On March 19, 2015, 27-year-old female Islamic studies student Farkhunda argued with a mullah selling amulets in front of the Shah-Do Shamshera shrine in Kabul. As she questioned the ethics of selling “charms” for financial gain, the man reportedly accused her of burning the Quran. She immediately protested that she was a Muslim and had not burned the Quran. The growing mob of men either did not hear or did not care to acknowledge her defense. While a number of police officers failed to intervene, the mob beat her with sticks and stones. Within a short time, she was dropped from a roof, run over with a car and finally set on fire.
When 22-year-old Zahra Ibrahimi, an artist and computer literacy teacher of girls in Kabul, heard about the murder, she knew she could not stay silent. She contacted her friends and on March 23 they painted their cheeks red to match the circulating photos and videos of Farkhunda’s bloody face. They made signs denouncing Farkhunda’s murder, and they joined hundreds to march from the shrine where Farkhunda was attacked to the banks of the river where she was burned. On March 24 Zahra joined thousands of men and women holding banners and shouting for justice in front of the Afghan Supreme Court in Kabul. The tragedy had transported her from the front of the classroom to the forefront of the national news as photographs of her barred teeth, painted cheeks and raised fist appeared in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post and news outlets around the world. Zahra says of the incident: “We felt if we did not protest, then no one would punish those men.”
A month earlier, in February of 2015, shortly after the United States announced an end to combat operations in Afghanistan, Zahra met us at the Serena Hotel in Kabul to talk about her job teaching in the computer literacy program at the Amena E Fedawi girls’ school in Kabul. The program, part of the Digital Citizen Fund started by Afghan social entrepreneur and Time 100 person of the year Roya Mahboob, seeks to expand digital literacy for women and girls throughout Afghanistan. Zahra brought her sister, Asima, the goalie of the women’s Afghan national soccer team. We sat in the luxurious but deserted hotel cafe, far from the dust clouds, smog and chaotic traffic of central Kabul. In response to our smiles, they looked at us with what can only be described as wariness and cautious optimism. They wanted us to see the women’s soccer team practice; they wanted us to visit the classroom where Zahra taught. They wanted the world to know they were fighting every day for the importance of girls' education and empowerment in Afghanistan.
“I think I am too lucky because I have the best students in the world, and they really love me and I love them too. This century is the Computer Century,” Zahra said to us. “Knowledge is power.” Zahra, who had been always at the top of her class throughout her education, had never planned to become a teacher. Roya Mahboob, who calls Zahra “relentlessly creative and positive with her students,” inspired Zahra to consider a path of sharing what she had learned with other women and girls. “Education is not only important for Afghan women, it is important for all men and women, but for women it is more important,” Zahra said. “If a mother is educated, she can train her child and help her child ... Afghan society is made up of men and women. If all of them are educated, we can have the best society because two is more powerful than one.” The computer is particularly important for women and girls, Zahra said, because in Afghan society women and girls are often not allowed to work outside the home. With computers and cellphones, women can learn and work from home or from one of numerous women’s centers established by UNICEF and other groups around Afghanistan.
The next morning when we rose early and crossed Kabul to visit Zahra’s computer education class, the students stood up with their arms straight at their sides, their eyes wide and steady, and one by one they bolted out their answers. “I want to be a doctor,” one girl said; “I want to be a pilot”; “I want to be a computer scientist”; “I want to be a politician”; “I want the world to know that we do not want the Taliban to come back and close the schools.”
Zahra, their teacher and translator, stood at the head of the classroom, and now for the first time she smiled.
If Farkhunda’s savage murder reveals a virulent strain of misogyny in Afghan society, then the swift and passionate protests of women like Zahra testify to a growing counterforce that some attribute to the expansion of women’s education over the last decade. Under Taliban rule, women’s education had effectively ceased, but after the Taliban’s defeat by coalition forces in 2003, the Afghan government and the international community invested heavily in education. Though statistics in Afghanistan are notoriously difficult to verify, according to the World Bank, by 2012 more than 2.9 million girls had enrolled in school. Lauryn Oates, project director for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, who worked with UNICEF to gather statistics on women in Afghanistan and later wrote of her findings for the Guardian, echoes Zahra when she says, “The single greatest predictor for nearly every single indicator was the mother's education level.” Children of educated mothers are more likely to attend school, become literate, marry later and have better access to sanitation, food and water. They are more likely to demand a better life for themselves and their daughters.
Amid the rhetoric over what constitutes original or authentic Afghan or Muslim culture and what the Taliban considers “foreign” or corrupting influence, many erroneously conclude that misogynist conservatism has dominated Afghan and Muslim culture from the beginning and that modern European and American influence single-handedly precipitated the recent expansion of women’s education. Many in the Taliban speak, as some conservative Christians do in America, of returning to the mythical origins of a restrictive theocracy where students only learn narrow interpretations of religious texts. Women like Zahra, who harbor no more love of foreign control than members of the Taliban, also crave a return. Zahra’s view of history, which not surprisingly differs considerably from the Taliban’s, supports the narrative that recent changes in women’s education in Afghanistan result not so much from progress as a return to some of the great traditions in Islamic culture: “As Allah said, knowledge is necessary for both men and women. Allah paid attention to education, and I think through education we can have a good society because we can make good decisions.” According to Zahra, education is not only power, it provides access to a true understanding of Islam.
A brief examination of Islamic and Afghan history substantiates Zahra’s instincts. In 2004, Aisha Abdurrahman published "Muslim Women: a Biographical Dictionary," which profiles influential Islamic women from the first century AH to the 13th century AH. Profiles range from literary figures like Wallada bint al-Mustakfi (1001 to 1091), who wrote poetry, shunned the hijab and walked around Bagdad in a transparent tunic, to Islamic scholars like Fatima bint al-Mundhir (d.763 CE), to scientists like Al-ljliyah bint al-‘ljli al-Asturlabi (living in the mid-900s AD), and polymath scholars such as Sutayta al-Mahamali (d. 987), specialist in hadith, jurisprudence and mathematics. Many people now understand that while Europe languished in the superstitious Dark Ages, Islamic scholars equipped with paper from China studied spherical trigonometry and physics, using astrolabes to calculate the altitude of the stars, and made great achievements in medicine, literacy and many other fields. Islamic scholars of the Golden Age can be credited with, among other innovations, the invention of algebra. Between the ninth and 13th centuries, the libraries in Baghdad (Bait al-Hikma), Damascus (al-Zahiriyah), Timbuktu (Sankoré), Cordoba (Royal Mosque) and Cairo (Dar al-Hikmah) contained more books, manuscripts and literature than in the entire Greek world. As the evolution of power led to the extinguishing of scholarly pursuits in Islamic nations, Europe, building on the work of Islamic and Chinese scholars, flowered into the Renaissance. Passion for scholarship, science and the arts belong less to any one culture than to different historical periods of the world’s great civilizations. At any period, in America, Europe or in nations of the Muslim world, one can find the opposing forces of conservative control locked in struggle with forces of the human spirit that crave knowledge, expression and justice.
The 19th and 20th centuries in Afghanistan witnessed an ongoing struggle between, on the one hand, those in support of education and women’s rights and on the other hand tribal elements seeking to consolidate power and limit women’s agency. Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, Emir of Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901, abolished the tribal custom of forcing a woman to marry her deceased husband’s brother, raised the age of marriage, gave women the right to divorce, and allowed women to inherit property. In the early 20th century, Amanullah Khan and his reformer wife, Soraya Tarzi, one of the most influential women in the Muslim world at the beginning of the 20th century, created modern schools for boys and girls, abolished the strict dress codes for women, and pushed for equal rights while increasing trade with Europe and Asia. At this time, women began to enter the workforce. Amanullah’s sister, Kobra, created the Organization for Women’s Protection. Eventually, conservative elements from tribal areas grew agitated with the reforms and in 1929 supported a bandit-turned-revolutionary named Habibullah Kalanani in a successful coup. Nine months later Mohammed Nadi Shah seized power and completed the process of abolishing Amanullah’s reforms.
Throughout the 20th century the conflict between conservative and reformist impulses continued: In 1959 women were allowed to unveil again, but as a result 60 people were killed during a revolt in Kandahar. In 1964 the constitution gave women the right to vote, and in 1965 the Democratic Organization of Women formed to work against illiteracy and forced marriages. In 1977 an Afghan woman activist named Meena Keshwar Kamal worked to establish RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.
The ongoing struggle between restrictive impulses seeking to limit women’s freedom and impulses toward gender equity, rights and social freedom have always interwoven with outside elements from Europe, America, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, who have all sought influence in Afghanistan. It is certainly not the case, however, that reformist movements have always grown out of Europe and America. While trying to enforce reforms, including women’s rights, on tribal areas in the 1970s, the Russians often resorted to violence and terror while demonstrating a complete disregard for religious and tribal customs. During the same period, the United States began to provide military support for the Mujahedin, many of whom, after the defeat of the Russians, formed the Taliban forces who in the 1990s established extremely oppressive codes for women. The defeat of the Taliban at the hands of Coalition forces in 2001 led to the establishment of a democratic government, which continues to struggle with the Taliban for control of the nation and the role women will play in its future.
By all measures, the last decade has been dangerous for women seeking a voice in Afghanistan. In 2009 the Taliban killed female activist Sitar Achakzai in Kandahar a month before she planned to leave Afghanistan for the sake of her own safety. In 2011 Hamida Marmaki, a renowned female Afghan law professor and human rights activist, was killed in a suicide attack. In 2012 outspoken student Malala Yousafzai was gunned down on her school bus. Also in 2012, gunmen killed activist Nadia Seddiqi. Recently Pakistani rights activist Sabeen Mahmud was gunned down in Karachi, and the list goes on. Many girls’ schools have been attacked and burned in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2009, President Karzai signed into law by executive order the Elimination of Violence Against Women Act (EVAW), but the constitution requires that parliament approve the law, and so far it has failed to do so because of conservative politicians and their constituents in the tribal territories. Many women activists and reformers, like Roya and her sister Elaha Mahboob, who set up the Digital Citizen Fund where Zahra teaches, received night letters from the Taliban and finally left the country for their own safety. The murder and forced exile of many other female activists, teachers, scholars, entrepreneurs and professionals can only demoralize those women who remain to fight for their rights.
Though the expansion of women’s education and education in general since 2003 has been a major achievement, 38 percent of children (most of them girls) still do not have access to education. According to UNESCO, of the 5,000 schools built or rehabilitated since 2003, 50 percent are unusable because they have deteriorated, been destroyed or, in some cases, constructed too far from communities. UNICEF, which places the literacy rate for women and girls at 22 percent, hopes that expansion of technology and connectivity throughout the region will grow literacy and seed economic development.
In 2014 there were only 210,000 fixed Internet subscribers, but mobile services cover 90 percent of the country. Currently, 20 million Afghans (48 percent of them women) subscribe to mobile services (out of a population of about 30 million). More important, USAID estimates that eight out of 10 women have access to a mobile phone. Among those women who own a cellphone, 67 percent obtained them in the last several years, and 25 percent of them use their phones for commercial and social activity. These statistics have encouraged UNICEF Innovation Labs to develop various technologies that allow women to operate simple educational programs, perform banking transactions, and even work on their cellphones.
Among those who can access the Internet through phones or computers, 74 percent use social media. One of the first things the girls learn in Zahra’s computer class is how to set up their own social media accounts so they can begin to communicate with the outside world and feel connected to a wider community.
Technology and social media now serve criminals, governments, terrorists and protesters alike. Many witnesses to and participants in Farkhunda’s murder unintentionally ignited a backlash of protest by posting videos of the crime on social media. Hasmat Stanekzai, spokesman with the Kabul police, reportedly wrote on Facebook about Farkhunda: "This (person) thought, like several other unbelievers, that this kind of action and insult will get them U.S. or European citizenship. But before reaching their target, lost their life.” The comment not only caused an eruption on social media, it helped spur many women to protest on the streets.
After the murder, the reaction, protest and national and international debate over what it meant and what the government should do in response largely took place in the digital sphere before it spilled onto the streets. Many women, especially in Kabul where the murder happened, saw videos of the crime and immediately expressed their outrage via cellphone and social media. They communicated with each other to organize protests.
For current President Ashraf Ghani, the Farkhunda murder represented one of the first challenges to his pledge to push for women’s rights and social reform. The protests elicited an immediate reaction from the government. Hashmat Stanekzai of the Kabul police was fired for his outburst on social media, and Ashraf Ghani set up a commission to investigate the crime. At first Zahra and her friends had hope that Farkhunda’s killers and the police who stood by watching her murder would receive justice. It seemed to many that the verdict, in this case, would extend beyond those involved in the murder, even beyond the murder itself, to all those men across the nation who cheered Farkhunda’s death and sought to silence women. Though Ashraf Ghani would not directly involve himself in the case, the trial could not help but feel like a litmus test of his government’s stance on women’s rights and social justice.
After three days of court hearings, four people were found guilty (including the amulet seller who claimed Farkhunda had burned the Quran), and sentenced to death, charges against 18 men were dropped for lack of evidence, and eight others were sentenced to 16 years in prison. Of 19 policemen charged with dereliction of duty because they did not act to save Farkhunda, eight were acquitted due to lack of evidence, and 11 were sentenced to one year in prison.
Few people felt satisfied with the result, which, in a few short hours, seemed to both exonerate many of the guilty while condemning others without due process. Then in June the Appeals Court overturned the death sentences of all four men found guilty (giving three 20-year sentences and the other a one-year sentence), and released most of those convicted of Farkhunda's murder ahead of their appeals.
When we asked Zahra why the police had failed to arrest some key assailants who were clearly identifiable from video footage of the attack, while they arrested others without any evidence that they had been involved, she said, “If you have money, you get away with everything. If not, you may be punished.” She and her fellow activists felt discouraged by the judicial outcome both for the sake of Farkhunda, a woman who, like themselves, sought a public voice, and for what the judgment might portend for their own lives.
“Kabul is becoming more dangerous,” Zahra said. “After Farkhunda’s murder and seeing that the murderers were not punished, men in Kabul became fearless and bold. Now many women who work for social change are depressed because they do not feel secure. They are afraid to make plans for the future. When we go to our jobs or to school, men harass us wherever we go because of what we do and how we dress. They say, ‘Don’t dress and act that way. Otherwise, we will do to you what we did to Farkhunda.’ We only feel secure in our homes.”
Zahra says it is still too soon to tell what will happen in the long run. “Sometimes my mother tells me not to go to my job and tells my sister not to go to school. I come home early at the end of the day and do not go places if I do not have to. I am afraid for my sister. She is on the national soccer team, and sometimes she comes home late. But I cannot stop my life. We will see what happens. If more of the men involved in the Farkhunda murder were punished, and if those who were convicted had more severe sentences, then we would feel safer because men would stop what they are doing.”
The habit of summoning courage has laid the foundation of a stubborn if not optimistic determination among a growing number of women in Afghanistan. For those who protest in the face of grave injustices and who continue to work for reform on a daily basis, even when their efforts endanger their own lives, returning to life under the Taliban is no more possible than escaping to another country. In the “computer century,” as Zahra described it, personal and political agency is predicated on connectivity and access to digital literacy. With so few female teachers in the country in general, and even fewer who can teach digital literacy, women like Zahra (and the Digital Citizen Fund in which she teaches) have become indispensable to the future of the nation.
When we asked Zahra what she would like to be known for, she expressed doubt that she would be known at all. She has been inspired, though, by the many Afghan women who have fought for social justice in recent years. Some of them are dead, some have emigrated, some remain to continue their work. Those Zahra has admired most have been defenders of women’s rights, the true spirit of their religion and the inherent greatness of their nation. Perhaps what the world thinks of Zahra matters less than what the girls in her classroom, who sit upright with their fingers hovering over keyboards, see when they turn to their teacher. They see a woman leading the way.