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KABUL, Afghanistan – Poets, musicians, actors and activists packed an empty shop in a Kabul mall to commemorate the short life and violent death of a woman who has become a symbol for justice and women's rights in a country that historically elevates warlords and battlefield heroes to national icons.
The name of Farkhunda, beaten to death by a frenzied mob apparently in the mistaken belief that she had burned a Quran, has become a rallying cry for Afghans hoping the shocking incident will lead to profound changes in Afghanistan.
Activists say the previously unquestioned power of the religious establishment is being challenged for the first time in Afghanistan's modern history. Religious leaders and conservative politicians have been forced by the power of public opinion to apologize for trying to justify Farkhunda's killing. At least one official has been sacked for saying the woman would have deserved her brutal death if she had indeed burned the Muslim holy book.
At last week's Kabul vigil, candlelight illuminated a huge poster of Farkhunda's blood-reddened face as an actor recited Shakespeare's "Seven Ages of Man", followed by performances of works commemorating her death. Outside, documentary filmmaker Diana Saqeb broke down: "I don't believe in the humanity of this country anymore," she said.
"It has been more than 10 days, but still I can't sleep, I can't eat. These people are killers, no different to the Taliban or Daesh who also kill people in the name of God," Saqeb said, referring to an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group.
The rule of law, said human rights activist Nader Nadery, is in the ascendancy. "This is a turning point for civil liberties that is real. It will be difficult to return to the former status quo when only self-proclaimed religious leaders held the high moral ground at the expense of justice and the constitution," he said. "If this struggle continues, the outcome will be what the country needs, to make rule of law clear and have religion understood in its place within the context of the law."
Farkhunda, a 27-year-old religious scholar who like many Afghans used only one name, was killed on March 19 after an argument with a peddler at Kabul's Shah-Do Shamshira mosque. According to witnesses, she told the man to stop selling amulets to childless women; he shouted to whoever could hear that she had set fire to a Quran. As police watched, and at times participated, Farkhunda was punched, kicked, hit with planks of wood, thrown from a roof, run over by a car and crushed with a block of concrete. Her body was then dragged along a main road, thrown onto the banks of the Kabul River and set alight.
The incident, filmed on cellphones and posted on social media, sparked nationwide demonstrations — and vigils around the world. The Interior Ministry says it has arrested 28 suspects and dismissed 19 policemen. Investigations by a presidential commission, which declared Farkhunda innocent of Quran burning, continue. On Thursday, the government ordered the mosque closed until further notice.
Sima Samar, head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said some good may result from Farkhunda's shocking killing if the perpetrators are punished according to the law and a professional police force emerges to command public confidence.
"It should lead to very positive outcomes but this is a very heavy price to pay," she said. "If justice prevails and the law is followed, women will also feel safer."
Farkhunda has emerged as an icon for rights and justice campaigners. The now-familiar banners of her battered, bewildered face hang by the riverside mosque, and a green satin flag of martyrdom has been erected near where her body was burned. On the stony bank below, activists planted a pine tree to mark the spot.
In Kabul, a coffee shop originally named after Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez has changed its name to the Farkhunda Cafe, said owner Mir Abdullah Miri, who also runs the Afghan Women's Welfare Foundation, a small non-government organization helping women sell handicrafts to become economically independent. "I have already had to bow to pressure from the local mosque to make it a women's only cafe because religious leaders do not want men and women mixing together," Miri said.
At the Cactus Gallery not far away, owner Nasir Neanderthal, who uses his nickname, commissioned local artist Hamid Hassanzada to paint a huge wall mural of a Persian maiden being molested and murdered by black, horned demons. "I try to bring people here to my cafe who are dissatisfied with this society and culture. This mural is a protest against something that happened here in this city, I want it to depict those who became devils and killed a woman," he said.
The Interior Ministry hosted a three-day women's volleyball tournament in which teams competed for the Farkhunda Cup. In central Ghor province, Juma Gul said she had named her newborn daughter after the dead woman "to keep the memory of Farkhunda alive."
In contrast to politicized figures like former Taliban opponent Ahmad Shah Massoud, whose death two days before the September 11 attacks on the U.S. in 2001 is celebrated annually as Massoud Day, Farkhunda is an icon "chosen by the people, the difference between imposition and choice," Samar said.
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