From the May-June 2015 issue of News & Letters
by Terry Moon
Is the March 19 murder of Farkhunda by a mob of men who beat her to death with stones and sticks, ran her over with a car, threw her body on the banks of the Kabul River and lit it on fire, a turning point for women in Afghanistan? Some are saying it is.
Farkhunda was a 27-year-old woman who was studying religion and thought she had a right to criticize mullahs selling good luck charms at a religious shrine in central Kabul. But then one mullah started screaming that she was an infidel and had burned the Koran. Even though Farkhunda had been at the shrine for hours castigating the trinket sellers as un-Islamic, the lynch mob believed the mullah and turned on her with inhuman fury.
Her death was captured by cell phones and projected on social media. The impact was profound. Nargis Azaryun, a youth activist and member of Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), expressed what many felt when she checked her facebook page that morning: “The first sentences I read about the incident left me in shock: ‘Today we killed a woman who burned the Koran. Allah Akbar.’… I cried for hours, thinking how helpless she was when they were kicking her. She kept screaming and saying, ‘I haven’t burned the Koran,’ but no one was listening to her….The police did not help her because everyone believed that she deserved to die, deserved to be burned to death….”
Because Farkhunda’s death was broadcast all over social media, because it was so horrific and because there was such an outcry—for once, instead of taking the man’s word as the unchallenged truth—her murder was investigated and she was declared “completely innocent.”
AFGHAN WOMEN STAND TALL
Then women did something unprecedented: they went to Farkhunda’s family and asked if they could carry her coffin, this in a country where women are often banned from attending funerals. The women who made this move were activists, belonging to groups like WLUML, Solidarity Party, Women for Women International-Afghanistan; others held professional jobs in the city or university.
There is no question that they were aware of what happened in Turkey in February at the funeral of 19-year-old student Özgecan Aslan, who was savagely sexually assaulted and murdered. Over 5,000 came to her funeral where women refused the Imam’s orders to step to the back of the crowd. Instead women stepped forward to carry Aslan’s coffin and bury her, vowing: “No other man’s hands would touch her again.” (See “From Turkey to USA, women as force & reason fight inhumanity,” March-April 2015 N&L.)
In Afghanistan at the burial the women chanted: “We want justice!” and “We are all Farkhunda!” A member of WLUML said that at Farkhunda’s funeral, “For the first time in Afghanistan we stood tall to say that no man will touch her burnt body’s coffin.”
It didn’t end there. On March 24 thousands of demonstrators marched on Afghanistan’s Supreme Court demanding justice for Farkhunda, the second protest in as many days. Organizers estimated that 3,000 marched—one of the largest demonstrations ever in Kabul. Demonstrators shouted, “Justice for Farkhunda” and “Down with ignorance.” Afghans in other countries have demonstrated too.
At the March 24 demonstration, the head of the Afghanistan Women’s Council, Fatana Gailani, expressed the hope that Farkhunda’s death would be a catalyst for change. Others thought the response to her death had brought people together who were sickened by the inhumanity of her attackers. Is this the beginning of a better life for Afghan women?
WOMEN AS FORCE AND REASON
If Farkhunda had burned the Koran, would there have been an outcry? When it was thought she had, the police stood by and watched her murder. A spokesman for them said that the killing of “an unbeliever” was justified. What of the women who are jailed for years for running away from home to avoid a forced marriage or those who die from honor killings? Who carries their coffins or demonstrates in the streets shouting for justice for them?
It means something that these women stood tall in Kabul. They took matters into their own hands and revealed their creativity through action, which is the way that genuine change comes about.
Azaryun made this clear, saying: “I picked up [Farkhunda’s coffin] because I wanted to tell the women in this country that if we want to achieve anything we should sit up and do what we want to do. Do it like a woman. And if we stick together, we break taboos. We proved it yesterday. No one could stop us yesterday from being by Farkhunda’s side because we were together and supporters of each other.”