Farkhunda: The making of a martyr

By Zarghuna Kargar
BBC World News

  • Published
A poster of Farkhunda MalikzadaImage source, Reuters

In March a mob in the Afghan capital set upon a woman who had been falsely accused of burning the Koran, beating her to death in a frenzied attack. As the mood of righteous anger turned to grief and shame, there were mass protests and a trial - but some of those convicted have now had their sentences cut, and others are already out of jail.

It was two days before Afghan New Year. Farkhunda Malikzada cheerfully promised her mother, Bibi Hajera, that she would help prepare for the festivities when she returned from her Koran reciting class. Then she gave her nephew a kiss and walked out the door.

Farkhunda was 27, working as a volunteer teacher while she studied Islamic law. She wanted to find a husband and start a family, but she also dreamed of becoming a judge. "Farkhunda was brave and she wasn't afraid of speaking her mind," says Bibi Hajera.

What happened to her daughter that day shocked the country and made headlines around the world.

On her way home, Farkhunda stopped by the Shah-e Du Shamshira shrine, in the centre of Kabul. She said her prayers and then got into an argument about the selling of charms - little scraps of paper bearing Koranic verses.

Farkhunda regarded these as superstitious and un-Islamic. She was trying to make this point to the caretaker at the shrine, Zain-ul-Din, when he began shouting: "This woman is an American and she has burned the Koran!"

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The Shah-e Du Shamshira shrine one week after the attack on Farkhunda

A crowd gathered. Some began to film what happened next on their phones. The footage is extremely disturbing, but Bibi Hajera has watched it.

Farkhunda, veiled, stands just inside the gate to the shrine, denying that she has burned the Koran.

"The Americans have sent her!" a man shouts. "Don't call me American!" says Farkhunda. "If you say anything I will smash your mouth," replies the man.

"Don't film me brother," pleads Farkhunda. "It's not filming," says the man holding the phone, before adding: "Why did you burn the Koran? Don't you have any shame?"

Farkhunda is pulled out from the shrine, pushed to the ground and kicked. "Kill her!" comes a cry. Then, after gun shots from the police, the crowd moves back to reveal a figure sitting upright on the tarmac, her veil and headscarf gone, her hair in disarray and her hands and face red with blood. Dazed, Farkhunda stares up at the camera. One of her shoes has fallen off.

"What pains my heart is when she's sitting like this and her head is bleeding," says Bibi Hajera. "The police are just standing there. Why don't they bring a car over, or a policewoman?"

Media caption,

Afghan mob victim Farkhunda's mother speaks of her pain

Before long, police gave up attempting to hold the crowd back. Footage shows them watching as Farkhunda is struck down, kicked, beaten with sticks, and run over with a car that drags her 200m down a street.

"They neglected their duty," Gen Zahir Zahir, Kabul police's criminal investigation chief, told the BBC. "Even if they had lost their lives, it was their duty to prevent Miss Farkhunda from being martyred in this way."

That afternoon, a teenage boy, Yaqoob , was helping to mind his uncle's shop selling sunglasses. He was, his family says, a good boy, looked up to by his younger sisters.

But when the mob arrived on his doorstep dragging Farkhunda's body, Yaqoob joined in. Farkhunda was thrown on to the dry riverbed, and Yaqoob can be seen on video picking up large rocks and throwing them on to her.

After the stoning, Farkhunda's body was set alight, signalling the end of the prolonged attack.

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The mobile phone footage of the killing was soon uploaded and shared on the internet. Many people boasted online about their role in the attack, or made clear their support.

Although President Ashraf Ghani condemned the lynching and ordered an investigation, some officials were quick to endorse it - including the deputy minister of information and culture, Semin Ghazal Hasanzada and Kabul police spokesman Hashmat Stanekzai. The following day, after Friday prayers, some prominent imams also praised the crowd's actions.

Farkhunda's family were told by police to leave Kabul for their own safety.

But by the evening of the following day, the narrative had changed. An investigation by the ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs found no evidence that Farkhunda had burned the Koran.

The imams and officials retracted their statements of support for the lynching, and in time Hasanzada and Stanekzai were sacked.

"We went to the mortuary. I opened the plastic bag with the zip," remembers Bibi Hajera.

"I said: 'Farkhunda, my child.' I spoke to her and cleaned her hands and face. Her hands and feet were burned and bruised all over, her face was burned all over.

"'Why did they do this to you, my girl?' I felt she was telling me, 'I was innocent. I was innocent, mother.'"

Farkhunda went from being a figure of loathing to a martyr. More than 1,000 people gathered for her funeral. In an unprecedented act for a country where burials are often male-only events, her coffin was carried to the grave by women.

"My friends and I, we promised each other, 'We won't let any man touch this coffin,'" says women's rights activist Sahra Mosawi. "They'd come forward to carry the coffin and we said, 'Don't touch it. Where were you that day when 150 men attacked Farkhunda? Where were you?'

"It was the first time in Afghanistan that I had seen women supporting each other and standing together like that."

Media caption,

Farkhunda burial 'a first for Afghan women' says activist

Two days later, on 24 March, thousands of women and men marched through Kabul, chanting "We are all Farkhunda!" and demanding justice. Some of the protesters painted their faces red to mirror the image of Farkhunda's bleeding face.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Afghan protesters during a rally in front of the Supreme Court in Kabul on March 24

Forty-nine men were charged in connection with the murder.

At the televised trial that took place six weeks later, 11 police officers were sentenced to a year in prison for their failure to defend Farkhunda, eight civilians were given 16-year terms, and four death sentences were handed down. One of those sentenced to death was Zain-ul-Din, the shrine's caretaker. Another was Yaqoob, the boy in the sunglasses shop.

"They weren't human - they were just like wild wolves," says Bibi Hajera, Farkhunda's mother. "You beat her and killed her. That's enough. Why did you drag her down the street? Run her over with a car? Burn her? You didn't even leave her dead body intact."

Yaqoob's parents condemn the killing but say their boy was a young man who "got carried away by his religious fervour".

"If I'd been there maybe I would have told him not to do this and not to go outside," says his father, Mohammad Yasin. "But still, if there are 1,000 people saying something, you can get emotional."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Zain-ul-Din and Yaqoob in court

One of the many troubling aspects of Farkhunda's murder is that her killers were not religious extremists, but ordinary Afghans. Many seen in the videos are not wearing traditional clothes but T-shirts and jeans. Yaqoob himself was into boxing and football - he had a pair of Real Madrid shin-pads in his cupboard.

Why were so many people ready to believe a rumour? Why were they so quick to commit an act of extreme violence?

"Men who killed and attacked Farkhunda were mostly those who have lived in Kabul and have grown up as boys in [President Hamid] Karzai's government," says Sahra Mosawi. "They learned how to wear jeans and look modern but their mentality towards women hasn't changed."

Rula Ghani, the president's wife, told the BBC that every Afghan had been forced to ask the question why such an act had been possible in their country.

"I think it indicates that Afghan society has been living in a climate of violence now for many, many years, ever since the beginning of the Civil War.

"It has been like a wake-up call for every Afghan - that they looked at themselves and they said 'I have a mother, I have a sister, I have a daughter - would I want them to run that risk if ever they're on the streets?'"

Farkhunda has been officially declared a martyr - an honour usually only bestowed on fallen soldiers - and the street where she was murdered has been named after her. "Her name is alive," says Farkhunda's mother. "I'm proud of her."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The place of Farkhunda's death was marked by a tree in the days after the attack. There is now a permanent memorial.

But those who filled the streets shouting "We are Farkhunda!" and who hoped her death would mark a turning point for Afghan women have seen little change.

No new laws have been introduced to prevent violence against women.

And last month the Kabul appeals court quashed the death sentences of the four men, in a session held behind closed doors. Three are now facing 20 years in jail, while Yaqoob - whose parents insist he was a minor at the time of the attack - faces 10 years.

The 11 police officers jailed for a year were released on bail after the appeal hearing, according to the Kabul attorney general's office - though Farkhunda's family lawyer, Najla Raheel, says four have been acquitted. All are back at work with the interior ministry.

Farkhunda's story highlights, among other things, a pervasive atmosphere of misogyny in Afghan society. And although the response to her death showed that there are some in Afghanistan who want change, activists say real change could take at least a generation.

"We have to keep fighting to improve things," says Sahra Mosawi. "Because in the end, this country has to be better than this."

Watch the Our World documentary The Killing of Farkhunda on the BBC iPlayer (UK only) or listen to the radio version on the BBC World Service website. Viewers in North America can watch the documentary on BBC World News America on Thursday 13 August (click here for transmission times).

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