The public murder of the young woman named Farkhunda in Kabul last week has emerged as a critical indication of the road Afghanistan has traveled since 2001. On March 19, Farkhunda, who was in her twenties, was beaten to death by a mob after she was accused of burning the Quran. Her body was crushed by a car and set alight, in the presence of policemen. Just a few weeks before to this, Kabul had celebrated March 8 as International Women's Day, with a number of events sponsored by the many agencies working for Afghan women, and on democratic rights.

One of the most persistent reasons given to justify the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 by the US-led force was to restore the rights of Afghan women. It made the overthrow of the Taliban a just cause, it made Afghanistan the just war.  Afghan women have known for a while now that there have been few gains in this area. Farkhunda's death, and the manner of her killing, have now revealed this to the world.

The years of Taliban rule were marked by public executions that the regime carried out to emphasize their authority. Large crowds would gather in Kabul’s Ghazi stadium to watch men and women being punished or put to death. Footage of a woman's execution in 1999 had been smuggled out of the country, causing horror around the world. I once asked an Afghan friend why so many people had routinely turned up to watch those gruesome ceremonies. Because there was nothing else to do then, he had said.

Details unclear

The events around Farkhunda's killing were very different, but in some ways oddly similar to the Taliban-era executions. The young woman was murdered close to the Shah-do-Shamshera mosque, a yellow baroque-style building hemmed in by traffic a busy market. It is located by the river, a short walk from the Presidential Palace as well as the old city. It is the closest thing Kabul has to a public square. Early accounts of the killing that emerged reported the victim as being a mentally ill woman. But later it transpired that she was a religious studies student, who also taught the Quran to children.

Since she may have been depressed (hardly an unusual condition in Afghanistan), her family may have been pressed to describe her as mentally disturbed to reduce the risk of reprisals.

Ironically, Farkhunda appears to have been killed because she was arguing for a more orthodox form of Islam, and got into an altercation with one of the mullahs who was selling taveez or charms near the shrine. Such practices are common across Afghanistan, and the Indian subcontinent, but are held as un-Islamic by many Muslims.

The exactly details of the argument are contested. What indisputably happened that afternoon was that a young woman was murdered in a public space in Kabul, by a mob of urban men, many of them young. She was killed in supposed defense of Islam, while others stood by and filmed the event on their phones. The fact that the killing 14 years after the so-called liberation of Afghanistan is the mark of a society in deep and critical flux. Farkhunda's brutal death reflects the flawed modernity and development of new Kabul, the unfolding of processes that have failed to address deep-rooted traumas for a generation raised in war, that have created inequality and urban spaces that are deeply dangerous not only for young women, but for dissent of many kinds.

Had a man been accused of burning the Quran that day, it is likely he would have met the same fate. The fact that a woman was killed for the same reason is, as many Afghan commentators have pointed out, a failure of Afghan society. It also indicates how flawed the vision and process of reconstructing this society has been. It would be myopic to overlook this reality, and all its implications for the international agencies involved in Afghanistan.

Mixed responses

The responses to the videos of the killing have been divided. Some have reacted with approval, saying they would have done the same thing. Hearteningly, they have also sparked deep outrage in the city, and Kabul has seen unusual scenes of protest and grief. The police have reacted by arresting 18 accused, and suspended 13 police officers.  Yet these measures have not stemmed the outpouring of anger and support for Farkhunda. At her funeral on March 22, in a powerful gesture, women carried her coffin on their shoulders. Scores of men and women have made Farkhunda's story their own, sharing their grief on social media and mourning her. On Monday,  protestors marched in front of the mosque, many wearing masks of her bloodied face. On Tuesday, Kabulis gathered outside the Supreme Court to demand justice for Farkhunda.

For all their famed resilience, this is a turning point for Afghan women, and Afghan men. There are echoes in this incident of a young woman named Naheed who was killed in Kabul in 1993. The city was then in the thick of infighting among various factions of mujahideen, the “holy warriors” who had battled the government and Soviet forces before turning on each other. In the popular version of the story, Naheed, then aged around 13, was chased and cornered by a group of fighters in her neighbourhood. To escape being raped, she had jumped from her family's sixth floor apartment and died. Naheed became an icon for that generation of Kabulis, representing all the horrors against women that unfolded during the civil war. When the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, the brief celebrations that accompanied them must have been motivated by memories of girls like Naheed.

Farkhunda is a symbol of a different kind of darkness, created during an era of democracy and freedom. It is critical to see where relief from these inequities will emerge from: In the institutions of the government, in civil society movements, from aid programmes or elsewhere. 

Taran N Khan is a journalist based in Mumbai. She has been traveling to Kabul since 2006.