In a grainy video that shocked viewers around the world, a young woman named Najiba shrouded in a gray shawl sits alone on a hillside surrounded by men with guns and waits to be executed. Now Afghan activists are stepping out and speaking out in solidarity with the murdered young woman to press their government to take violence against women far more seriously—and to demand some say in whatever peace with the Taliban might come.
Afghan activists quickly organized a march today in Kabul for several hundred women and men aimed at bringing attention to Najiba's killing, alleged to have come at the hands of the Taliban. Details surrounding the circumstances of the woman's murder at close range remain murky, but the story involves two commanders said to be involved with the young woman and a decision to settle the matter at gunpoint by killing her without any kind of trial for the crime of “adultery.”
The leaders of Wednesday's march say they chose to speak out publicly in order to force their government to bring the men who committed the crime to justice.
“It is very important because the government is not taking us seriously at all,” says Wazhma Frogh, a civil-society activist focused on women's rights. “With this march we are telling the government that we are not stoned to death, we are still alive, we are still standing.”
Frogh and others say they face threats from some in the community who want them to stay home and keep quiet when it comes to the case. They also have been criticized by those who ask why they “don't march when the U.S. kills Afghans, only when mujahedin do?” But they decided to go ahead with the protest because they have received support from many quarters, including the Kabul police chief, members of Parliament, and the Ministry of the Interior.
“The risk is huge,” Frogh said ahead of the march, “but let's see.”
Afghan President Hamid Karzai released a statement Monday saying “the murder of a woman who has had no voice to raise for her self-defense against the weapon and brutality of a number of criminals is a clear symbol of the cowardice and wickedness of her murderers” and called the killing “a crime in the sacred religion of Islam and the laws of the country.”
But women leaders say the lofty words mask the reality of the impunity that greets most perpetrators of crimes against women.
“Where was the police when this happened in front of so many people?” says Samira Hamidi, who heads the Afghan Women's Network. “This has to do with our president, with our justice minister who calls women's shelters ‘prostitution houses.' This has to do with security forces who are sleeping and not ready for transition. This has to do with people who are in power. This is something going on in our society and nobody is stopping it.”
Indeed, exacerbating the horror that women say they feel at Najiba's killing is the fear that the mob justice she suffered could be a harbinger of events to come should the Taliban return to power. As international troops prepare to withdraw from the country, Taliban reconciliation at the highest levels is seen by U.S. and international officials as among the only hopes for a peaceful end to the decade-long war.
Only a day before Karzai issued his statement about Najiba's murder, he called for the full release of Taliban fighters held by the Americans at Guantánamo Bay and said the Taliban's senior negotiators now seem ready to sit down and talk peace with the Afghan government. (A Taliban spokesman denied any such readiness two days later.)
Some women leaders say the gruesome execution lays bare the myth of a “reformed” Taliban and forces the world to see what they have argued for a while: there is no evidence that Taliban elders are ready to respect the current Afghan constitution, which offers women equal protections under the law. While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to tout the American strategy of “Fight, Build, Talk” when it comes to Taliban opponents and Vice President Joe Biden has previously said the “Taliban per se is not our enemy,” the American Embassy in Kabul released a statement saying, “This cold-blooded murder, carried out in front of a crowd and recorded on video, is an unambiguous reminder to the Afghan people and the international community of the brutality of the Taliban.”
“These are the barbarians that we are trying to negotiate with and the people who we say have changed,” said Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women, which operates a series of shelters for domestic-violence victims around Afghanistan and has been outspoken in opposing Taliban negotiations.
And recent secret talks in Japan said to have been attended by a Taliban representative have only made women more nervous.
“We don't know where we are heading, we don't know who is part of this process,” says Hamidi, who says she shared this message with international leaders she met at last weekend's Tokyo Conference to discuss Afghanistan's future. “It is not only the Afghan government that is ignoring us, it is also the international community.”
For her part, Frogh says the message she sees the world sending to the Taliban is that “no matter what you do, we are just begging for reconciliation.”
In the meantime, she and others activists and leaders say they will continue to speak out on behalf of women like Najiba and Sahar Gul, the young woman tortured nearly to death by her in-laws. They know the risks, but say the cause is worth the peril. And just maybe, they will win a few small victories along the way.
“I can't see the future, I just can't even imagine there will be a future, to be very honest,” Frogh says. “I am worried about today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow. Maybe we will not get to the future, I don't know.”