A new BBC Our World documentary tells the shocking story of Farkhunda Malikzada, a young Afghan woman who was lynched in central Kabul earlier this year. Using audio footage recorded on phones at the scene of Farkhunda’s death, and interviews with Farkhunda’s family and the family of one of the killers, The Killing of Farkhunda tells the story of a woman who challenged male authority and died for it.
In March, 27-year old Farkhunda Malikzada finished a Qur’an recitation class (she planned to become a Judge) and walked to a shrine at Shah-Du-Shamshaira, a mosque in central Kabul. At the shrine Farkhunda saw the caretaker selling charms and reprimanded him for what she considered an un-Islamic practice. The caretaker began to shout “this woman is an American – she is burning the Qur’an”.
As heard in the documentary, a crowd of men quickly gathered. Farkhunda is heard protesting that she did not burn the Qur’an, but is drowned out by the angry voices of men. What followed is described in graphic detail: Farkhunda was beaten, thrown from a building, run over by a car and after she died, her body was partly burnt. In the immediate aftermath, some senior politicians and Imams endorsed the actions of the 150-man mob, saying they had acted according to their religious duty. The mental images conjured of Farkhunda alone but surrounded by a murderous mob at Shah-Du-Shamshaira linger long past the first listening.
Cell phone video captured the gruesome barbarity of the scene. (Warning: Graphic content.)
But the documentary also gives testimony to the furious reactions of women to Farkhunda’s killing. Featuring almost entirely women’s voices and produced by Zarghuna Kargar, a women’s right activist and author, it is a powerful reminder that women are more than victims. After Farkhunda’s death, thousands filled the streets of Kabul in protest at her murder. Activist Sahra Mosawi describes how women carried Farkhunda’s coffin at her funeral, an unheard-of practice in Afghanistan: ‘My friends and I promised each other, we must not let any man touch this coffin. Men came forward and we said, ‘Don’t touch it! Where were you that day, when 150 men attacked Farkhunda? It didn’t matter to us that these men were not those men. In our opinion, all men were those men.’
Part of this reaction comes from the view that Farkhunda died for speaking her mind. The response of the shrine’s caretaker — shouting incendiary fabrications — seems to have resulted from his outrage that a woman publicly question his authority. Zarghuna Kargar agrees. She told me via email, ‘Farkhunda was a woman who dared to challenge a man. Women in Afghanistan are expected not to speak up or challenge men.’
For others, Farkhunda has become a symbol of the many injustices that Afghan women face on a daily basis. A Facebook group ‘Justice for Farkhunda’ identifies domestic violence against women in the same breath as calling for justice for Farkhunda (many demand corporal and capital punishment, although some activists oppose the death sentence).
Zarghuna told me she spoke to many women in Afghanistan, from politicians to ordinary girls in Kabul. She explained, “Most have told me that Farkhunda’s murder is highlighting the widespread violence that women face almost every day. It shows that women are not safe in their homes and on the streets. There is lack of respect for them as human beings and it is a sign of a pervasive misogyny in the society. In my opinion Farkhunda wouldn’t have been killed if she was a man.”
49 people stood trial in May — just 12 were convicted and the caretaker was pardoned — and the initial sentences were later overturned in a closed-hearing. In August a panel of lawyers appointed by Afghanistan’s President recommended that those accused should be retried.
With chronic instability, the future for women’s rights in Afghanistan seems unpromising. But, Zarghuna explains, ’Afghan women have a legacy of very strong women in their history and the legacy gives them hope and courage’. And women are determined to keep fighting, as Zahra, a 15-year old girl contributing to the US-based Afghan’s Women’s Writing Project, recently wrote, ‘They cannot stop us protesting in reaction to the overturning of the sentence. Posters will circulate with ‘I am Farkhunda. Justice for Farkhunda.’