The Year for Women

Things were pretty much unchanged for women in 2015. In Afghanistan, a 27-year-old female theology student was lynched by a superstitious mob. Elsewhere, a few Catholics continued to argue that women cannot image Christ.

Sticks and stones can break your bones, and words can really hurt you.

One day last February, on the Shah-Do-Shamshira shrine's Wednesday "women's day," Farkhunda Malikzada challenged a fortune teller. She said his lucrative practice of selling tawiz -- small pieces of paper with writings -- to women hoping for husbands or male children, was superstitious and not Islamic. It turned out the fortune teller was trafficking in more than bits of paper. Months later, investigators found his trade included condoms, Viagra, and quite probably prostitutes.

Elsewhere during the year, a few writers encouraged the notion that a woman cannot image Christ. First proposed in 1975, as an opinion of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding women's priestly ordination, the so-called "iconic argument" fell from John Paul II's 1994 edict Ordinatio sacerdotalis. But in 2000, Cardinal Gerhard Müller wove the concept into his book Priesthood and Diaconate, parts of which crept (without attribution) into the 2002 International Theological Commission's study document on the diaconate.

What they did to Farkhunda is metaphor for what the Church does to women.

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Farkhunda was back at the shrine a month later and may have burned some old used papers.  It was a fair day, in the low 60s. The shrine custodian -- they say he was in cahoots with the fortune teller -- saw Farkhunda and shouted she had burned the Qur’an. As time for prayers drew near, the developing crowd’s temperature rose exponentially. The custodian said she desecrated the word of God, she was an infidel, she was sent by the Americans, she was an enemy of Islam.

In fact she was one of eight educated daughters of a Kabul engineer. She studied Islam. She loved the Qur'an. She did not burn it.

Still, the angry crowd began to hit her. They pulled off her hajib and exposed her bloodied face. Some police helped her atop a shed, but her attackers followed. They beat her with long pieces of lumber. They pulled her down. They stomped on her. They ran over her with a car. They set her on fire.

She was dead.

There is video of the attack. The thugs are quite identifiable, as are the lackadaisical police.

Afghan women broke through custom and tradition. They did not stay away from Farkhunda's burial. In fact, they conducted it. They carried her coffin to a Kabul cemetery, made ropes from their scarves and used them to lower her into her grave.

Of course there was a trial. One billion U.S. dollars have poured into the Afghan legal system over the years, joined by tens of millions of Euros. They have not helped.

Of forty-nine men on trial, judges found fewer than half liable. They sentenced four people to death, eight to 16 years in prison, their sentences later commuted or thrown out on appeal. Ten police serve administrative sentences: they must keep working where they are and cannot travel. There is a movement to bring the cases to a higher court. Few think it will succeed.

That is how it is for Afghan women, derided, despised, abused and sometimes killed for speaking truth to even the most insignificant of power -- a fortune teller with a shady business.

How similar is the place of women in Catholicism. To say a woman can image Christ is to risk derision by angry defenders of some imaginary "faith" and genteel avoidance by pampered princes of the Church. Or worse.

There is an awful coda to the stories of Farkhunda and the women who think that they can image Christ. Farkhunda died on March 19, 2015, and gentle Joseph, whose feast it was that day, could not protect her or, it seems, any other woman fighting viral superstition and vicious ignorance. The next day, March 20, 2015 there was a solar eclipse and much of the earth went dark. It still is.

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. She will speak February 9, 2016 at St. Michael's College, Vermont and May 6, 2016 at the University of St. Michael's College, Toronto. Her books include On Prayer: A Letter to My Godchild and In the Image of Christ: Essays on Being Catholic and Female.]

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