Last month a furious mob turned on Farkhunda, 27, beating her in broad daylight and setting her body ablaze on the banks of the Kabul River after an amulet seller, whom she had castigated, falsely accused her of blasphemy.
Her killing, which triggered protests around Afghanistan and several world cities, drew global attention to the treatment of Afghan women, while her funeral procession saw female pallbearers bucking tradition to carry her casket.
But the “Justice for Farkhunda” movement, as it is known, is not about women’s rights alone.
“Down with ignorance” has been a familiar chant at protests denouncing her killing, which has prompted public sentiment to turn against Kabul’s “healers” peddling amulets, talismans and good luck charms.
“Not every man who wears a turban is a religious scholar,” Daiulhaq Abid, Afghanistan’s deputy minister for religious affairs, told reporters.
Abid said his investigation revealed that the amulet seller falsely accused Farkhunda — a graduate in Islamic studies — of burning the Koran as her anti-superstition advocacy had been driving away his customers.
Many of Kabul’s divine healers went underground even before Abid’s ministry launched an unprecedented crackdown in the wake of Farkhunda’s killing, shutting down their shops and evicting them from roadside markets.
Padlocked stores and vacant roadside stalls have become a familiar sight in the meandering and congested lanes of Murad Khani in Kabul’s Old City, one of several hubs where spiritual healers have thrived for decades.
The backlash highlights the angst of a post-Taliban generation in Afghanistan — where nearly two-thirds of the population is under 25 — that is often torn between conservatism and modernity as the country rebuilds itself after decades of war.
“Farkhunda’s death brought a revolution,” women’s rights activist Belqis Osmani told AFP.
“It shocked everyone, awakened everyone. It warned the traditional-minded people that a new generation is emerging — a generation that is more educated and open-minded. They are more liberal and they don’t fall for tricks of fake mullahs,” she said.
Ahmad Jawad, a 37-year-old Kabul resident, said the “Justice for Farkhunda” movement marked a rare battle in Afghanistan against pervasive ignorance.
“I once went to a traditional healer because I was in love with my cousin and wanted to marry her. He gave me some perfume and paper amulets. He instructed me to sprinkle perfume on the amulets and burn them,” he told AFP.
“I did that for a week and everyone around me got a headache because of the bad smell. I couldn’t marry my cousin in the end, and realised that my ignorance had been exploited for a charlatan’s monetary gain.”
But the backlash seems to be limited to urban centres such as Kabul. Just a two-hour drive outside the capital, in the village of Shakar Dara, it is business as usual.
Baba Sahib, in his 60s, sat at the edge of a shrine, surrounded by stacks of amulets, charts with Arabic verses and photocopies of what he called “talismans for all problems”.
Traditional healers are much-revered in the deeply conservative countryside, where illiteracy remains rampant.
Several decades of war have destroyed infrastructure in Afghanistan, with rural denizens having little or no access to conventional health services.
Many are forced to rely on healers for a variety of problems — from debilitating maladies and infertility to finding stolen items and uniting lost lovers. Frequently help is sought despite warnings by religious clerics that such practices are at odds with Islamic doctrines.
Since the 2001 US-led invasion that toppled the Taliban government, the United States and other foreign donors have invested millions of dollars in Afghanistan’s public health system.
But most government hospitals are still bedevilled by poor quality of care, scarcity of equipment and pervasive corruption.
As the midday sun rose, a trickle of village clients called on Baba Sahib to seek remedies for health ailments, relationship issues and to ward off “evil spirits”.
For a turbaned village elder who complained about a severe headache, he offered the same paper amulet he offered to another client worrying about memory loss.
“Wrap it in a white cloth and then in a red cloth, and then tuck it into your turban. Your headache will go away,” Baba Sahib said.
The elder kissed the amulet and turned back, looking hopeful. (AFP)