Where has the world come to be, when innocents have to reach out and beg for mercy? – Simon Wiesenthal (1908-2005)
She would have made an unlikely role model in the fight for the rights of Afghan women. A deeply religious Muslim, Farkhunda Malikzadeh was very much a card-carrying member of the establishment, a symbol of what the Afghan society wanted to see in a woman – pious, conservative, wrapped and covered – packaged in a veil, so that Afghan men’s lusty 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 ‘jubilant’, ‘enlightened’, ‘blessed’.
The most beautiful part of Farkhunda were her eyes. 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.’
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 madrassa in Kabul, having made plans to become a public prosecutor.
Farkhunda’s beliefs were shaped by her faith, which in turn were tempered by the post-Taliban Afghan society, which decreed 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 to the tenets of Islam, perceived or real, it was definitely Farkhunda.
Yet, on a sunny day in March this year, over the course of two hours and some minutes, this girl was reduced from a pretty 27-year old to a lump of charred flesh and bones, brutally butchered in broad daylight by an angry mob, intent on exacting street justice.
Afghan men regularly tote guns and on this occasion too there were many around her who were armed. They could have simply shot her but their blood thirsty faith demanded brutality. Farkhunda 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! God is great!).
Farkhunda Malikzadeh was stoned, stomped on, thrown off a roof, dragged, her torn and bloodied body laid out in the middle of a thoroughfare and deliberately run over by a car.
That was not the end of it. The very faith she revered – Islam – required still more from Farkhunda Malikzadeh. Already as good as dead, she was set on fire and her crumpled corpse was dumped on the banks of the Kabul river.
When Farkhunda’s mother, Bibi Hazra, saw her in the morgue, she 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 pomegranate, the lower jaw missing completely. 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 feeding on her.
Bibi Hazra recalled saying to herself, “How could they do this to a living being, let alone an innocent human?” As to her father, Mohammad, his first physical reaction of an agonized frown that has remained in place ever since and probably will, till the day he passes on. Anytime someone tries to speak with him, Mohammad mutters, his features contorted in pain, tears rolling down his weather-beaten cheeks, “But she did nothing wrong. My daughter was an angel, she did nothing wrong. She was innocent.”
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 – that she was an American stooge. But when her innocence was established, it triggered a firestorm of protests that spread all over Afghanistan.
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 this pathetic nation’s history, all her pallbearers, grave diggers and even the priest who performed the last rites – usually always men, by tradition – were 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.
Steel yourself, for what I am about to recount isn’t for the faint-hearted
The story of the killing of Farkhunda Malikzadeh began just before the Afghan New Year, on March 13th, 2015 – a national holiday – an hour after 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 focused on the air-cooler that he was trying to fix up for the coming summer.
For most, the holiday had already begun, but just a stone’s throw from the Shah-do-Shamshira mosque in downtown Kabul, 16-year old Yakub 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. Most would have simply walked on by but 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 out loud,’ 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 obligingly ran her over.
Remember the boy, Yakub, I had written about in an earlier paragraph? Farkhunda was barely alive when the mob dumped her right in front of his 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. It was Yakub who hefted a massive block of marble from a nearby construction site and then, tottering under it’s weight, dropped it on Farkhunda’s head, flattening it and making it pop open like a squished melon.
His eyes glazed – transformed from teenager to barbarian – Yakub stood over the body, his feet planted on either side of Farkhunda Malikzadeh’s smashed head, as if in exultation…”Look, I am a man now. I am one of you.”
Then they dragged her body all the way to the dry bed of the Kabul River and were turning away, when someone doused her with gasoline and chucked a lighted match on her, setting her on fire.
In all it had taken Farkhunda Malikzadeh two hours and ten minutes – to turn from a pretty 27-year old into a lump of charcoal and ash.
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 American 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 Quran and Islamic values.”
Most of Farkhunda’s murderers have either managed to secure bail or gone scot-free, ‘for the lack of concrete evidence’. Only a handful actually went to jail and as of today are free to carry on with their lives, content at having paid their dues to Afghan society.
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.
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. This unfathomable tragedy is however symptomatic of something that runs way deeper.
The men who killed Farkhunda 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 or 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 Afghanistan. You can get a brief glimpse of that effort in British empire building at the link below……..
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. Survivors have little choice but to survive – and so, over generations they have survived the persecutions of the British, the internal rivalries between the Shah and his detractors, the brutality of the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, the Mujahideen’s internecine wars of the early 1990s, the Taliban’s draconian rule of the late 1990s and the imprisonments and torture at their hands.
Another view of Afghans – fashionable in the west – is that of savage tribesmen who are trapped in the middle ages. ‘Savages’ and ‘barbarians’ are terms that coalition military members and western commentators regularly use, to describe Afghans in general. On the surface, the Farkhunda incident seems to confirm this view, but those who have lived through the pre-Soviet Afghanistan, remember 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.
Grad students in Kabul University 1970s, before the Taliban shit hit the ceiling
Looking at the photo above and thinking of Afghanistan today, one reels at the appalling transformation that the nation has gone through.
The 21st century Afghan has no room for compassion and tolerance in his heart. Having never experienced it himself in his lifetime, he would be ill at ease with living in peace and tranquility. He is educated inside an archaic educational curriculum that does not teach students to think and use logic.
The Americans have been trying to spread democracy in this land for the past two decades, but simply repairing roads and constructing co-ed schools and hospitals doesn’t look like the ‘hearts and minds exercise’ that will bring 21st Century Afghanistan peace and stability. What needs repairing is the 21st Century Afghan himself. He is damaged goods.
Even more importantly, it is not only the bad apples that need culling. No, it is the orchard itself that requires replanting.