On March 19th 2015, a 27-year old Afghan woman, known only by her first name Farkhunda, was brutally lynched and set on fire by a mob in the streets of Kabul. Her crime? It was alleged that she had burned copies of the Qur’an. The horrific scene occurred in Shah-e Do Shamshira mosque, situated in the heart of Afghanistan’s capital city. From the moment the baseless rumour started to spread, to the actual burning of her body on the banks of the Kabul River, it took the frenzied mass of people two hours to carry out the inhumane killing.
Hours later, video footage of Farkhunda’s brutal murder dominated social media. The images captured her final moments as she remonstrated with a group of men and denied their accusations, but they continued to beat her mercilessly with whatever they could get hold of. The sickening video showed her being run over by car and finally engulfed in flames and her body dumped in the river. Police officers were filmed standing nearby watching people throwing pieces of material on Farkhunda’s body to fuel the fire.
One could be forgiven for assuming that the people of Afghanistan are used to violence after decades of dealing with war and the threat of suicide bombings. Yet, this tragedy deeply shocked everyone not only inside but also outside the country. Marches and candle-lit vigils have been carried out in solidarity with Farkhunda worldwide. The tragedy brought together people from various backgrounds ranging from conservative Muslims to liberals, feminists and all ethnic and religious groups. Raged and heart-broken people used social media such as Facebook to condemn the killings and demand the perpetrators be brought to justice. Afghans were clear in their message that nothing could ever justify such savage, senseless murder.
No Qur’an had been burned. It began as a dispute between Farkhunda and an elderly Islamic spiritual healer who commanded authority and influence in the neighbourhood. She objected to his practice of selling talismans in the name of Islam in a mosque. Ironically, Farkhunda was a devout and conservative Muslim as well as a student in Islamic studies. She was a preacher who wore the niqab, which is not as common as the iconic blue burka in Afghanistan. At the height of the argument, during which she railed against fortune-tellers as ignorant and un-Islamic, the spiritual healer accused Farkhunda of Qur’an burning. The mere suggestion sent the crowd into a blood-thirsty craze. In an effort to discredit Farkhunda, claims were also made that she suffered from mental health issues, as if to justify her killing as something an ill woman had incited. This was later proved to be unfounded.
The tragedy reminded Afghans of the bitter realities in their country. It is the unquestionable and unchallenged position granted to pseudo-religious figures that enables them to abuse their power and exploit ordinary people. An intolerant and narrow Islam is proselytised by these dubious mystics who mix religion with superstition. Their hold over people is so great that those with a medical condition will come to them asking for a potion, amulet or dua (prayer) instead of consulting a qualified doctor.
Regardless of what Farkhunda did or did not do, our challenge is to learn that humanity goes above an alleged burning of the Qur’an or any disrespect to our sanctities. The Qur’an is meant to be the embodiment of humanity but we burnt humanity for the Quran. The culture of intolerance is so prevalent that critical Muslim Afghans along with non-religious and non-Muslim Afghans have fallen into self-censorship and conservatism. An unfounded label of Kafir (infidel) is enough to undermine any effort to have meaningful discussion of the practice of Islam today.
Instead, what we have been reduced to is men and young children competing with one another, elbowing through the crowd to take part in Farkhunda’s lynching. To nobody’s mind came the idea of referring her to the police instead of trialling her with punches and kicks in the face. The police officers did not lift a finger to rescue Farkhunda, instead they helped the mob to capture her. Also complicit were the hundreds of Afghan men passively watching the lynching and recording the atrocity on their smart phones. The submissiveness of the crowd shows that responsibility for this tragedy should be held not only by the mob, intolerant religious figures and the police but also by a wider community that took part by watching and recording Farkhunda’s torture.
More than anything, the incident showed again how vulnerable women are in Afghanistan. In asymmetrical power relations of men and women in the patriarchal country, a gender perspective indicates that if Farkhunda was a man she might be still alive. In realisation to this and in a symbolic gesture, many women’s rights activists physically carried the coffin of Farkhunda, with the agreement of her family but in defiance of social convention, and buried her themselves in a society that dictates that women are not allowed to even attend funerals. There have, no doubt, been improvements in the rights of women in Afghanistan during the past decade. Yet Farkhunda’s fate illustrates there is a long way to go before it can be deemed a fair society for everyone.
Outrage at this crime has proved polarising: civil society on the one hand and religious figures and institutions on the other. Civil societies and organisations are perceived to be pro-Western and religious institutions are considered to represent traditional Islam but that simplistic binary is not being bought by everyone. In early March in an artistic and symbolic act a young female artist named Kubra Khademi put on a suit of armour and walked through the streets of Kabul to raise awareness of street sexual harassment in Kabul. Despite the immense support she received, people, mainly men, found it unsuitable for the Afghan context. Some have gone further and even link a consequence of Kubra’s art performance to Farkhunda’s lynching. It seems a dialogue is desperately needed between various movements to decide how they want to define their Muslim identity in a rapidly changing Afghanistan and interconnected world.
Khadija Abbasi holds a BA in English Persian translation from Tehran's Islamic Azad University and a MSc in Gender and Development from London School of Economics. She is currently a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the Graduate Institute, Geneva and her research is an auto ethnographic account of her refugehood as well as her community (Afghan Hazaras) in Iran, Afghanistan and now in the UK. She has worked for various international NGOs in Iran, Afghanistan and Britain. She is now Research Assistant for the research project on Uzbek communities of Central Asia.