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Is violence endemic among Afghans?

By: Dr. Sahar Emran

Discourse Afghanistan explores the use of violence in Afghan society, and asks whether violence is endemic among Afghans. This was discussed during a Discourse Hour meeting attended by 24 people. The discussion was divided into two parts – in the first part we discussed violence within the home, and in the second part we looked at violence in the context of the wider society.

Domestic violence

Violence within the Afghan household was recognised as a problem. Although some participants considered the question an inherent generalisation, arguing that many Afghan households are free from violence, and that domestic violence is not an Afghan-exclusive issue, it was agreed that domestic violence was prevalent enough for it to be considered a topic warranting discussion. Domestic violence was discussed in the context of spousal violence, as well as violence as a means of disciplining children.

Within the household spousal violence is not uncommon. In particular, women are often victims of aggression by their husbands. In many cases, violence against women happens in response to petty situations. It was speculated that such violence may serve as a means of exerting control over the woman, or to establish a male-favoured power hierarchy within the household.

The use of violence as a method of disciplining children is also common in Afghan households and schools. Such violence may be used as an act of disciplinary punishment, or a reaction to irritation by the parent or teacher. In many cases the degree of aggression used against children violates their physical integrity and would be considered a breach of their human rights, yet hitting children is socially and legally acceptable in Afghanistan. The long-term affect of violence on children was explored: children brought up with violence at home – either when inflicted on themselves, or when witnessing other family members being abused – can become desensitised to violence, with the risk of normalising their own use of violence in the future. insdeed, studies have shown domestic violence affects development in children’s brains.

Violence in society

On March 19th 2015, a woman in Kabul was falsely accused of burning pages of the Quran and was consequently beaten to death by a crowd of strangers in the street. Her murder sparked outrage amongst Afghans across the world, with many taking to social media to voice their anger, resulting in organised vigils and protests worldwide. The murder of Farkhunda was probably not an isolated case in Afghanistan, but what was is about Farkhunda’s case that caused such a profound reaction from the Afghan community? The accessibility of the details of the murder, including graphic video footage showing the brutality of Farkhunda’s killing and a reliable account of the events leading to the fatal incident, allowed people to form their own moral judgements. The consensus feeling was that false accusations should not have been made in the first instance, and that the accused should have been tried under a judicial system before any action was taken. Most cases analogous to Farkhunda’s likely happen behind closed doors, without such media exposure, allowing the perpetuation of such acts of violence.

The case of Farkhunda was discussed in detail. What made this case unique was that bystanders joined in. But what made the average man participate in such an atrocious act? One participant suggested that it is easy to get caught up in a mob mentality, and despite the fact that they completely condemn the action of the mob against Farkhuda, they wondered whether they too would have “thrown a stone” had they been present, acting on impulse under the influence of other offenders, rather than thinking through the motivation and the consequences of their actions. The participant elaborated, saying that any opposition to the religious motivation of the offenders would have likely been met with accusations of heresy. The irony of it is of course that the actions of the men were anything but Islamic, since under Islamic law Farkhunda would have undergone a judicial process. Moreover, the woman was unveiled in public and partially undressed by these men. In fact, was religious fundamentalism the major problem here, or was religion used as an excuse/justification to express patriarchal notions of manhood and honour?

In response to the incident, President Ashraf Ghani said that Afghanistan’s police were too focused on the Taliban insurgency, thus compromising local policing. 13 police officers are reported to have been suspended for having failed to stop the attack. The role of locals in social law enforcement was discussed – it was suggested that in general Afghans have little faith in the Afghan judicial system, and taking the law into their own hands is commonplace in Afghan communities. It was agreed that the best way for the law enforcement authorities to gain the respect of locals is to improve local policing by providing the relevant training for the police force. This would enable them to deal with community issues such as disputes, robberies, vandalism, etc.

One participant suggested that the normalisation of violence was driven by a lack of recognition of emotion. While this may have been true given the heinous nature of the crime and the number of people involved, it was also noted that Farkhunda’s case was given an exceptional level of attention through both local and international media, as well as by individuals on social media, representing a collective expression of outrage. In fact, could the attack have been caused by an excessive level of emotion in the first place? Moreover, in the aftermath the reaction has been strongly emotional, to the extent that Farkhunda has now become an ‘untouchable’, almost ‘saint’-like, it was suggested, and that her own actions in the moments before her death are protected from judgement. In fact, could there have been a lesson to be learned from such analysis.


Changing society’s attitudes to violence can be most effective as a collective effort of both the state and its citizens. Individuals can serve as good role models to peers and to younger generations by simply being good to one another. Individuals, in addition to teaching their daughters to stay safe, should deem it equally as important to teach their sons to respect women, and to teach alternative avenues to violence as conflict resolution. The most effective way for individuals to convey a message is to lead by example.

The state must act to maximise its efforts to retrain police to better deal with local crime, so as to prevent individuals from taking the law into their own hands. It follows that in order to strengthen the institution there should be efforts to promote a culture of reporting crime to the police. Moreover, it was suggested that the educated diaspora can play a role by drawing resources from abroad to assist the state in reforming attitudes to violence. It was also agreed that the legislation on child abuse needs to be redefined and made more stringent to legally protect children.

Thinking about the root causes of domestic and societal violence, a lack of education and awareness, attitudes on healthy relationships, poverty, a high level of mental health problems, including depression, were cited as potential causes. A long history of war is likely to be a major factor underlying all of these social issues. In light of these identified causal factors, the discussion moved on to thoughts on the possible solutions to end or significantly reduce violence in Afghanistan. It was agreed that solutions need to be realistic, practical and implementable.

One concern was that open dialogue that questions cultural and religious practice is not had enough. Religion, namely Islam, plays a significant role in most aspects of Afghan society, but it is often intertwined with cultural/tribal practice. In the case of Farkhunda religion was used as a justification for her murder, but it was pointed out that burning is considered an Islamically acceptable way of disposing of a Quran, and that it was in fact superstitious belief that was behind the violent reaction to the alleged burning of the Quran.

On a wider scale, Afghanistan needs an institution to regulate religious affairs, including the regulation of imams and religious leaders. This would be a difficult task, however, since such a standardisation would need to be in agreement with all the denominations of Islam that exist within Afghanistan, and the ideologies and practices between these sects can often be very conflicting. Nevertheless, as an immediate measure, mosques and religious leaders should assume some responsibility in actively discouraging the use of violence as a means of conflict resolution. Tribal leaders, community elders and even politicians could also play similar roles in curbing the use of violence in Afghan society by speaking out and encouraging people to think for themselves. Television and media are very powerful ways to send a message to a large reach, and can be a very effective platform to deliver an anti-violence campaign.

Education and cultural development were also agreed to be fundamental solutions to the problem. They can help to re-define social norms, for example by amending gender stereotypes that perpetuate gender-based violence. Education in Afghanistan itself has become a melting pot of ideologies over the decades, and a radical reformation of the education system itself is required in order to update and standardise taught principles. Education can be used as a powerful tool to teach young people the value of respect and equality in their relationships, and to teach the alternatives to violence in conflict resolution. The impact of intervention at young ages should not be underestimated – it is a critical time when moral values and conduct are established, and therefore an opportune time to nurture healthy attitudes towards violence.

The role of poverty in cultivating a culture of violence in part goes hand-in-hand with a lack of education amongst the poor. It was noted that the culture of education in Afghanistan can be perceived as being elitist, where scholarships are often allocated in a non-meritocratic manner, thereby perpetuating low education rates among the poorer class.

It was pointed out that Afghans are notoriously very hospitable and generous, but they are also characteristically short-tempered, and that this may represent an emotionally fragile population resulting from decades of war. It perhaps comes as no surprise then, that clinical depression is widespread among Afghans. Many people carry the emotional burden of having lost loved ones in the war and/or losing their land, homes and jobs. Such traumatic experiences can have consequences on mental well-being, and in some cases this can manifest as violent thoughts and behaviour. Thus, improved efforts to identify and treat mental illness, especially those that affect the ability to manage emotions such as anger, may help to improve the incidence of violence.

In the words of one participant, it is only upon deconstructing and intellectualising the issue of violence that we can understand the root causes. And it is only with this understanding that we can we formulate and implement effective and sustainable solutions to eradicate violence and to sensitise society to its consequences.

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