiqa, 50, had worked at the airport for three years. She was married for 30 years and had three daughters and three sons. She suffered from a heart condition, and her husband told me that when the family initially received the call from the hospital, they thought it must be about her health. Her husband used to work as a baker but has been out of work for several years. With his wife gone, he is asking the government to help him find a job so he can feed his family.
Noorzia, 43, had worked at the airport for a year and a half. She completed school through the 10th grade, and her work provided her family’s sole source of income since her husband’s medical condition prevented him from working. Her son Murtaza works at a pharmacy and is married with two children. He told me his mother also worked to help his family.
These women’s motivations for working and their personal circumstances seemed lost on Kandahar provincial council member Niamatullah Wafa. He triggered heated responses from Afghans on social media when he posted a photo of the crime scene showing one of the murdered women fully covered by a bloody burqa with the accompanying message: “Women should stay home in their hijab, but unfortunately some don’t obey this command from God and are ungrateful beings, which makes them unsafe.”
I called Wafa and asked him if he meant to justify the murders of these five working women with his comments.
“I’m saying this clearly, and my purpose was to state that God has forbidden women from leaving their houses,” he said. “It’s the husband’s right to earn bread for her, not the woman’s.”
I asked him what about women who do not have a male relative to support them financially. “If a woman needs to work, she can work at home washing people’s dirty laundry or dishes,” he said.
Finally, I asked him if he was not elected by both men and women to the Kandahar provincial council and therefore responsible for ensuring the rights of both men and women.
“Any woman who voted for me should have done so in a hijab,” was his answer.
Four men linked to an anti-government militant group have been arrested in connection with the attack. While radical militants are to blame for much of the extreme violence that takes place in Afghanistan, comments like Wafa’s demonstrate a troubling level of acceptance of violence against women among the country’s political elites, and may even help perpetuate it by denying their individuality and reducing them to those who either wear the hijab or don’t.