If we seek evidence of just how bestial and barbaric people can be, an examination of what Islamic State militants are capable of is perhaps the best place to look. However, a few days ago the news broke about the way an enraged mob murdered a woman aged twenty-seven in Kabul, Afghanistan. Needless to say, all those who engaged in the murder would appear to be male and, perhaps most alarming of all, the murderers do not look like members of the Taliban or Islamic State. Most of the murderers look like ordinary Afghan teenagers and young men.
That such a crime can be committed in 2015 for any reason at all defies belief (almost), but I leave it to you to decide the following. Is it more likely to have happened because it was in Kabul in Afghanistan rather than, say, Hanoi in Vietnam? Is it more likely to have happened because the victim was female rather than male? Is it more likely to have happened because the perpetrators have a religious commitment? And is it more likely to have happened because those with the religious commitment are Muslims?
Yes, these are difficult questions to answer, but perhaps what follows will help you reach informed conclusions. Everything below has been gleaned from reliable/responsible sources of print news.
An Afghan woman beaten to death by a mob has been buried in Kabul, her coffin carried aloft by women’s rights activists. Hundreds of people gathered in the north of the capital for the funeral of Farkhunda, who, like many Afghans, is known by only one name.
Farkhunda was killed late on Thursday by a mob of mostly men who beat her, set her body on fire and then threw it into Kabul’s river, according to police accounts.
President Ashraf Ghani condemned Farkhunda’s killing as a “heinous attack”. The authorities are still investigating what prompted the mob assault. Following allegations that police stood by and did nothing to stop the attack, Ghani said it revealed “a fundamental issue” – the country’s police were too focused on the fight against the Taliban to concentrate on community policing.
Ghani’s comments followed widespread condemnation of the killing. In Afghanistan, despite constitutional guarantees of equality, women are generally treated as inferior and violence against them often goes unpunished. Some Afghan officials and religious leaders sought to justify Farkhunda’s killing, alleging that she had burned a copy of the Qur’an. But at her graveside, the head of the interior ministry’s criminal investigation directorate, General Mohammad Zahir, said no evidence had been found to support such an allegation. He said, “We have reviewed all the evidence and have been unable to find any single iota of evidence to support claims that she had burned a Qur’an. She is completely innocent.” He said that thirteen people had been arrested in connection with her killing.
Hundreds of people gathered at a graveyard in the middle class suburb of Khair Khana, near Farkhunda’s home. Unusually for Afghanistan, women’s rights activists wearing black and with the permission of Farkhunda’s father, carried her coffin from an ambulance into a mosque for prayers, and then from the mosque to her grave. The city’s head of criminal investigation, Mohammad Farid Afzali, said Farkhunda suffered from an unspecified psychiatric illness, but a neighbour told the Associated Press that she was near the end of a religious studies course and preparing to become a teacher.
“Everyone respected her. She was very religious and never left her home without covering her face with a hijab,” said Mirwais Afizi, who has lived on the same lane as Farkhunda’s family all his life. “We never heard anything about her being mentally ill. She was about to graduate,” he said.
An interior ministry spokesman said earlier that Farkhunda’s family was staying in protective care.
Ghani put women’s rights and equality at the heart of his presidential campaign last year and has given his wife, Rula, a high public profile. A Christian of Lebanese descent, Rula has spoken for women’s rights in Afghanistan, a country routinely named by international rights groups as one of the world’s worst places to be a woman.
Under the harsh Islamic rule of the Taliban, who were ousted by a US-led invasion in 2001, women were not permitted to work, study or leave their homes without a male relative. The new Afghan constitution guarantees women equal rights and protection from violence, but these standards are still enforced haphazardly. The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement on what it called “the brutal murder of a vulnerable woman by a mob on Kabul’s streets” and called for the punishment of police officers who took no action to stop the killing. “The authorities need to prosecute those involved in this terrible crime and take action against any police officers who let the mob have its way,” said Patricia Gossman, HRW’s senior Afghanistan researcher.
In Afghanistan, mourning a family member is never a private matter. But, for Mohammad Nader Malikzadah, grieving his murdered daughter, it has happened in front of an international audience. Farkhunda was killed by a mob last week in front of the mosque where she worked as a religious teacher after being falsely accused of burning pages from the Qur’an. A crowd of men beat her, pulled her off a roof when she tried to escape, pelted her with wooden planks and ran her over with a car before burning her dead body.
Videos circulating on social media showed the hour-long incident in detail, sparking global headlines and outrage.
Farkhunda’s family has been besieged for days as the case has grabbed the attention of local and international media. Throngs of relatives have lined up outside their house to pay condolences, as have officials, who are facing mounting criticism for allowing the attack to happen. The attention has visibly drained the family, but it has also brought a big benefit. Without it, they say, the truth about Farkhunda’s murder would never have come out. “If there was no attention from the media, my family’s life would be in danger,” Malikzadah said on Monday.
The attack on Farkhunda outside Kabul’s Shah-Do Shamshira Mosque was triggered by a mullah who shouted that she had burned pages of Islam’s holy book, thereby igniting uproar among men at the scene. Investigators have since denied that Farkhunda burned the Qu’ran, if she indeed burned anything at all. Additionally, the Kabul police chief initially claimed Farkhunda was mentally ill, something the family denies. “The police chief told me that he had told the media that she had mental problems, and that was why she had burned the Qu’ran. He said, ‘You have to confirm this’,” Malikzadah said.
Naeem Akbar, a distant cousin and close friend, said Farkhunda was healthy. “The past year she kept to herself, but she was not ill,” he said. Relatives said Farkhunda had memorised the Qur’an, graduated from high school and had a great knack for mathematics.
Even for a city hardened by regular suicide attacks and indiscriminate bombings, the killing of Farkhunda shocked Kabul and stirred fear in many of its residents. The incident has become a lightning rod for women’s rights activists, who are shocked that this took place not in a rural province but in the capital, less than two kilometres from the presidential palace. “It was a wake-up call for people of Kabul to see how much power a mullah has,” said Mariam Awizha Hotaki, a civil rights activist. Particularly alarming, she added, was that the perpetrators were not men from the conservative fringes of society. “These are not the Taliban, these are not Islamic State,” she said. “These are people like my friends, who go to school in the city. It is shocking that people from the same background as us can commit such heinous acts.”
Women in the capital have closed ranks in a rarely seen united front. A rare sight unfolded at Farkhunda’s funeral on Sunday when dozens of women broke tradition and carried her coffin to its final resting place. Protests have continued since the funeral, with a gathering at the site of the killing on Monday and a demonstration planned for the front of the supreme court on Tuesday.
Hotaki said women were reacting so strongly because, although they were accustomed to everyday harassment, an attack like this was inconceivable. “How much repressed anger and hatred must be involved for them to act like that, and feel like they have the power over a woman like that?” she said.
The killing has undermined the already thin trust in the police. Phone recordings of the attack revealed that several police officers stood by while it unfolded. President Ashraf Ghani told reporters on Saturday that the incident showed that Afghan police officers lack capabilities in upholding civilian law and order because they are preoccupied with fighting a war. “The heinous attack,” Ghani said, “has no place in a country like ours. We are not going to allow mob justice.”
Fawzia Koofi, a female parliamentarian who is part of an eleven-person commission formed by the president to investigate the incident, said that seeing this tragedy befall an innocent woman had traumatised her teenage daughters. “The first thought that came to my mind was, ‘Is this going to be the future for girls in Afghanistan?’” Koofi said. She blamed the government and the police for not preventing the attack.
“If they can assign twenty to thirty security guards to one politician, how come they can’t provide twenty to thirty police officers to protect a woman in danger of being killed by these animals,” she said.
Public outcry has made the murder a political matter. On Monday, outside a funeral service for Farkhunda at a mosque in northern Kabul, where security measures resembled those of a state funeral, high-ranking officials swarmed in and out of black SUVs, including the minister of interior and Kabul’s chief of police. “I’m here to condemn what happened to our sister,” said Bakhtar Siawash, an MP and former television presenter. “It was not an attack on a woman; it was an attack on a human being,” he said.
Not everyone agrees with the young MP that gender was not a factor in the attack. “Afghan women are so much at risk of anything,” said Koofi. “If she was a man, could they still do this to her? Of course not.”
For Farkhunda’s family, a three-hour service to be held on Monday will bring another day of mourning in a frenzy that has yet to slow down. For now, though, the attention bolsters them somewhat. Her brother Najibullah said, “I am not only the brother of Farkhunda. I now have millions of brothers and sisters.” He had just decided to take a new last name: Farkhunda.
It was initially claimed that the crowd had beaten Farkhunda to death because she had burned a copy of the Qur’an, an accusation even senior police officials admitted they believed to be false after detaining eighteen people over the murder and suspending thirteen police officers. Now witnesses have come forward to claim that Farkhunda was murdered because she dared to question the superstitious practices of a local mullah who was known for selling charms to women outside a shrine in central Kabul.
Countering the claims of burning the Qur’an, locals have come forward to say that Farkhunda was brutally murdered after accusing a mullah of encouraging desperately poor women to waste money of charms and amulets at the shrine. An argument is said to have ensued, during which Farkhunda was accused of not being a proper a proper Muslim and then, most seriously, of burning a copy of the Qur’an.