September 25,2012 http://www.theaustralian.com.au
WHEN a burka-clad young woman crouched helplessly awaiting her death sentence in Afghanistan two months ago, many feared little had changed in the 11 years of US-NATO occupation of the troubled central Asian nation.
The grainy mobile phone footage, captured by one of about 200 witnesses to the 22-year-old’s death in northern Parwan province, shocked the world and brought back chilling memories of the recording of a public execution in Kabul’s football stadium in 1999 at the height of Taliban rule. That faceless, nameless woman became a symbol of the suffering and oppression of Afghan women under the strict Islamic doctrine practised by Taliban.
Today, despite more than 100,000 foreign troops in the country and a protected democratic regime in power, Taliban-inspired atrocities can still happen in daylight just an hour outside the heavily militarised capital.
In July, when the images of a crowd of men cheering each bullet fired into the young woman’s submissive body made news around the world, it left many in the West wondering whether the sacrifices in Afghanistan had been worth it.
As part of a team with SBS’s Dateline program, I took the 60-minute journey from Kabul to Parwan province, travelling as close as I was able into Shinwari district to discover the woman’s identity and why she died.
Her name was Najiba, and locals described her as the most beautiful woman in the area. She was forced to marry a Taliban commander for the price of $5000. Villagers said Najiba told her father she would rather die than marry the man.
After more than year of physical abuse from her husband, Najiba fled to the home of another Taliban commander, who gave her refuge. It’s unclear if she had sexual relations with him. There were also rumours that Najiba had been used as a sex slave by different commanders over several months. None of these claims could be verified. But the shame and dishonour she brought to her husband was her undoing.
To resolve the dispute between the feuding commanders over Najiba, the Taliban created a fake court. Accusing her of adultery, the local Taliban cleric, known as Mullah Khaliq, fabricated a fatwa and declared the only punishment based on their version of sharia law would be execution.
As the crowd gathered along the hillside of the village of Qol in Shinwari, a mullah chanted verses from the Koran while Najiba’s husband prepared to kill her, clipping a magazine into his AK-47. The audience of men cheered as he trembled and prepared to take his aim. Mobile phone recordings showed Najiba’s husband missing his target twice. His third shot entered her back, causing her to sway and fall in a heap. “The order was given by Mullah Abdul Khaliq. Every time her husband shot her, Mullah Abdul Khaliq would say ‘Keep firing’,” recalls Mullah Badam.
Once fully extended on the ground, Najiba’s husband fired a number of shots from close range into her feeble body. The roar of the surrounding men at times deafened the gunshots.
While this horrifying scene may resemble what happened in that football stadium 13 years ago, in fact, much has changed. Within hours of Najiba’s horrible death being broadcast worldwide, women in Afghanistan poured into the streets, seeking justice.
The leading voice was Fawzia Koofi, 37, an MP from the northern Badakhshan province, who is also Deputy Speaker of the Afghan parliament and aims to lead the country after elections due within two years.
As an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, Koofi is only too happy to make Najiba the latest symbol of her campaign. “You bring a woman, and she is very defenceless, you bring her out and you kill her in front of everybody, and people cheer it and say ‘Allah Akbar’. That is not part of our identity but rather an important phenomenon of war,” Koofi says.
In the three months since Najiba’s death, Koofi has travelled to Parwan many times to take on the authorities. On a visit to the local governor in his guest house, she puts the men in the room on notice, from the state governor through to the representative of foreign forces and local police.
“So what is your plan for conducting operations in Shinwari to arrest the murderers of this woman, without trial?” she demands. The US commander gives a vague response: “We will continue to work with the Afghan army and police.”
Koofi looks unimpressed. The police chief then attempts to give the MP an answer. “We have a number of operations underway and we give you every assurance that in the very near future we will capture these killers of this innocent woman,” General Mohammad Bekzhad says.
Koofi has many male allies within the district who are supportive in her fight for Afghan women. It was General Bekzhad and his police chief Haji Abdul Hussein who smuggled a mobile phone into the execution ritual to record it for investigators.
“People in the valley wanted to capture this and show the world what was going on in their district, that there are these terrorists living among them who want to kill people,” says Hussein.
Of the 2000 residents of Najiba’s village, only about 80 are Taliban. “If you look at the geography of this country and terrain, it’s possible that even if there were less than 80 fighters they can be victorious because they know the area so well,” Bekzhad says.
For every execution that appears on the internet, hundreds of episodes of abuse and slavery in Afghanistan fail to attract publicity. “Najiba’s story is a small example because it got out to the media and came to the attention of politicians,” says Koofi “Cases like this happen a lot, but they’re like a silent tsunami – we don’t know about them.”
One such case was that of Sahar Gul, 14, whose plight was revealed by The Australian’s South Asia correspondent, Amanda Hodge, in July. Now living in protective custody in a women’s shelter in Kabul, her scars have healed from the six months she was confined in a cell at her husband’s home in the northern Baghlan province. She had been beaten and tortured by her in-laws.
Shelter supervisor Anisa Nuzhat keeps pictures of the girl’s condition when she was discovered. Her face is black with bruises in the photos, her hair is ripped out of her scalp and her nails removed.
Koofi, who helped the girl seek treatment, describes the first time she saw her months after she had recovered.
“It was interesting because she had nail polish on the same nails that were removed by her in-laws. She had nail polish on and was cheering her liberty.”
Sitting next to Sahar Gul is a playful and affectionate 18-year-old, Mumtaz. Despite her outgoing personality, Mumtaz will never be able to hide the visible battering her face has taken from an acid attack by one of her suitors.
“It was 1am when seven men entered the house. They hit me, broke my arm and attacked my parents,” she recalls.
“Then they threw acid over us and left. I fell unconscious. When I woke up I was in hospital. They wouldn’t let me look in the mirror.”
Without the social workers who rescued them, the fate of these women would be uncertain. “I get death threats all the time,” the social worker says.
“Yes, I worry about my safety, but I can’t just abandon these women. I see how much danger they are in and how much violence they face.
“Ninety per cent of Afghan women, a large majority, are living under cruelty and violence.”
Many Afghans – from the palace of President Hamid Karzai down to local authorities – have joined a genuine attempt to boost the status of women. Violence and suppression continues, but many women now have freedom to demonstrate, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.
Women in Afghanistan have a long way to go, but they also know they’ve come a long way since the days of the Taliban regime. None of them is prepared to give up the little they have gained.