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Where has the world come to be, when innocents have to reach out and beg for mercy?

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She would have made an unlikely role model in the fight for the rights of Afghan women. A deeply religious Muslim, she was very much a card-carrying member of the establishment, a symbol of what the Afghan society wanted to see in a woman  – conservative and pious – wrapped, covered, packaged in a veil, so that Afghan men’s eyes would fall only on her eyes, nose and cheeks.

Born in Kabul in 1988, to Mohammad Nader and Bibi Hazra, Farkhunda Malikzadeh was the fourth child and her mother’s favorite, since she was so obedient. In every respect she looked like she would live up to her name – Farkhunda – which stands for, depending on whom you happen to ask – ‘properous’, ‘jubilant, ‘enlightened’ or even ‘blessed’.

The most beautiful part of her were her eyes and when she was a little girl, Bibi Hazra would gently touch her face and whisper softly,’ If I could only have your eyes, I would rule the world.’

To that, Farkhunda would smile,’ Mother, I hope that my luck and my heart prove to be beautiful too.’

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Demure and soulful – truly a Farkhunda (photo source:Wikimedia)

Whenever Farkhunda went out, she wore the head-to-toe black hejab that only strictly conservative Afghan women wear. She was in fact studying Islamic Law at a religious school or madrassa in Kabul, having plans of working as a public prosecutor. Her beliefs were shaped by her faith, which in turn seemed to be shaped by Afghan society – she believed that women needed to be educated but their priority lay at home and their duty – to care for their children and be obedient wives to their husbands.

To put it precisely, if there was one person in Kabul who didn’t pose any threat or flout any of the tenets of Islam, perceived or real, it was definitely Farkhunda.

Yet, on a sunny day in March this year, this pretty 27-year old was brutally murdered in broad daylight by an angry mob, intent on exacting street justice. Afghan men regularly tote guns and on this occasion there were many around her who were armed, but she wasn’t simply shot. Their perceived faith called for brutality. She was quite literally beaten to death while hundreds looked on, some even filming her murder on their mobile phones, which they promptly uploaded on YouTube. The rest stood in a circle around her, lustily chanting ‘Allah-o-Akbar! Allah-o-Akbar’ (God is great).

Farkhunda Malikzadeh was stoned, stomped on, thrown off a roof, dragged and then run over by a car and finally – already as good as dead – she was set on fire and dumped on the banks of the Kabul river.

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When her mother saw her in the morgue, Farkhunda was unrecognizable – charred into lumps. And yet the signs of the beating were unmistakable – a nose smashed, the head flattened out of shape – cracked open like a melon, the lower jaw missing completely. The sight was grotesque. Hardly any hair remained on her head, the skin on her scalp wrinkled and mottled and already turning purplish-green from the bacteria that had begun to feed on her.

‘How could they do this to a living being, let alone an innocent human?’ her mother recalled saying to herself.

After being told of how she died, Farkhunda’s father’s face acquired a quizzical frown that has remained in place ever since and probably will, till the day he passes on. “I cannot understand why my daughter was killed. She did nothing wrong. She was innocent,’ he mutters, his visage twisting in hideous pain, tears staining both weather-beaten cheeks.

In the immediate aftermath of the killing, everyone believed that she had really done all those things that her killers had accused her of doing, but when her innocence was established, it triggered a firestorm of protests that spread all over Afghanistan.

In fact, so incensed were the women of Kabul, that they did not allow any man to even come near Farkhunda’s coffin and for the first time in Afghanistan’s pitiful history, her pallbearers, grave diggers and even the priest who performed the last rites (usually always men, as per tradition) were all women. While the cortege made it’s way to the burial grounds, surrounded by a sea of women, the roads were lined with hundreds of mourners – all of them, men – with their heads hanging down, in shame.

In life, Farkhunda Malikzadeh might have been a conformist, but in death she had, for perhaps a fleeting instant, become a symbol of the desperate fight for Afghan women’s rights.

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The story of the killing of Farkhunda Malikzadeh began just before the Afghan New Year, on March 13th, a national holiday, when Farkhunda left home to go to a Quran recital. She had been helping her mother prepare sweetmeats for the New Year’s festivities. Everything was so normal – just like any other day.

Farkhunda said,’ Khuda Hafeez, Mama’, kissed her nephew and said goodbye to her father, who raised his hand absentmindedly, his attention drawn toward the air-cooler that he was trying to fix up for the coming summer.

For many, the holiday had already begun, but just a stone’s throw from the Shah-do-Shamshira mosque in downtown Kabul, a young man named Yakub, 16, was helping out inside his uncle’s shop. A sober, dutiful youth, that was his after-school job. Yakub was in his final year in high school.

Today, Yakub had to hurry, for it was his cousin’s wedding and he had to go home and get dressed for the party. The whole family was going to gather together and he was looking forward to it. He had told his father, ‘Baba, you all go along and I’ll join you at my aunt’s place after I finish.’

At around the same time, Farkhunda too found herself in the center of Kabul. She had decided to take a detour on her way home from the Quran recital. She wanted to visit the shrine at the Shah-do-Shamshira mosque. This part of town is very crowded and everyone is trying to either sell you something or relieve you of something – your bag or wallet. Or if you happen to be a woman – there is always a groper trying to molest you.

If you are an unescorted woman, the area in the vicinity of the mosque is a very dicey joint to be in. Men stare at you, open lust in their eyes. Hordes of beggars hover around, hoping you will slip them some coins. The pushcart fruit and veggie sellers may even try to feel you up as you pass them by.

That day, Farkhunda was wearing jeans but they were covered by a dark ankle length hejab that covered her completely. Her appearance was overtly conservative and therefore no cause for any concern about breaking morality rules. As she exited the shrine, she passed by the caretaker, a mullah, who was lounging by the large entrance door, hawking amulets and lucky charms to devotees, a common practice, even though it is frowned upon by Islam.

These little pieces of glossy paper, with Quranic verses written on them, are supposed to hold magical powers, but Farkhunda disapproved of the custom. She considered it un-Islamic. She went up to the mullah to try to persuade him to stop selling those charms.

Clearly, the man was affronted by the thought of being admonished by a woman. Blood rising in his veins, all of a sudden he began to scream,’ This woman is an American stooge! She has burned the Quran!’

It was as if a stick of dynamite had gone off.

An angry crowd of swarthy strangers quickly gathered round Farkhunda. Later, a cellphone video that had been uploaded to YouTube showed her trying to explain to the gathering crowd what had actually happened between her and the mullah. Someone in the crowd asked her why she burned the holy book and she began pleading with them that she had done nothing of the sort.

‘The Americans have sent her!’ shouted a voice from somewhere in the back of the circle of men around her, to which she protested,’ I am not an American!’

“Shut up, or I’ll smash your face,’ said one of the men standing right next to her.

Then the onslaught began.

Farkhunda was dragged out by the mob who kicked her repeatedly. There was a posse of police constable nearby, who heard the commotion and came over to take a look. To be fair to them, they did try to disperse the crowd, even firing their weapons into the air as a warning. Farkhunda was now on the ground, pushed and shoved, kicked and slapped, as she tried desperately to protect herself from the blows raining down on her.

What happened next is well documented, thanks to the numerous cellphone videos that were uploaded to YouTube.

First, the mob dragged her up to the roof of the shrine, from where she was given a heave and she plummeted to the ground, where she lay like a broken doll, wriggling and squirming, trying to get away, making motions with her two arms like a swimmer doing a breast stroke.

Then, while she writhed on the ground, in full view of the cops who didn’t lift even a finger, other men descended on her. They beat her savagely with whatever makeshift weapons they could lay their hands on. Divine intervention had ensured that they didn’t want for anything in that regard – nearby, a building was being refurbished and there were all sorts of construction materials strewn around – wooden planks, bricks, pieces of ceramic tiles, heavy square blocks of granite – this joint was literally a bludgeoner’s dream.

As Farkhunda lay defenseless, some of the men began stomping on her. Caught on video, she is seen pleading for mercy, but that day the Allah that she had dutifully prayed to all her life had forsaken her. There was no mercy.

While the cops looked on, someone shouted,’ Is she dead?’

‘Perhaps,’ replied another,’ by now she should be, after the hiding we gave the evil little bitch.’

Still, the mob hadn’t finished with Farkhunda yet. They dragged her body down the street and dumped it in front of a car which then obliged – by running her over. The men had by chance dumped her body right in front of Yakub’s uncle’s shop. Yakub ran out to check what the commotion was all about.

And that is when 16-year old dutiful and sober Yakub joined in. He kicked and stomped on the body just like all the others had done. Then they dragged her body all the way to the dry bed of the Kabul River and dumped it there. It was Yakub who then lifted a massive block of marble and just dropped it on Farkhunda’s head, flattening it and making it open up like a squished melon.

And finally? – they set her on fire.

In all it had taken Farkhunda two hours and ten minutes – to turn into charcoal and ash.

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Initially, just after the killing, the Quran burning story seemed to gain traction, thanks to a cleric’s sermon broadcast by loudspeaker, which told devotees that the crowd had a right to defend their Muslim beliefs at all costs.

“I am warning the government not to arrest those who did this, because it will mean an uprising,” said the cleric at the Wazir Akbar Khan mosque.

One Afghan man boasted on Facebook about how he had proudly participated in the lynching, saying that “the pious people of Kabul, including myself, killed her and then burned her. This woman’s place is in hell.” His post gained credence when a spokesman in the Kabul police chief’s office also justified the killing, charging that ‘the woman had deliberately insulted Islam’.

Still another wrote on his Facebook timeline, “This person thought, like several other unbelievers, that this kind of insult will get them US or European citizenship. But before she could reach her goal, we killed her.”

Even the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office issued a statement which fell just a wee short of actually condemning Farkhunda outright –  “ while no one can take the law into their hands, the President also condemns in strong terms any action that causes disrespect to the Holy Koran and Islamic values.”

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Most of Farkhunda’s murderers have either managed to secure bail or gone scot-free, ‘for the lack of concrete evidence’. Only a handful got 20 years, which in effect means that they will probably be out in 7 years and live to carry on with their lives, content at having paid their dues to Afghan society.

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Farkhunda was killed not because she was a woman. It would be stupidity to believe that. Albeit, she might have gained a little more time had she been a muscular man. She might have put up a fight or run a few meters before being slaughtered.

This unfathomable tragedy is however symptomatic of a more extensive, less tangible and far more alarming cause, which runs way deeper. Her attackers were neither common criminals, nor a bunch of religious fanatics. They were mostly urban dwellers, educated and well-groomed men in their twenties, even youngsters – like Yakub – still in their teens.

But these were men who were born and raised in war. Their fathers and their grandfathers too have lived their entire lives inside a perpetual state of violence and strife, instilled over three to four decades, their DNA cemented inside a motherboard that was engineered way back, during the time of the unspeakable atrocities of the British East India Company in the the First Anglo-Afghan War in the early 19th century.

That culture continues to be passed on, generation to generation, getting a fillip first with the US-aided armed struggle against Soviet occupation and then given a dose of steroids with the US-led international intervention of 2001. Thereafter, strongmen and warlords stepped in and thrived, making their own laws, enriching themselves and in the process becoming politically powerful.

Crime in Afghan society is rampant and goes mostly unpunished. Corruption among the police, prosecutors and judges has emboldened criminals, leaving citizens have little faith in the rule of law. The lines between morality and immoral behavior, lawful and illegal acts and righteous and sinful deeds have blurred to the point that most people are not even aware that they have committed a crime when they do even the most dreadful things – such killing a defenseless and entirely innocent young woman.

Afghans are often praised for their resilience in the face of adversity. This is a myth. This is not resilience. This is an entire nation reeling under Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder ( PTSD). Afghans are at best – survivors. But then survivors have little choice but to survive – and so, they have survived the persecutions of the British, the internal rivalries between the Shah and his detractors, the brutality of the Soviets’ in the 1980s, the Mujahideen’s internecine wars of the early 1990s, the Taliban’s draconian rule of the late 1990s, imprisonments, torture, abject poverty, lack of education, miseries of refugee camps and the loss of loved ones. A 21st century Afghan is damaged goods.

A view of Afghans as savage tribesmen who are trapped in the middle ages, has become fashionable in the west. ‘Savages’ and ‘barbarians’ are terms that western commentators regularly use, to describe Afghjans. While on the surface, the Farkhunda incident seems to confirm this view, those who remember the pre-Soviet Afghanistan, know that while it was a poor and under-developed country, there was dignity and tolerance. Afghans were always highly religious, but their Islam, heavily influenced by Sufism, was moderate and tolerant of others.

Today’s Afghan however, has no room for compassion and tolerance. He would be ill at ease with peace and tranquility. He is educated inside an archaic educational curriculum that does not teach students to think and use logic. Religious instruction at schools or at mosques indoctrinates the youth in an interpretation of Islam that fosters narrow-mindedness from a very early age.

Farkhunda will not be the last. If the Afghan establishment and it’s so-called international well-wishers do not overhaul the education system and begin seriously applying the rule of law, Farkhunda’s murderers will go unpunished.

Simply constructing roads, buildings and institutions will not bring Afghanistan back to modernity, peace and stability. It will only enrich the Bechtels and the Haliburtons – the reconstruction barons of the world.

Instead, investing in real ‘hearts and minds’ – healing the Afghan people’s deeply embedded psychological wounds would be the right position to begin from.

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Maybe I am being too judgmental. Perhaps there are some other more complex forces at play. And of course, not all Afghan men are murderous. There is nothing crazy about the gifted Afghan best-selling author, Khalid Husseini, for instance.

But, some time after the spate of 2014 beheadings by the ISIS in Iraq and the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris this January, the American talk show host, Bill Maher thundered, “When there’s this many bad apples, there’s something wrong with that orchard….” Maher’s comment was labeled ‘controversial’ and ‘polarizing’ by the liberal press, but in my eyes, he did make a point.

Perhaps it is time to debate over how to tweak that orchard so it will produce the right kind of apples. 

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