The Afghan calendar year that ended last week, marked one of the bloodiest of the past fourteen years of US-led intervention in Afghanistan. For Afghans, the start of the year was a depressing reminder of last year’s Nowroz celebration when a local journalist, his wife and two children, were massacred in a terrorist attack at Serena Hotel. Another, even more shocking event has taken Afghans - particularly residents of Kabul - totally by a surprise this year.
On March 19th, a twenty seven year old woman, Farkhunda, was accused by a local cleric (Mullah) and some Shrine keepers at the Shah-e-Du-Shamshira shrine of burning some verses of the Qur’an. A video on social media shows a smaller group of men briefly interrogating Farkhunda, while she keeps insisting that she did not burn the Qur’an. The men take her out of the shrine and start to beat her, throwing stones at her, running her body over with a Toyota 4x4, and then still not satisfied by that, they throw her burning body in flames into the bed of the Kabul river. This all happens in the presence of a large crowd of spectators, including a bunch of policemen who were on site. The only thing some of the spectators did aside from watching, was to take photos and videos which have become crucial to the current investigation tracking the perpetrators and leading to some arrests.
The incident was initially reported by local media, and international media outlets later followed suit with extensive coverage as different aspects of the event started to unfold. At first it was reported that security officers asked the family of the victim to leave their home in fear of further retaliations, and declared Farkhunda to be mentally ill, which could attribute her alleged action to her being insane. But later, as the videos of the event spread on social media, it was revealed that she was innocent, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs confirmed she did not burn pages of the Holy Book, but bits of paper that the shrine Mullah used for his treatments stemming from superstition. These are used as amulets to treat women (and men) for infertility and other, often psychological, ailments. This form of folk healing through prescribing Taweez or amulets by such mullahs is part of popular religion and it fills the existing gap of psycho-social treatments that are unavailable across the country.
Although the amulets used have Qur'anic verses written on them, more purist interpretations of Islam consider these practices as superstitious or Khurafat and non-Islamic. It was the reaction of the Shrine keepers who were challenged by Farkhunda that provoked the angry mob’s apparently religious feelings, and perhaps their sense of masculine superiority over a female interloper which led to this horrifying event.
According to Farkhunda's family, she was in fact a religious activist who fought superstition, and preached among women about religious principles during funerals. This phenomenon, though not new, is increasingly becoming more common around the country. Farkhunda was a graduate of a Madrasa, and also of a teacher training university where she studied maths.
It seems that the paradox here is that a mere woman was taking it upon herself to represent the correct practice of Islam, and thus provoking the rage of the mullah and the mob which resulted in unjustifiable and horrific consequences. Perversely this could be interpreted as a popular reaction to Salafi meddling with local customs - noting that it happened just around the Afghan New Year or Nowroz’s eve which is another traditional celebration which has been challenged largely by the Salafist and radical groups in recent years.
However, the nature and the tenor of this event takes us far beyond the discourses about the current 'war on terror', or the US invasion and the Taliban’s resistance to it, or even discourses about violence against women.
This event, unfolding right at the heart of Kabul’s vibrant city, is playing out in various ways, informing us of Afghanistan’s tragic realities that go beyond simplistic and problematic categorisations of Afghan people - dividing them into the educated and non-educated, rural or urban, tribal or non-tribal. The event speaks loudly of the legacy of religious radicalisation that is increasingly becoming a serious concern across Afghanistan. It shows us how undermining war-crimes and major women’s rights abuses have been, resulting in unprecedented levels of violence in public and the alarming domination of a culture of impunity towards both large and small crimes. It tells us about the depth of ignorance and the lack of proper education, including the lack of basic religious education among Afghan youth. It also reveals how forms of imported state-building and ‘capacity-building’ schemes are failing to deliver tangible socio-political changes in people’s mind-sets and behaviors, despite billions of dollars spent. I should emphasize the blame for this failure is equally shared between geo-politically motivated donors, and corrupt and inefficient power-holders whose genuine nation-building responsibilities were replaced by maintaining their power and maximizing their personal or group interests over public interests. Finally, this event also raises questions as to why the large crowd of spectators remained indifferent and did not take action to prevent such a tragedy.
Contrary to some critiques of Afghan women’s struggles for rights as being entirely imported and donor dependent, in this particular case Afghan women have taken an unprecedented step by being the first to raise their voices to condemn this heinous attack, and then not only taking part, but leading Farkhunda’s funeral -with agreement from Farkhunda’s father and brother. Some of the Afghan women leaders carried the coffin of Farkhunda’s half burnt body on their shoulders and led the burial ceremony, an act rarely witnessed in Afghanistan’s history since it breaks with Muslim funerary protocol. There have been demonstrations and protests in Kabul and other cities in support of Farkhunda and calling for justice, and although some religious clerics and politicians first endorsed the event, they later apologised and changed their statements. On 24th March a group of young people renamed the street leading to the area as Farkhunda’s Street. Another group planted a tree on the spot where her body was thrown. And the police have arrested more than twenty men and promised a due process of trial for all of them. It is not clear yet how this momentum will proceed.
Every iconic speech on Afghanistan by presidents and senior officials begins with cliche rhetoric of how many millions of girls and boys are attending school. But no one dares to ask what school is. Is it just a building with desks and chairs and paid teachers? Our definition of education and schools and pupils has never paid attention to the content of what is being taught to children and youth. And the passivity of every single spectator of last Thursday’s horrifying event at heart of Kabul, is a clear proof of this fact.
The time has come for Afghanistan and its international donors to take matters of accountability, justice and human rights of people seriously, and put an end to the dominant culture of impunity. But such an end can only be achieved if the current momentum of anger and rage of Afghan women and men over this horrifying event is not taken hostage by political groups or individuals to further their personal agendas, and is translated instead into meaningful and genuine actions in all different fields: from education to policing, to bringing the perpetuators of all kinds of violence including violence against women to justice, to ridding the judiciary system of corruption and nepotism, and regulating the actions of radical forces who mobilise youth towards religious fanaticism.