The Afghan New Year was on the horizon for Mina Shahamati and her family. Two days before this national celebration, Mina and her cousin were in a taxi on their way back from registering their women’s organization, Save the Afghan Women Rights Organization, when suddenly traffic was at a complete standstill.
It was on this day that Mina’s life would forever be changed.
From her taxi, she describes seeing a crowd of people at the Shah-e Doh Shamshira mosque in the center of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul.
After 10 minutes passed, their taxi driver got out of the car to see what was the hold up. He comes back with the news that somebody burned the holy Koran, a serious allegation.
Mina admitted initially not believing this news but quickly realized when hearing people shouting, “we need to kill her” the seriousness of these claims; and more importantly, that the person accused was a woman.
Mina and her cousin were not allowed to leave their taxi, but were still able to witness the traumatizing events that unfolded.
She describes a crowd that continued to grow and hearing more accusations like, “Americans have sent you to do this.”
Harsh words quickly turned into violent actions when the woman accused is physically pulled from the mosque, pushed to the ground and beaten.
“It was something that I could not believe how it was happening. And how the people were beating her,” Mina expresses with disbelief, as she reflects on the incident.
The shouting ceased to stop with people continuously yelling, “Kill her!”
Mina explains how law enforcement did not do everything in their power to resolve the situation.
“They could save her,” Mina contends, “they could at least take her to a car, but they did not do that because they were also men.”
It took some while before police took any action, all the while the defenseless woman continued to get beaten. Mina’s face expressed a mixture of frustration and desperation when explaining how she could do nothing to help the woman at that moment.
“I was just shouting because I could not do anything. I just wanted to go but the policemen did not let us to go. Because if we had gone there maybe it would happen to us too.”
The police’s first attempt to de-escalate the situation was firing gunshots to alert the crowd. The crowd dispersed, revealing an un-recognizable, bloody figure sitting upright on the ground.
The woman was badly beaten; unveiled, hair disheveled with hands and face completely drenched in blood. Video recordings show her dazed, staring up at the camera with a look of hopelessness in her eyes.
Videos show police attempting to hoist her up on the roof of a nearby building, but she falls and police quickly give up helping her. They idly watch as she is hit, kicked and beaten with sticks.
The attack does not stop there as the mob continues to grow. This was the busiest time of the day, and cars were trying to get through the crowd.
“They put her on the road and one person drive the car over her,” Mina painfully expresses with a sorrowful look in her eyes.
The woman is run over with a car that drags her 200m down a street.
Her body was then moved from the streets to a dry riverbed, where the attacks continued. Several others started stoning her. After the stoning, her body was set on fire, ending the gruesome, drawn-out attack.
“They throw her in the Kabul river and there was not much water and put their clothes, even the men, because her clothes were totally… nothing was there. They burned her finally there,” Mina says with a sigh of sadness.
After the incident, 49 people were arrested and tried in the case. Of those 49 people, 4 men were sentenced to death, and 8 others were sentenced to 16 years in prison.
While legal action was taken, sentences were not fully served with an appeals court overturning the death sentences and shortening prison time.
There is a general consensus amongst women’s organizations in Afghanistan that the Afghanistan courts did little to bring justice for the woman or stop incidents like this from happening to other women since then.
With a tone of resentment in her voice, Mina discloses how “for a short period of time the guys were sentenced, but we do not know what happened to them.”
The name of the woman wrongfully accused of burning a Koran and murdered was 27-year old Farkhunda Malikzada.
Farkhunda was a volunteer teacher who studied Islamic law and on March 19, 2015, was on her way home from Koran reciting class when she stopped by the Shah-e Doh Shamshira Mosque in the center of Kabul.
After reciting her prayers, she noticed the selling of charms ordained with Koranic verses at the mosque. Farkhunda, a devout Muslim, suggested the charms were superstitious and un-Islamic to the caretaker of the mosque, Zain-ul-Din.
Upon her rejection of the charms, Zain-ul-Din began shouting, “This woman is an American and she has burned the Koran!”
It was at that moment that Farkhunda’s fate was unfortunately decided by the violent actions of those around her, and Mina’s life would forever be changed as a result of witnessing this horrific incident.
Mina, a woman
activist in Afghanistan, explains how when this happened, she was not feeling
as weak as her friends around her.
“Of course I was crying. I was so sad for her, but I was not feeling so weak. I was feeling more strong because I just wanted to do something.” Do something is exactly what Mina did.
Already with a Bachelors Degree from Afghanistan, Mina decided to pursue a law degree in the United States.
In 2016 she packed her bags, boarded a plane, and is currently living in Houston, Texas as a Houston Community College student.
“It happened. It made me to come here; to be here to start law, to stand for my own rights better and better.”
Education is very important to Mina, and lack of education is one of the issues she blames for this attack on Farkhunda. She attributes prejudice cultural norms against women and little government and legal change for Farkhunda to lack of education.
“I think all of these things are because of lack of education. Because people are not educated.”
Mina describes her home country as a place where young women grow up with the mindset that education is not for them.
“I see every day the ladies are home and the men are outside. Whatever they want they can do but their wives cannot drive a car, they don’t allow them to go to school.”
She explains how unfortunately incidents like Farkhunda’s happened long before and continue to happen today in her country.
“Every day like these cases are happening,” Mina discloses with concern. However, she refuses to accept these incidents as the norm, and says “whatever I can do, I will do for all the women facing violence in Afghanistan or any other country.”
Her organization in Afghanistan combats cultural norms and helps individual Afghan women pursue their college degrees. Mina currently uses her income from the United States to fund three women studying in universities in Afghanistan.
Along with helping educate other women, Mina is using her education in the states to do something she wishes she could have done that day of March 19 in Afghanistan: help Farkhunda.
“The main thing I am going to do when I finish my law, I want to file her (Farkhunda) case in the international court. I don’t want to do it in the court in Afghanistan.”
Mina continues, “maybe it will not work in that time, but at least I want to open her case because I have seen what happened to her.”
Seeing what happened to Farkhunda had an immense impact on Mina’s life. She plans on continuing her organization in Afghanistan and staying involved with women’s rights in her home country, but does not want to completely move from the United States after her studies.
Mina reflects that she also sees discrimination against women in the United States. Specifically, she refers to the most recent 2016 presidential election between President Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“When Ms. Hillary Clinton was not the winner I was thinking still the United States, world of democracy, the people are not ready to accept a woman.”
Mina is not concerned about whether people are ready to accept women as active, educated participants of society, but instead believes, “we don’t need them to believe our abilities but we need to prove to them our abilities to the men.”
She is interested in empowering other women and creating a world where women can get an education, make their own choices, and even become world leaders.
Despite having seen something that might deter someone from pursuing change, Mina has done the opposite and transformed her wounds into wisdom.
She says with passion in her voice and hope in her eyes that “the only thing that can bring change is education. We should try to make the woman educated; that is the only way.”
She is fighting to keep Farkhunda’s story alive and ensure that more incidents like that will not happen to any other woman.