13 May 2015


A Martyr, a Murder, and Hopes for a New Afghanistan

By Ann Jones
I went to Kabul, Afghanistan, in March to see old friends. By chance, I arrived the day after a woman had been beaten to death and burned by a mob of young men. The world would soon come to know her name: Farkhunda. The name means "auspicious" or "jubilant." She was killed in the very heart of the Afghan capital, at a popular shrine, the burial place of an unnamed ghazi, a warrior martyred for Islam. Years ago, I worked only a few doors away. I knew the neighborhood well as a crossroads for travelers and traders, a market street beside the Kabul River, busy with peddlers, beggars, drug addicts, thieves, and pigeons. It was always a dodgy neighborhood. Now, it had become a crime scene.
In April, at the end of the traditional 40-day period of mourning for the dead woman, that crime scene became the stage for a reenactment of the murder by a group of citizens calling themselves the Committee for Justice for Farkhunda, which was pressing the government to arrest and punish the killers. Shortly after the performance, the office of the attorney general announced formal chargesagainst 49 men: 30 suspected participants in the woman's murder and 19 police officers accused of failing to try to stop it. On May 2nd, a trial began at the Primary Court, carried live on Afghan television. Farkhunda is now dead and buried, but her story has had staying power. It seems to mark the rise of something not seen in Afghanistan for a very long time: the power of people to renounce violence and peacefully reclaim themselves. This makes it worth recalling just how events unfolded and what messages they might hold for Americans, in particular, who have been fighting so fruitlessly in Afghanistan for 13-plus years.
Punched, Kicked, Stomped, Stoned, Crushed, Dragged, and Burned
On Thursday afternoon, March 19th, Farkhunda visited the Shah-e Du Shamshira shrine. There, about 30 other visitors watched as a few young men began the attack that would end her life. Some of the onlookers took up a cry that summoned yet more: Allah-u Akbar ("God is great"). When, less than an hour later, the woman's body was torched, police estimated that the crowd had reached 5,000 to 7,000 people. From the start, onlookers used their mobile phones to take photos or videos, many of which were later posted on Facebook and watched by tens of thousands more throughout the country and eventually the world.
Ashraf Ghani, who had been president of Afghanistan for only six months and had not yet formed a working government, was preparing to spend five days in the United States. During that time, the shocking murder would assume an alarming life of its own, for even in the capital the great mass of illiterate Afghans maintain a word-of-mouth culture in which rumor, gossip, and guesswork travel faster than the speed of social media, and mullahs more often than not have the last word. Before leaving Kabul, Ghani wisely named 10 distinguished Afghans, six men and four women, to a commission charged with uncovering the facts in the killing. Among them were Islamic and legal scholars, parliamentarians, and specialists in human rights.
He also released a statement about the case, pitched straight down the middle between the contending voices already speaking out. He assured one side in the developing argument over Farkhunda's death that dispensing justice is the duty of courts, not individuals, who would be "dealt with strongly" for taking the law into their own hands; while, with a nod to the other side, he also condemned "any action that causes disrespect to the Holy Quran and Islamic values." While the president then cajoled Americans in Washington and New York to support his new regime, the commission in Kabul worked as a single force to retrieve from the stream of accusation and conjecture the hard facts of the death of the woman known only as Farkhunda.
This is what they found: at age 27, she was a very religious woman who had not married but had graduated from high school and devoted herself to religious studies at a private Islamic madrassa, aspiring to become a teacher of Islamic law. She lived at home with her parents, the fourth of their 10 children. That Thursday, she went to the shrine wearing the black abaya of the devout believer, with a black half-veil covering the lower portion of her face. There, she said her prayers and spent some time cleaning the area of the shrine where people pray. After that, she exchanged words with a man who worked as a cleaner at the Shah-e Du Shamshira mosque across the street, while running a little sideline business at the shrine selling tawiz, bits of paper bearing handwritten Quranic verses, widely credited with magical properties.
The commissioners could not discover just what Farkhunda and the cleaner Zainuddin had said to each other, but that gap in the story has since been filled in by Farkhunda's family and friends. She evidently expressed to the cleaner her disapproval of his business of peddling un-Islamic amulets to poor, superstitious women. That story serves to explain -- and justify to some -- what the cleaner did next. While the commissioners found no witnesses to their exchange, the cleaner himself told them that he had shouted out to the people gathered at the shrine: "This woman is an American and she has burned a Quran." Farkhunda turned to people in the courtyard and said in a strong voice heard by many witnesses, "I am not an American and I have not burned a Quran."
Though the accusations were false, they stirred a quick response. As angry young men approached the accused woman, a policeman intervened and with the help of another young man took her to a room within the shrine. That young man then planted himself in front of the door, saying to others, "Leave her alone. Don't do this." (He was roughly the same twenty-something age as those who would kill Farkhunda and seems to have been the only citizen to offer her help that day.)
The policeman wanted to take her to the police station for her safety. Farkhunda insisted on a female escort, but when a policewoman arrived and opened the door to the inner room where she waited, angry men rushed in and dragged her out. Some of them hit her, tearing off the veil that covered her hair and bloodying her face. She fell to the ground but managed to sit up, supporting herself with one arm and raising the other in defense. Photographs of that moment show the legs of a uniformed policeman beside her.
That policeman or others pulled Farkhunda up and dragged her onto a low roof over which she might have escaped the mob. Another policeman, gripping her leg, pushed her from below, but an attacker struck his wrist with a stick, causing him to let go. Farkhunda then slid from the roof and fell to the sidewalk below. One or more of the police fired shots into the air, but it was too late. Menace had turned to frenzy. Some 10 or 12 men beat, punched, kicked, stomped, and stoned Farkhunda to death. One raised a great stone block and threw it down on her head. Later, to excuse himself, he said, "She was already dead."
Then come significant gaps in the photographic record. Farkhunda lay in the middle of the street and a car ran over her. How she was moved from the sidewalk to the street is uncertain. Mysterious, too, is the appearance of the car that crushed her and then in some undetermined but deliberate way dragged her down the street. There, unknown people seized her and threw her over a low wall running beside the river onto the stones of the partially dry riverbed. A man poured gasoline on his scarf and on Farkhunda. He set the scarf alight and dropped it on her body. As the flames roared skyward others in the crowd threw their own scarves and jackets onto the pyre. In their eagerness to stoke the fire, they stifled it. All the while, armed policemen stood in the riverbed and watched Farkhunda burn.
At last, the riot police appeared and took charge. It had been hard to break through the thousands of onlookers crowding both sides of the river and two bridges to see the burning of the woman who was said to have burned a Holy Quran.
"Working for the Infidels"
Within hours, everyone knew that the murder of Farkhunda was nothing like so many other commonplace acts of violence in Kabul. It was not an act of war, nor was it terrorism, nor political assassination. It was not a revenge killing, nor an honor killing, nor a family murder. In broad daylight, at a popular shrine, a mob of ordinary young men had murdered a young woman unknown to them with their fists and feet and whatever weapons came to hand. While shocked Kabulis struggled to make sense of this, some public figures were quick to tell them what to think.
A number of government officials immediately turned to Facebook to endorse the murder, assuming that if the Quran-burning woman were not actually American, her ideas must have been so. The official spokesman for the Kabul police Hashmat Stanekzai, for instance, wrote that Farkhunda "thought, like several other unbelievers, that this kind of action and insult will get them U.S. or European citizenship. But before reaching their target, they lost their life." The Deputy Minister for Culture and Information Simin Ghazal Hasanzada also approved the execution of a woman "working for the infidels." Zalmai Zabuli, chief of the complaints commission of the upper house of parliament, posted a picture of Farkhunda with this message: "This is the horrible and hated person who was punished by our Muslim compatriots for her action. Thus, they proved to her masters that Afghans want only Islam and cannot tolerate imperialism, apostasy, and spies."
The day after the murder, a great many imams and mullahs also endorsed the killing during Friday prayer services in their mosques. One of them, the influential Maulavi Ayaz Niazi of the Wazir Akbar Khan mosque, warned the government that any attempt to arrest the men who had defended the Quran would lead to an uprising.
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Ann Jones has worked with women’s organizations in Afghanistan periodically since 2002. She is the author ofKabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan and most recently They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars -- the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books original. She lives in Oslo, Norway.