Brutal killing

The killing of Sushmita Banerjee, an Indian author and social worker in Afghanistan underscores the serious threat that extremists pose to women in this war-ravaged country. Who killed Sushmita is yet unclear.

However, the needle of suspicion points in the direction of the Taliban given their long-standing feud with her.

Over a decade ago, Sushmita published a memoir of her life under Taliban rule, in which she chronicled her dramatic escape from Afghanistan in the mid-1990s to return to her home in Kolkata. Following her recent return to Afghanistan, she was running a clinic for women in the eastern province of Paktika.

What prompted her assassins to drag her out of her home to pump over 20 bullets into her body is unclear. It appears that she was filming the lives of local women as part of her work. Did the filming of women, which is considered un-Islamic among Islamic fundamentalists, and her work to improve the health of women anger her killers? Or was it her negative portrayal of the Taliban in her book that sealed her fate?

Despite the many gains that women have made since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 – women hold a quarter of the seats in elected bodies, girls have access to education and healthcare and an ever-increasing number of women are working outside their homes – their hard-won rights, indeed their lives, are under severe threat not just from the Taliban but warlords, religious fundamentalists, conservative politicians, etc.

Women asserting themselves within marriage/home or playing a role in the public/political domain have been shot dead. Last month, a female Afghan parliamentarian was abducted. In July, the senior-most woman police officer in Helmand was gunned down. Several women escaping the violence of their abusive husbands have been killed as well.

It does seem that as fundamentalist-extremist forces gain ground in Afghanistan, the attacks on women, especially those defying their diktats, are growing. Sushmita’s killing must be seen in this context. Her killing is a sign of what lies in store for women, especially those seeking to empower ordinary Afghan women, in the event of the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan again. It underscores the need to secure iron-clad guarantees from the group to respect international norms on treatment of women. It serves as a reminder to the Hamid Karzai government to strengthen institutions and laws protecting women ahead of the transition.

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