It was women who carried the coffin of 27-year-old Farkhunda who was beaten to death by a mob in Kabul last week. That ran counter to local customs, but women felt only they could properly offer the slain woman her final rites — and that they stood firmly beside one other in opposition to the blows that took her life.
Farkhanda — who has been identified by only her first name — was attacked after she told off some men selling amulets outside of a shrine. Her family told reporters that she regarded the amulet sellers as parasites who preyed on people’s hopes — a notion that ran counter to the view of Islam she held having just completed a degree in religious studies.
While her actions may seem brazen given the outcome, many Afghan women stand up for what they believe no matter what the cost. Many in this list of just five risked their lives to educate girls under the Taliban, and continue to risk their lives by advocating for the rights of women in a country where women are four times more likely to face abuse than finish secondary school.
Maria Bashir has serves as the chief prosecutor general for Afghanistan’s Herat province since 1996 — the first woman to be appointed to the position anywhere in the country.
As a woman, she has worked especially hard to bring the perpetrators of violence against women to justice — an overwhelming task. According to Human Rights Watch, 87 percent of Afghan women experience abuse during their lifetimes.
In a short documentary about her work, Bashir shot back at a man who brutally beat his pregnant wife and attempted to find safe-haven for a young girl whose father married her off to a drug addict.
“Whenever I ask myself where I get the energy to handle this job and withstand the threats, I’m reminded of how women suffer from injustice and have lots of problem in their daily lives. They must be protected according to the law. Instead of corrupted and incapable people enforcing the laws, educated and honest people must be in governmental positions — those who can do something positive.”
She works to bring justice to the victims of crimes despite threats to her and her three children. She has survived an assassination attempt and an arson attack on her home. In 2008, a bomb exploded just outside of her home killing one of her guards.
“I deal with criminal and enforce law, naturally they are unhappy with me,” she said in the documentary, Half-Value Life. “They regularly send me threatened messages and sometimes even describe what my children are wearing. It is difficult for me and demands much struggle on my part to do my job effectively and still be a good mother.”
She hopes her own struggles will help girls in Afghanistan will work to make their country a better place.
“The message that I give to young girls is that there is no career that they cannot do as long as they are equipped with the knowledge,” Bashir said in an interview with the International Museum of Women. “I also make them aware of their rights, and I tell them that if they work in the government of Afghanistan, they can have significant role in rule of law, and specifically justice for women. I believe it so important to lead society toward justice!”
“I want to color over the bad memories of war on the walls and if I color over these bad memories, then I erase [war] from people’s minds,” Shamsia Hassani said in an interview with Art Radar. “I want to make Afghanistan famous because of its art, not its war.”
Hassani has been called Afghanistan’s first female street artist. She paints bright blue figures of burqu-clad women and whimsical motifs of guitars or fish on the war-ravaged walls of Kabul. While she has to be sure to avoid landmines and other threats to her security, the 20-something-year-old artist says the police largely leave her alone. While some passersby have objected to her work, she sees her colorful paintings as a way to start conversations about the future of her country.
“In the past, women were removed from society and they wanted women to stay only at home and wanted to forget about women. Now, I want to use my paintings to remind people about women,” Hassani said. “I have changed my images to show the strength of women, the joy of women. In my artwork, there is lots of movement. I want to show that women have returned to Afghan society with a new, stronger shape. It’s not the woman who stays at home. It’s a new woman. A woman who is full of energy, who wants to start again. You can see that in my artwork, I want to change the shape of women. I am painting them larger than life. I want to say that people look at them differently now.”
“There is war, but behind it there is also art,” she said. “We want to make the level of art higher than the level of war.”
Habiba Sarabi was the only woman to have a real shot at heading Afghanistan in the country’s elections last spring. The hematologist was the vice presidential candidate for the man former Afghan Preisdent Hamid Karzai hoped would succeed him.
“It’s very difficult to work as a politician and especially I’m the first and only female governor,” she said in an interview with Euro News. “But anyway, it is the major issue that I have to watch every step to not making something wrong, otherwise, all fingers will show to me.”
It’s hard enough to rise to such ranks as a woman in Afghanistan, but as an ethnic Hazara, she faced additional bias.
Although Sarabi’s party lagged behind at the polls, Sarabi saw her bid for vice president as a way to raise up all women.
“I’m persuading women to vote for me so they can recognize they are part of the political power,” Sarabi told Reuters after a campaign rally.
Nearly 90 Afghan women currently serve in the Afghan parliament — far more than the percent of women elected to federal office in most of the developed world.
“For female politicians all over the world, the challenges are great compared to the opportunities. But our country has been through 35 years of war and conflict. Just 12 years ago you couldn’t even be seen in public without a burqa,” Fawzia Koofi a member of the Afghan parliament who was elected in 2005 told the Guardian.
“The [parliamentary] leadership cuts our microphones off,” she added. “No matter how strong my points are, I will always be regarded as a woman by other members of parliament.”
She added that it’s only become harder to stand up for women’s rights in recent years as the country becomes more conservative.
With a staff of just six, her mostly volunteer-run organization aims to disrupt the typical narrative of Afghan women by featuring their work as entrepreneurs, politicians, mothers, and revolutionaries instead of the victims of violence and circumstance.
“Afghan men often ask me in confusion: ‘So why do we need an initiative like yours?’” she said, “And I just laugh, because they’re answering their own question.”
In 2007, 28-year-old Malalai Joya was the youngest member of the Afghan Parliament. Within months she was expelled from her post after she accused her fellow elected officials of corruption.
“It is difficult, especially for an activist, to live in a country with warlords in power,” she told VICE. “Unfortunately, I have to work underground for security reasons. Otherwise it is very easy to be a target. This is my only option. I won’t compromise or be silent. I receive death threats and have to move from place to place. There have been seven assassination attempts on my life.”
Joya said she continues her work because she believes in the potential of her country — and her fellow women.
In the introduction to her 2009 memoir, Woman Among The Warlords, she wrote:
The sad fact is that in Afghanistan, killing a woman is like killing a bird. The United States has tried to justify its occupation with rhetoric about ‘liberating’ Afghan women, but we remain caged in our country, without access to justice and still ruled by women-hating criminals. Fundamentalists still preach that ‘a woman should be in her house or in the grave.’ In most places it is still not safe for a woman to appear in public uncovered, or to walk on the street without a male relative. Girls are still sold into marriage. Rape goes unpunished every day.
She continued, “As I never tire of telling my audiences, no nation can donate liberation to another nation. These values must be fought for and won by the people themselves. They can only grow and flourish when they are planted by the people in their own soil and watered by their own blood and tears.”
That is what Joya and so many other women activists in Afghanistan hope to do — despite the risks.