We are all Farkhunda

On March 19, a 27-year old woman named Farkhunda was leaving the Shah-e Doshamshira mosque, the shrine of the King of Two Swords, in Kabul. The shrine is a place where people all over Kabul, and indeed Afghanistan, go to make wishes, to ask the saint, who is said to have brought Islam to Afghanistan, for favour.

Farkhunda was a religious studies student and taught at the mosque. She was there as part of a religious ritual common in Kabul (though not necessarily common elsewhere the Islamic world) where the mullah would sell charms, sometimes including bits of text from the Quran written on paper and folded tightly. People could take the charms for good luck, protection, or making a wish. Some say that she was upset because the charms had not worked for her. She may have told others to stop buying the charms - a source of business for the mullah and for men who hung around outside the shrine (1).

An argument started with the mullah. The mullah, rather than taking this up as a matter of discussion, decided to incite a crowd of men outside the mosque by telling them that Farkhunda burned the Quran. The crowd formed a mob, who killed Farkhunda horribly over a period of minutes, in a scene captured on numerous cell phone video cameras and uploaded to the web. Police were on the scene - the shrine is a site of importance in Kabul - and did not intervene to save her.

Up to this point, the story is one of religious conservatism, misogyny, mob hatred, incitement, police inaction, and it might be explained away as an eternal problem of Islam, or of Afghanistan, or both.

But the popular reaction to Farkhunda's murder does not fit into these frames. Instead, what occurred was a sustained mobilization exponentially larger and more powerful than the gang of misogynists who murdered her.

It was quickly explained by her family and widely understood after her murder that Farkhunda was religious and would never have burned the Quran. But, while many protesters chanted slogans about Farkhunda's innocence, others were saying things like "so what if she burned the Quran?" And while there were those who tried to protect the mullah and the killers, the movement was using the cell phone videos and social media to track down each of the people in the mob who played a role in her death.

The Afghan authorities were forced to move. The police were suspended, many of the killers arrested. Islamic scholars publicly repudiated the attack. Those religious leaders and government leaders who defended Farkhunda's murder if she had in fact burned a Quran found themselves facing the wrath of the movement as well, and quickly backed down (2).

A two-day long trial in May brought death sentences for four of the accused, eight were sentenced to 16 years in prison, and 18 were acquitted. 19 police officers are still on trial for neglect of duty (3). The Farkhunda movement was unsatisfied, as were her family, that some of those who desecrated Farkhunda's body after her murder and others who stood by and did nothing were acquitted.

They are right to be disappointed and angry, but they also should not forget that their mobilization in Farkhunda's name has brought about such justice as there has been. In the process, they have sent a message that Afghanistan has changed, and that the Afghan people won't allow men to murder a woman in broad daylight without consequences. They forced a response from official Afghanistan, forced the justice system to arrest, try, and sentence the killers according to the law. They forced the system to censure (and possibly punish) the police for inaction. They forced the mullahs who defended murder to back off. These are remarkable achievements for a spontaneous organization in one of the most conservative societies in the world. For those outside Afghanistan who are willing to listen, the movement should challenge the view of Afghans as trapped in an eternally conservative, misogynist interpretation of Islam.

To reiterate this point: Farkhunda's killers were Muslim. Farkhunda was a Muslim. The people fighting to bring Farkhunda's killers to justice are Muslim, the judge that sentenced the killers is Muslim. The stereotyped view of Muslim societies propounded in the West cannot accommodate the idea that there are struggles within Muslim societies. But there are.

Afghanistan has not always been legendary for its conservatism. This whole incident would not have occurred at all in the Kabul of the 1960s or 1970s. The decades of war starting at the end of the 1970s brought Islamists into power whose narrow, violent interpretation of religion came from Saudi Arabia via Pakistan with US sponsorship. These Islamists, the mujahadeen, were followed in power by the Taliban (who had the same Pakistan and Saudi sponsors), and then, when the US and NATO took over in 2001, they brought the mujahadeen back. At that time, US commentators talked about the need to invade Afghanistan to save Afghan women from the Taliban. The invasion and occupation didn't save Farkhunda. If women are saved in Afghanistan in the future, it will be by Afghans and led by women, like those who have mobilized in her name.

Originally published at TeleSUR English: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/We-Are-All-Farkhunda----20150513-0031.html


(1) Mughda Variyar, International Business Times, March 24, 2015. "Was Farkhunda Killed for Standing Up to Mullah? Lynching Shows Fate of Afghan Women Who Speak Out". http://www.ibtimes.co.in/was-farkhunda-killed-standing-mullah-lynching-shows-fate-afghan-women-who-speak-out-627098

(2) Sayed Jawad, Khaama Press, March 22, 2015. "Kabul cleric under fire for endorsing murder and burning of woman". http://www.khaama.com/kabul-cleric-under-fire-for-endorsing-murder-and-burning-of-woman-9956

(3) Sune Engel Rasmussen, UK Guardian, May 6, 2015. "Farkhunda murder: Afghan judge sentences four to death over mob killing". http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/06/farkhunda-afghan-judge-sentences-four-to-death-over-mob-killing