Although some would like to characterize acts such as Farkhunda’s murder as “barbaric” or “medieval,” such acts are inextricable from political calculations, modern “civilizing” missions, and the War on Terror. As in other countries, including the US, the pursuit of women’s rights in Afghanistan has often been subject to cost-benefit calculations by multiple domestic and international actors.
In Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, Lila Abu-Lughod reminds us of Laura Bush’s pledge that the US intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 would not only make the US more secure, but would also liberate Afghan women. Americans were given a choice of motivations for supporting the intervention. In a 2013 op-ed in the Washington Post, Bush expressed relief that even though women continue to suffer due to the legacy of the Taliban and US troops would soon leave, several American organizations and companies, including Kate Spade New York, were working to secure gains for Afghan women.
Women’s empowerment is supposed to be the redemptive fig leaf of the US intervention in Afghanistan and has often been strategically mobilized to garner support for the US intervention and presence in Afghanistan, as well as anxiety about the withdrawal of US troops. Since 2001, the US has made considerable investments in education and “capacity building” for girls and women in Afghanistan, but has also enabled the formation and persistence of political arrangements that undermine struggles for sustainable and secure women’s rights.
Emphasizing women’s rights bolstered the US’s public relations campaign, but the association of women’s rights with the US intervention also generated significant challenges for the pursuit of gender justice. The US removed the Taliban from power, but little changed in terms of hierarchies and the distribution of power, especially outside major cities. The War on Terror has required and justified alliances with a wide range of actors. The Karzai regime, a valuable ally in the War on Terror, frequently struck formal and tacit deals with warlords, ethnic entrepreneurs, and social conservatives, to secure support. This inhibited the development of responsive institutions that would reduce the vulnerability of citizens, rather than boost powerful state and non-state actors.
In the following pieces, two students, Fatima Hashimi and Nazifa Alizada, share their analyses of the implications of Farkhunda’s death for struggles for justice in Afghanistan. The piece by Fatima Hashimi expresses hope in the opportunities triggered by widespread condemnation of Farkhunda’s murder. The piece by Nazifa Alizada focuses on structural constraints to meaningful change and reform. While these pieces differ in their interpretation of the force of agency vs. structure, both challenge reductionist attempts to characterize Afghan women as symbols of the success of the US intervention or as pawns in the War on Terror.
Farkhunda is Alive
On the morning of 19th March two days before the Afghan New Year, the yelling of Allahu Akbar (Allah is great) cried out by a preacher in one of Kabul’s most respected shrines, Shah-Do Shamshira, provoked an angry mob of men to blindly beat a 27 year old Afghan woman named Farkhunda to death and set her body on fire for allegedly burning the Holy Quran. Farkhunda’s death set humanity to mourning, yet allowed Afghans to welcome the New Year in a different way, in which people pledged to cooperatively stand against injustice, paved the way for women’s empowerment, broke the invalid chains of superstition and blind belief, and awakened the Afghan National Unity Government to reevaluate its weak and ineffective law enforcement.
Farkhunda’s mother was probably busy decorating the haft-seen table, a traditional table setting of Persian New Year called Nowruz and sewing a new dress for her beloved daughter to wear on the New Year. Her father perhaps bought dry fruits and sweets to see his beloved daughter enjoy eating them with her friends, when suddenly Farkhunda’s painful screams at rocks hitting her face, echoed in her parents’ hearts. Hearing her daughter in pain, the poor mother fainted with anxiety. Seeing blood stream down the face of Farkhunda, who was brutally hunted down by an angry crowed to satisfy their bloodlust, the tears dried up in her father’s eyes.
The mob lacked human compassion and was deaf to Farkhunda’s helpless pleas. Even a woman passing by, perhaps motivated by the yell of Allahu Akbar without knowing for what purpose, kicked the woman mobbed by ignorant opportunists.
After the truth was revealed that the deceptive mullah had intentionally accused Farkhunda for blasphemy though she did not burn the Quran, but an amulet (Taweez), masses of people including men and women took to the streets of Kabul demanding justice for her wounded soul and charred body. Farkhunda, as a martyred Afghan soul, wrote on a new page of Afghan history with her blood that no human being should submit to injustice. Rather they must take a strong stance against rights that are violated and lives that are lost.
The collective protests against Farkhunda’s murder indicate that unlike the expectation of the world that Afghan society easily disregards the value of a woman’s life, Afghan women are gaining power and courage more than ever to shape the history of the country. This strength is explicitly witnessed when for the first time in the history of Afghanistan, women defied Mullahs to bury the martyred soul and break with tradition to carry the coffin of Farkhunda and bury her themselves. This is a revolution happening in Afghan society. The aftermath of Farkhunda’s murder demonstrates that people are no longer willing to be locked behind so-called traditional values. Farkhunda’s murder was not hidden behind the shadows, rather the slogans “I am Farkhunda, I am alive for ever” cried out by young and old Afghan women constantly for many days in the streets, caused her injured soul to breathe and live again, and stand against inhumanity.
Farkhunda decried how most Mullahs are playing with people’s feeling for their personal gains. In Afghan society, many people, whether ignorant or educated, patronize preachers, who claim to cure any kinds of diseases that well educated and expert doctors in the world are not capable of curing and who claim to solve any kind of conflict as their words are derived from the Holy Quran. However, Farkhunda’s murder by such Mullahs and the crowd who thoughtlessly followed the preacher’s announcement exposed the fact that fake Mullahs are deceiving people solely for their personal gains even if it leads to an innocent person being beaten to death.
Consequently, Farkhunda’s death encouraged people to demand the dismissal of government officials and religious leaders who justified Farkhunda’s murder in the hope of gaining public support, ignoring the fact that the life of a human being is more worthy than false and impulsive religious sentiments. Farkhunda’s death, two days before the Persian New Year awakened the Afghan National Unity Government to embark on a new beginning and strengthen its weak law enforcement.
The increasing number of events being organized both in social media and societies around the world and the huge number of posts and articles written about Farkhunda’s innocence, illustrate that humanity will always overcome false sentiments and injustice.
Farkhunda is gone, but she is alive as we are all Farkhunda. We demand justice for Farkhunda and for ourselves. Farkhunda’s death is a lifetime inspiration for all of us for combating all forms of injustice.
Fatima Hashimi grew up in Pakistan and Afghanistan and is majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.
Farkhunda’s Murder and the Imperative of Introspection
Farkhunda’s murder illustrates how weak institutional protections undermine women’s rights, underlines the persistent and irresponsible influence of religious leaders in the country, and highlights the dangers of our tolerance of individuals, ideas, and institutions that propagate intolerance, inequality, and misogyny. Although the images of women carrying Farkhunda’s coffin at her funeral might seem to indicate a new chapter in gender relations in Afghanistan, the responses to her death arguably reinforce rather than challenge existing conceptions of honor, the “good” Afghan woman, and male protectiveness.
The very ability of a group of people to murder a person in broad daylight, in the center of the capital city, and in front of hundreds of witnesses, including the police, indicates how institutions have failed to protect Afghan citizens. Millions of dollars invested in police training and citizen empowerment stood for little in the face of a preacher’s impulsive allegation against a defenseless citizen. An allegation that was interpreted as a mandate to beat, kill, and burn Farkhunda. What meaning do elections, political institutions, speeches about empowerment, and capacity building programs have when people can incite hatred and violence against fellow-citizens with impunity?
Among the many witnesses, was there not a single human being who, instead of recording videos and sharing images of Farkhunda’s bloody body on Facebook, could have tried to stop the sadistic mob from committing such a series of inhuman acts?
Just as those people stood by as Farkhunda was tortured and murdered, too many of us stand by when we witness every day acts of misogyny and intolerance. It’s more convenient and we avoid upsetting people. Just as we assume the role of passive bystanders, the state also stands by and allow certain individuals and institutions to reinforce inequality and incite violence – not only against women, but vulnerable citizens in general.
Farkhunda’s case was extreme, drastic, and visible enough to eventually make legal institutions and the public condemn her murder, but atrocities against women remain all too common in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Thousands of women around Afghanistan are physically beaten, mentally tortured, and sexually abused by their family members every day. Yet, their cases remain unreported, invisible, and inconsequential: too many victims and survivors rarely get a chance to speak of their rights, to share their sorrows, and to be known. Many others adapt their behavior to avoid abuse, but live with the fear of violence at home and on the streets.
Farkhunda’s lack of control over the last moments of her life and lack of support from the state and fellow citizens are all too familiar to many Afghans. The state cedes jurisdiction over women to families, religious leaders, and society in return for power and stability. A Faustian bargain that impedes women’s efforts to shape their own lives, and complicates the work of human rights’ activists and movements. Farkhunda’s case is a potent symbol of the alienated life of every citizen who lives in fear of abuse, harassment, and violence – not just in Afghanistan, but around the world. The treatment she received echoes the daily fears, worries, and dilemmas that haunt countless individuals.
Farkhunda’s murder manifests the deep-rooted influence of religious leaders in the country. This influence is not organic – it has been nurtured and enabled by war and power politics. Power seekers have used religion deliberately as a powerful instrument to violate citizens’ rights in Afghanistan. The Mujahedeen used religion to curtail women’s role in public sphere back in 1980s and the Taliban legitimized their misogynistic and repressive state using religion.
Today, in Afghanistan’s democratic era, many Mullahs continue to propagate misogynistic attitudes by using religion and encourage people to control women, marry them off, or burn them. They use religion to teach followers that women’s bodies are not their own – they belong to men, to society. The democratic era and the presence of international community reinforced the power of religious leaders and institutions in Afghanistan, because challenging them was deemed to be too risky. Similar to the Mujahedeen and the Taliban, many religious institutions today reproduce and reinforce intolerance and misogyny in the country with tacit or explicit backing from multiple domestic and international actors.
Condemnations of Farkhunda’s murder by innumerable Afghans, both men and women, have been widespread, but what is also needed is an introspective reflection on how and why so many of us have chosen to mourn Farkhunda and whether such mourning has the potential to catalyze substantive and sustainable gains for women’s rights. The signs are not promising.
Many Afghan men have condemned Farkhunda’s murder not as an inhuman or barbaric crime, but because ‘Namos’, meaning honor and legal property, was violated. Following Farkhunda’s murder, Facebook statuses such as “We demand justice for Farkhunda because “Farkhunda is Kabulians’ Namos”” from prominent male government authorities were common. This indicates that Farkhunda’s case offended some men not as a violation of human rights but because they define women as someone’s Namos or ‘property’ and cannot tolerate an attack on their Namos. Such reactions portray the persistence of patriarchy and misogyny rather than a movement towards the recognition of women’s right to dignity and security.
Following Farkhunda’s murder, many women activists ‘broke the taboo’ and shouldered Farkhunda’s coffin at her funeral. However, the positive implication of this act of resistance is limited, because as the images show, the women holding the coffin are surrounded by a group of men, possibly members of Farkhunda’s family, tightly holding hands in a circle, as if they are protecting them.
Can women only break taboos with the approval of and under the protection and supervision of men? As the burial images illustrate, even while ‘breaking a taboo’, women may only be able to move within a limited circle surrounded, approved, and defined by men. We have reached a point where it is tempting to feel deeply grateful that men did not obstruct or attack the women carrying the coffin, and that some men showed compassion and provided protection. What does this say about our sense of insecurity and our expectations about men’s behavior?
Farkhunda’s burial must not reinforce the idea that women need to be protected by men or that they can only make demands within the bounds approved, defined, and secured by men. Men need to do much more to prove that they want to embody solidarity, rather than reinforcing hierarchical notions of strong, protective men and weak, defenseless women. Tolerating women’s participation in carrying a coffin is simply not enough. Taking a stand against everyday acts that propagate vulnerability, insecurity, and impunity is imperative. Demands for justice and breaking taboos in such a manner are meaningless unless everybody recognizes that we are all complicit in enabling unjust individuals, institutions, and ideas to control people’s lives and rob them of voice and agency.
We also need to consider whether we mourned Farkhunda because she was a human being or because she belongs to the “approved” subset of women. Was Farkhunda’s murder nationally mourned because she was a student of religious studies, memorized and taught the Quran, and wore “modest” clothes? Had it been someone studying a different major, wearing an outfit shorter and tighter, and a headscarf thinner than hers, would the reaction have been different? Will we continue to allow self-serving religious leaders and politicians to keep encouraging society to define women by the length of their clothes and the size of their headscarves? Or will we demand dignity and security for every citizen regardless of attire?
Farkhunda’s case is a warning to Afghan citizens, to the Afghan unity government, and to the international community. It reveals the persistence of challenges ahead for Afghans who want a just and egalitarian country. In this transitional era, who is to guarantee that women’s rights will remain protected and that religious institutions would never again use their power to sacrifice women’s rights and lives?
The unity government of Afghanistan is responsible for providing legal and institutional support for all citizens, including women. If it continues to allow people to propagate misogyny and incite violence against women, it will continue to fail its citizens, as it failed Farkhunda and other victims of misogyny and intolerance.
The responsibility to ensure such a case never recurs also rests with everyone of us: such tragedies should strengthen our resolve to raise our voices and oppose injustice, but also to look within ourselves and think critically about our own complicity in enabling the persistence of misogynistic practices, however big or small.
Nazifa Alizada is an Afghan undergraduate majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.