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Beaten And Burned Alive: Five Years Ago, The Killing That Shook Afghanistan

Afghan activists march before artists performed a play depicting the 2015 lynching of Afghan woman Farkhunda Malikzada in Kabul on March 17, 2016.
Afghan activists march before artists performed a play depicting the 2015 lynching of Afghan woman Farkhunda Malikzada in Kabul on March 17, 2016.

Five years ago -- on March 19, 2015 -- a 27-year-old Afghan woman was beaten and burned alive in the very heart of Kabul by a mob of angry men.

Hundreds of people watched the killing of Farkhunda Malikzada, a student of the Koran and Islamic Shari’a law, while others participated in the rampage.

The mob’s outrage had been ignited by a false rumor that Farkhunda had blasphemed the Prophet Muhammad.

In fact, she had argued with a 60-year-old peddler about his practice of selling charms to women outside of an Islamic shrine in Kabul.

In the course of the argument, she was wrongly accused of blasphemy. The crowd on the street attacked her when they overheard the false accusation.

What does that event say about the challenges women in Afghanistan are faced with and the future of their fight for basic human rights?

Farkhunda's violent death sent shock waves throughout a nation that had never seen such brutality against a woman outside of a holy shrine.

Some men grabbed Farkhunda by the hair, while others kicked her and hit her in the face. Then they dragged her to the banks of the Kabul River and set her on fire.

'Brutality Beyond Imagination': Mother Speaks Of Daughter's Murder By Afghan Mob
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WATCH: 'Brutality Beyond Imagination': Mother Speaks Of Daughter's Murder By Afghan Mob

The Kabul River basin was dry from a long drought. For years, nearby shopkeepers and residents had used it like a garbage dump. Her body burned in the pile of waste.

"It was nearly evening. The news came on television. I swear my body was numb for a while," said Nadia Khan, an attorney who was working in Kabul for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) at the time.

"It was more shocking because ordinary men [attacked] her and then burned her alive,” Khan said, describing the violence as “maximum brutality.”

"I got goosebumps whenever a man would pass by me on the street, in the office, and even at home,” Khan said. “I did not like to look at my husband."

Khan immigrated to the United States shortly after Farkhunda’s death and is currently an Uber driver.

'Ordinary People'

Speaking to RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan by phone from her home in California, Khan said she is haunted by images of the killing that circulated on social media.

The mob did not carry guns.

"They seemed to be ordinary people like a shopkeeper, a taxi driver, a student," Khan said.

That suggests that almost any Afghan man could have been among the killers, she said.

Afghan Activists Relive The Killing Of Farkhunda Malikzada
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WATCH: Afghan Activists Relive The Killing Of Farkhunda Malikzada

"She was my age,” Khan told RFE/RL. “I cannot imagine what she went through as men were lynching her and torched her almost lifeless body.”

Khan concludes that hatred and outrage shown by Farkhunda’s killers revealed festering problems in the hearts and minds of a society where women continue a daily struggle for their rights.

She said the killers exposed an extreme misogynist mindset that is deeply rooted in Afghan society -- a culture that, for centuries, has held that men are superior to women.

"It is a thick layer of disrespect, distrust, and superiority that boils down to hatred towards women and will probably take several decades to clear,” Khan said.

Meanwhile, Heather Barr the acting co-director of the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch, hints at another revelation: despite two decades in the fight for democracy, the Afghan government has done little to protect women.

She said "enemies to women's rights hold power in Afghanistan," and that governments have done "little to prioritize their rights."

But she said it is also true that women's lives, in general, have dramatically improved since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001.

Millions of Afghan girls are now allowed to go schools when before they were completely barred from doing so. The Taliban’s prohibition against women working or attending universities also has been lifted and thousands now work in a range of jobs and study to become professionals.

Roya Rahmani became Afghanistan’s first woman ambassador to the United States in December 2018, a post she still holds.

Afghanistan has been represented by a female diplomat at the United Nations, Suraya Dalila, since November 2015.

And since the collapse of the Taliban regime, women also have served Afghan ambassadors to the European Union, Germany, and in Nordic countries.

But in a troubled society that has suffered decades of war, where can the fight for women's rights go?

Barr said the killing of Farkhunda is a reminder of the bleak situation for women's rights in Afghanistan.

"She remains a devastating symbol of how dangerous life still is for women in Afghanistan,” Barr wrote in a March 5 report.

Barr also thinks a possible future peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban could be another setback unless women are allowed to be equal partners in the process.

"One of the most urgent steps the government should take right now is to make women full participants [in the intra-Afghan talks] -- meaning 50 percent of the participants -- in the delegation that will be negotiating with the Taliban over the country's future," Barr wrote.