Two years after brutal killing that shocked Afghanistan, outrage has faded

After a young woman was bludgeoned and set alight two years ago, there were trials, protests, a monument. But then people moved on

Pamela Constable
Thursday 30 March 2017 12:38 BST
Photos of Farkhunda Malikzada, who was publicly beaten to death, are on display as a reminder of the brutal killing
Photos of Farkhunda Malikzada, who was publicly beaten to death, are on display as a reminder of the brutal killing (Pamela Constable)

From the steps of the old, blue-domed shrine, if you look past the families feeding pigeons on the plaza below and the lines of clogged traffic beyond, you can glimpse the stark, white stone monument two blocks away, rising from a platform next to the street. If you approach it, following the garbage-strewn banks of the Kabul River on one side and a row of small shops on the other, you feel a prickle of horror. The railings around the monument are hung with posters of women’s faces – disfigured, half-blind, burned.

People flow past the site, carrying shopping bags, tugging at children, heading somewhere in the city. Some pause to look at the posters, or read the inscription etched in the stone, although most hurry by. On the riverbank below, drug addicts huddle, lost in another world.

But everyone knows what happened here two years ago, in the shadow of the historic Shah-do Shamshira mosque and the adjacent shrine of an ancient Mogul king.

Everyone knows that a young woman named Farkhunda was attacked outside the shrine after being falsely accused of burning a Koran, then dragged along the river road by a frenzied mob that bludgeoned and stoned her to death, ran her over with a car and set her body on fire. The white obelisk, unveiled on the first anniversary of her killing, marks the spot where she died.

“It was a terrible, savage thing,” said Naquibullah, a tailor whose workshop is across the street. On the afternoon of March 19, 2015, he was bent over his sewing machine when he heard shouting and commotion and poked his head out the door. “I saw them throwing stones... I couldn't bear to watch.”

The killing of Farkhunda Malikzada, 27, captured on mobile phones and shown repeatedly on TV, horrified the nation and the world. It also embarrassed officials of the Western-backed government, which has attempted to promote women's rights in the conservative, tribal Muslim society, where women and girls are often killed with impunity in the name of protecting family honour.

Nearly 50 men were tried in connection with the attack, including police officers accused of failing to stop the assailants. Four men were sentenced to death, but those sentences were later commuted, and most of the lengthy prison terms given to eight others were reduced. The incident also energised the struggling Afghan women's movement, which staged protests outside the shrine. But over time, the momentum dissipated.

Last week, as Afghans celebrated the Persian spring festival known as Nowruz, families dressed up and visited shrines across the city. Outside Shah-do Shamshira, they bought corn and took pictures of their children feeding the pigeons. Some climbed the steps to the shrine, took off their shoes and went inside to pray or meditate.

The tall white monument stood almost unnoticed. A few women paused briefly to look up. Some wore burqas that hid their eyes; others remained silent while their husbands discussed the case. One woman, a government worker wearing a flowered headscarf, stopped long enough to touch the pedestal and murmur a prayer.

“She was a good girl. She did not deserve this,” the woman said firmly before she hurried away.

But the most disturbing aspect of Malikzada's murder was how many Afghans – preachers, police officials, young urban men wearing jeans and carrying mobile phones – were ready to think that she did.

Her attackers were driven by religious rage, converging on the shrine as word spread that its custodian had accused her of burning a Koran. This was blasphemy – an unpardonable sin and a capital crime in a tribal society steeped in Sunni Islam and deeply conflicted about Western influence.

Even in a busy capital with a veneer of modernity, hundreds of youths rushed to join the vengeful fury. Video footage showed a crowd stomping and pummeling a body on the sidewalk, while others filmed the scene on their phones. There were exultant shouts of “Allahu akbar!”

Afghans are easily roused to defend their faith, whether they wear long beards or razor haircuts. Thirty years ago, they went to war against the Soviet army in the name of Islam. In the past decade, as Western military and cultural influence spread, so did local resentment and suspicion. In 2012, protests erupted over reports that Korans had been incinerated at a US military base.

There was a startling anti-Western element to Malikzada’s murder, too. As they beat and kicked her, some attackers shouted that she was working with foreigners. By the next day, imams and government officials were denouncing her as having colluded with infidels.

A photo that circulated widely on social media, taken during the attack, showed a woman with wild, dishevelled black hair, her face streaming blood, gesturing in defiance at her attackers. It was easy to see how she could be viewed as a blasphemous witch.

It later emerged, though, that Malikzada was studying theology and teaching children to recite the Koran. The incident at the shrine started when she confronted its custodian for selling religious charms, which she felt was un-Islamic, and he shouted that she had burned a Koran. After a police investigation found the charge was false and the custodian was arrested, public opinion quickly changed and women's groups and political activists staged protests.

“In my village some people said she deserved what happened for desecrating our religion, but later they regretted it,” said an engineer named Abdul Aziz, 30, who stopped by the monument Thursday. A visitor from a northern province, he said he had learned about the incident on Facebook. “What they did was wrong, whether to a Muslim or a non-Muslim,” he concluded.

A little while later an elderly man, hunched over and carrying a sack, stopped in front of the monument and gazed at it for several minutes. An educated man who had seen better times, he spoke with an air of sad wisdom.

“It was so shameful,” he said. Even if Malikzada had committed blasphemy, he said, she should not have been “dragged down the street and burned.”

“Did we not have a government? Did we not have courts?” he demanded. “There is no justice in this country, no rule of law. So people take it into their own hands.”

As the afternoon sun waned, drug addicts were still crouched on the riverbank beneath the monument. In the plaza down the street, people were still scattering corn to the pigeons. On the shrine steps, a young woman named Zarifa, wearing a fashionable but modest black robe, was talking on a mobile phone through her face covering.

She nodded when asked whether she knew what had happened to Malikzada.

“Yes, it was totally wrong. It was against our religion and our culture,” she said. Then she turned away and went back to her conversation.

© The Washington Post

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