KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Only a few people went to the funeral of Toor Paiki Olfat, 29, a woman who had been working with the United Nations as a human rights activist in Kandahar, the city where the Taliban were born. She had stepped out of a taxi to buy some juice on her way to work Monday, October 12. Typically, while she covered her hair and body in the usual black veils, she left her face exposed. She was not one to wear the burqa. People knew who she was. Two men drove up on a motorcycle and gunned her down.
“If a girl was killed somewhere else, there would be lots of officials and activists at her funeral,” one of Olfat’s heartbroken relatives told The Daily Beast. “But here in Kandahar we took a very vibrant women’s-rights advocate and laid her silently, namelessly in her tomb.”
People were afraid to come to the grave, said Olfat’s relative. The women of Kandahar had gotten the message. They understood that Olfat’s murder meant they were targets, too.
The news made few ripples on the world scene. It was wrapped into roundups of the grim security situation in the country after the fall of Kunduz far to the north and the ferocious fight to take it back, a battle in which an American gunship blasted a hospital, slaughtering doctors and patients.
The day Olfat died, according to an AP dispatch, NATO announced the names of five service members, two Britons, two Americans and a French contractor, who’d been killed in a helicopter crash; and, “Meanwhlile, Taliban insurgents attacked Afghan security forces in “multiple locations in Ghazni province.” The Taliban claimed to have shut down the Kabul-Kandahar highway. An Afghan army plane crashed “as result of a technical problem.” Death and life went on, as usual, in Afghanistan.
Three days later, President Barack Obama abandoned his self-imposed deadline for withdrawal of most American troops from Afghanistan.
But for women in Kandahar, which is mostly government controlled, but where tradition and the Taliban are closely allied, little is likely to change.
Such was the level of oppression already that one young man who actually witnessed the killing had been surprised to see Olfat in the street in the first place. “I was like 100 meters away,” he told The Daily Beast. “I could not believe the woman would be such an easy target. Here in Kandahar, women hardly get out of their houses, even in burqas that make them look like shuttlecocks,” said 29-year-old Ibrahim Akhondzada.
“I was in Kandahar that day,” said Huma Salihi, a former colleague of Olfat. “She was a very vigorous activist for human and women’s rights. Her death will move Kandaharis to think twice before talking about women’s rights and human rights.” And like many women in Kandahar, Salihi took Olfat’s death personally.
“Her death shocked me,” said Salihi. “I left my office and came to my home. I hugged my daughters. You can understand, as a mum, I have to ask myself what will be the future of my daughters in Kandahar?
“Miss Olfat was becoming an icon of courage and daring in the eyes of Kandahari women,” said Salihi. “That is why the Taliban—or the Taliban-type mindset inside the system—got rid of her.”
That mindset may explain why the murder of women, especially women activists, has become almost commonplace in this part of Afghanistn. “The last time I saw Miss Olfat, she told me she had been receiving death threats, but we should not give in to terrorists,” Salihi recalled. “But poor, young, pretty Miss Olfat did not understand Kandahar is still far behind her kind of woman.”
Police say they are investigating, but little progress is expected. Indeed, despite the claims of the Afghan government and the international community, very little improvement has been made in the daily life of Kandahar’s women in recent years. Here, it is said, a woman should be in the house or in a cemetery.