A wretched, stomach-churning murder scene unfolded before the eyes of the world on Thursday, just after it occurred at a mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan. Scores of Afghan men—and one woman—stomped on an innocent, fallen woman, Farkhonda. One of the men pounced on the woman’s body with both feet, as he held onto a railing, crushing her over and over again beneath his feet.
Another man shouted, “Long live Islam! Long Live Islam! Death to the nation's enemy.”
Farkhonda’s alleged sin: burning a Quran at Shahe Do Shamshira, or “King of Two Swords,” in the language of Dari. Located on the edge of the Kabul River in a crowded neighborhood, the Sunni mosque sits in the center of the capital. The men beat her on the grounds, a popular and historic Sunni Muslim landmark.
Shouts of “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great,” rang in the air, as the man led the crowd in chants, smartphones trained on the brutality, men kicking the woman with their feet and clubbing her with sticks. The woman’s name means “prosperous,” but her murder was torturous: the mob taking her body to the banks of the Kabul River where they burned her unconscious body.
Five men have been arrested in connection to Farkhonda’s killing, but police gave no further details. Afghanistan President, Ashraf Ghani, has appropriately called for a special investigation into her murder.
The word for “sin" is gunaah in the language of Dari, spoken in Afghanistan, and the idea of “sin” is associated with dishonor and shame. But for us, as Muslim women from Afghanistan and India, Farkhonda was begunaah, or “without sin.” She was in her late 20s or early 30s, according to media reports. Her family, who said she also had a mental illness.
In the honor-consumed world of Afghanistan and Muslim culture, it is not Farkhonda who sinned and was without honor, or ghairat, in the languages of Dari and Pashto, spoken in Afghanistan. It is the murderers who killed Farkhonda — and the bystanders who didn’t save her — who are beghairat, or “without honor.”
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Radio Free Afghanistan featured the video under the heading, “Mob Violence.”
On Facebook, a man by the name of “Sharaf Baghlany” proudly confessed to being one of Farkhonda’s murderers. He posted four photos, allegedly showing pages from the burnt Quran, and added a message in Dari.
“Salam,” he began, using the Muslim word for “Peace,” and continuing: “Today at 4 in the evening, an atheist woman burned the noble Quran at the Shahe Do Shamshira shrine. Then people with religion, including myself, first killed her and then burned her. Dozakh will be her place, inshallah,” the Arabic word for “God willing.”
Dozakh means “hell.”
He didn’t respond to a message seeking comment, and he later deleted his post. But the responses his friends immediately posted were chilling. A few friends condemned his actions. One said, “You didn’t do a good thing.” But the majority praised him for the murder. One man said it would’ve been better if she had been taken to court but another disagreed. “You did the right thing. If the case was taken to court, it might’ve been taken to America and it would’ve become a political stain.”
The young man was one of the five men arrested today, presented in a police lineup shared widely by Afghans on social media. The Afghan government said that the pages were from a Persian textbook, not the Quran, and the report that Farkhonda had wanted to burn an amulet, called a taweez, which sometimes includes a Quranic citation, and the mullah, or cleric of the mosque, instigated the mob.
In the TV footage of Farkhonda’s struggle for life, Abdul Rahman Ahmadzai, president of religious affairs in Afghanistan’s Ministry of Hajj, told Afghanistan’s Ariana Television Network: “If the woman actually burned the passages of the Quran and she was not Muslim, we justify the actions of our people.”
That’s what is so particularly troubling. This wasn’t violence from a propaganda video from the Islamic State; this was violence by ordinary Afghans. In a video by T Television Network, two men tried to help Farkhonda, dragging the woman’s body, her hair disheveled, onto a corrugated rooftop to try to save her, a man with “POLICE” across his jacket back, trying to help push her onto the rooftop. But then other men climbed the roof, one of them throwing a stone at her, another a plank, as Farkhonda raised an arm to try to shield herself. Then, the two beneficent witnesses lose their grip on her, seemingly tackled by men from the mob. Farkhonda tumbled to the mob’s feet, her face soon bloodied, a shock of red across her face. (WARNING: the video is extremely graphic.
The violence—and Baghlany’s apparent pride in his alleged role—underscores the inhumane depravity, sickness and disregard for individual human rights that has become normalized in too many 21st century Muslim communities, and include Saudi Arabia’s public flogging earlier this year of blogger Rauf Badawi for alleged insults against the “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” and the brutal assassinations of cartoonists in Paris at the Charlie Hebdo French satire magazine. Farkhonda’s murder, on the eve of the Persian new year, Nowruz, was reminiscent of the Taliban attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul last year—also on the eve of Nowruz, killing a popular Afghan journalist, Sardar Ahmed, and 15 others, including his wife and children.
We have to stand on the side of victims in all societies, Muslim and beyond, and reject the idea, clearly and definitively, that perpetrators of violence act “honorably.” In India, in the wake of a 2012 Delhi beating and gang rape of a woman who died from her wounds, Indian civil society had to challenge a traditional family shame assigned to victims of rape. India recently banned a documentary film, “India’s Daughter,” about the rape because, in the film, one of the rapists blames the victim. The attempt to discredit the rape victim has become an all too common strategy of men punishing women for what they see as dishonorable behavior.
Stonings, beheadings, and brutal violence against women occur in the villages and provinces, but the participation of clean-shaven, Western-dressed men in Afghanistan’s most liberal city in broad daylight shocked many Afghans. Emotions ran high on social media posts through the night after the attack with some expressing shame and others questioning their identity and history. It was an ugly awakening for Afghans who seemed to ask: How could we?
Hana Ludin, an Afghan woman in Germany, was critical of the entire ghairat society on Facebook, noting, “I am utterly shocked and disgusted to hear about the incident in Kabul today. It is beyond words.” She added: “This act shows the highly violent, intolerant and bigoted system which she lived in. It is difficult to stay sane in such an insane society.”
To us, this murder is the worst of man’s inhumanity to another. To some observers, the brutality is a result of Afghanistan’s long history of war, causing many people to have PTSD and trauma. In Fremont, Calif., Esmael Darman, an Afghan psychologist at the Afghan Coalition, fielded messages all day from moderate Afghan Muslims, he said, who blamed the psychological impact of the war, and he said he was “depressed” from the interactions.
He called the war “an expired excuse,” that didn’t hold the collective society, particularly moderates, responsible for challenging conventional notions of “honor.”
On Facebook, he told his friends: “My complaint, or to put it clearly, my rage is towards the so-called ‘educated’ Afghans: some doctors, engineers, managers, directors, politicians.... The ones who make big bucks, wear suits, have frequent Dubai and other international visits, do stuff there, and then return and preach us Islam whenever they get a chance. They are, in some ways, the bloodline of extremist Mullahs. Even worse, they defend acts like the recent barbaric incident. There is no need to name them. Just open your eyes and you can easily recognize that some of such parasites are in your circle of acquaintances. Their plan is simple: shaming us under the name of Islam. Threaten us under the name of Islam and under the name of ghairat. But remember that they have failed us as a generation. They have brought disgrace to us on an international level. They have failed humanity….They are part of our people but at the same time our worst enemy.”
Indeed, without remorse, an eyewitness to the murder, quoted in the Ariana Television Network report, said: “She burned the Quran, then people killed her right there. Then they threw her body in the river, throwing their scarves, coats and whatever they could find on top of her so she could burn really well.”
As news of Farkhonda’s murder spread, a group of Afghan activists created a Facebook page, “Justice for Farkhonda,” demanding prosecution of her killers and sharing the painfully graphic images of her bloodied face and then her body engulfed in flames. Their hashtag: a call for #justice. The next day, Amrullah Saleh, a political leader and former director of the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, called Farkhonda “namoos-e-Kabul,” or the “honor of Kabul.”
For us, this murder represents yet another call to action for reformation of our Muslim communities so we value human rights and women’s rights. For Fariba, an Afghan-American living in Fremont, sometimes called “Little Kabul,” this murder represents a wakeup call for moderate Afghans. And for the other, Asra, an Indian-American, this tragedy is an opportunity for Muslims and people in all traditional communities to reflect on the value of a human being over “honor.”
We need to reject the draconian, medieval, and tribal definitions of “honor” that define too many traditional communities, that creates a culture where we kill human beings for a perceived dishonor to collective identity. We must respect individual human rights, like the right of a woman named Farkhonda to live on this earth. The murderers must be held accountable so that we can redefine where honor lies.