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Farkhunda: Mob Murder, Martyrdom, and Redemption through Social Media

Afghan women protest the mob killing of Farkhunda Malikzada in Kabul, March 24, 2015. The use of her bloody visage as a mask signifies that her persecution is emblematic, an all too common experience of Afghan women. But it also suggests that her suffering can be understood as transformative and redemptive, binding Muslims across the world into a new community calling for justice and respect for the rights of women. (Photo credit: Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Olga M. Davidson


“Farkhunda Malikzada was a fine carpet weaver and a great cook. She always wore black, and recited the Koran early every morning.” So begins an article reporting on the murder of this 27-year-old woman by a mob in Kabul on March 19, 2015. The title of the article, written by Zarghuna Kargar for Prospect, asks the question: “Why was a young woman killed by a mob in the streets of Kabul?”1 Kargar, together with her team, followed up on this article with a heart-rending video report presented on BBC Newsnight on August 12, 2015.2

Many other reports have appeared about the mob murder of Farkhunda, and I highlight here a most sensitive essay that complements the work of Kargar. This essay by Ann Jones, published on May 12, 2015 on TomDispatch.com, bears the eloquent title “Farkhunda is Our Sister: A ‘Martyr’ to Women and the Making of a New Afghanistan?”3 Although my thoughts and feelings are strongly influenced by the essay of Jones, I concentrate here not on the basic question that she asks, which is whether or not Farkhunda has become a “martyr” for the people (especially women) of Afghanistan. Instead, I ask how the death of Farkhunda as a story – a true story – was transformed into a message that can serve to redeem the ideals of Islam. That transformation, as I will argue, was made possible not by way of traditional modes of communication. Rather, what made it possible was a most modern means of communication: social media.

I start with a succinct version of the story in all its horror as told by Kargar in her article of August 4, 2015:

On 19th March, Farkhunda was beaten to death by a mob in the streets of Kabul. She had argued with a caretaker at the Shah-Du Shamshera shrine about the practice of selling charms. During the confrontation, he accused her of burning the Koran, shouting: “In the name of God, kill her! She has burned the Koran!” Hundreds of men flocked to the shrine and began beating Farkhunda, while the police stood by after failing to control the crowd. They ran over her with a car, dragged her through the streets and set her body alight on the riverbank.4

And here, in this scene of horror, we see the intrusion of modernity. I continue to quote the story as told by Kargar, who relates how some of the participants in the mob murder actually shared the sights and the sounds of the brutal event on social media as they filmed what they did to her:

Some of them filmed it on their mobiles. Within hours, the footage of Farkhunda’s murder had been shared widely on Facebook and Twitter. Some Afghan officials and religious leaders endorsed the actions of the mob on social media and to their congregations. Farkhunda’s death, and the reaction to it in Afghanistan, was also beginning to make headlines around the world.5

The perpetrators of the crime – and here I include all the participants in this mob scene as recorded for eternity on video and audio – were like characters in some cheap horror movie of their own making, made possible by social media. But the irony is that this same mode of communication has made the story ultimately transcendent. The same story, viewed by anyone who is not caught up in anger and hatred, becomes the sublime tableau of a martyrdom. And the audience I have in mind here, redeemed and transformed by that martyrdom, is primarily the Muslim population of Afghanistan.

(Photo credit: Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Protest in Kabul, March 24, 2015. Farkhunda’s bloody visage is featured prominently on signs and placards held by demonstrators. (Photo credit: Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

I think of one particular moment in the ghastly footage. Farkhunda has been severely beaten already. Stones and rocks have been thrown at her. But she is still alive and standing. We now see a close-up of her face, covered in her own blood and staring plaintively into a lens pointed at her by one of her tormentors. In this one moment, we are looking at something that has suddenly become two-sided. On one side, there is the torment inflicted by the tormentors, which is degrading and repulsive. On the other side, there is the suffering endured by the innocent, which is exalted and compelling. We have now come face-to-face with the suffering of all humanity. Ecce homo. And to look this humanity in the eye is to experience an awakening. The ideals of Islamic civilization, long suppressed in Afghanistan, can now come to life again. The due process guaranteed by shariʿa must now be remembered. Mob rule cannot any longer be tolerated. The need to presume innocence, not guilt, must be upheld. As the report of Ann Jones describes most effectively, such was the general response of Muslims in Afghanistan who still hold on to these ideals. The evil use of social media that recorded and broadcast the brutal killing of Farkhunda can thus be transformed into a powerful force for the good of humanity.

Values such as the right of the individual to justice and due process under the rule of law are often claimed as monopolies of the West, though they are traditional Islamic values. Conversely, events such as brutal mob killings confirm for many Western viewers that “traditional” Islam is incorrigibly patriarchal, savage, and violent. But the transformation of Farkhunda into a martyr demonstrates that the opposite is true – that, in the eyes of many Muslims, it is violence and patriarchy that are un-Islamic, and justice and equality the very essence of Islam. Further, the irony here is that the assertion of these traditional values occurs not by way of traditional media, but through the quintessentially modern means of communication provided by social media. The recording made by the mob was evil, and the video may have been shared by the participants in an evil way. But the recording, meant as an evil message, contains a powerful, silent, but universal message from the victim herself, and modern social media thus becomes a highly effective tool to communicate and celebrate that part of the double-sided message that is intrinsic to the traditional values of Islam but so often neglected in Western media coverage of Muslim societies. Farkhunda’s tragedy does not confirm media stereotypes of what Islam “really is” or how Muslims “really are,” but rather challenges those regnant stereotypes.6

The funeral of Farkhunda Malikzada, March 22, 2015 (Photo credit: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

The funeral of Farkhunda Malikzada, March 22, 2015. (Photo credit: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

In traditional Islamic societies, women have little opportunity to protest as individuals. That is why they normally resort to their naturally perceived roles as wives, mothers, daughters, or sisters whenever they protest about injustices. However, despite these limitations, as I have noted in my own research, women’s protests can resound, and powerfully so, as in stories about ʿĀʾisha, wife of the Prophet Muhammad. What seems like a reversion to traditional roles is really a renovation that is readily recognizable when it is viewed from a historical perspective.7

Through a most modern means of communication, traditional Islamic values of social justice now resound in mass protests by women expressed through social media – supported by men who at long last hear the true voices of their wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters. A case in point is the reportage of the freelance journalist Freshta Karim, whose piece entitled “In Death, Farkhunda Becomes a Symbol of Struggle for Afghan Women” was published a week after the killing.8 Her post includes dramatic photographs of mass protests by the women of Afghanistan. In one photograph, taken in Kabul on March 24, 2015, one of the protesting women is carrying a placard showing the now-ubiquitous still picture of Farkhunda’s bloodied face staring directly at her tormentors. Another photograph, taken in Kabul on March 22, 2015, shows women carrying the coffin of Farkhunda on the day of her funeral. What is most remarkable about this evocative picture is the unconventionality of the gesture: here it is women who are performing a funerary task that is conventionally the prerogative of men, even for deceased women.

Here is a concise description by Zarghuna Kargar:

Days after Farkhunda’s murder, the largest women’s protest in Afghanistan’s history took place. Women poured onto the streets of Kabul to demand justice and an end to gender-based violence. The demonstrations became a symbol of widespread discrimination against women and their lack of protection. Sahra Mosawi, a women’s rights activist, broke with tradition and in an unprecedented move carried Farkhunda’s coffin, along with other women. “The men who killed and attacked Farkhunda were mostly those who have lived in Kabul and have grown up as boys in [Hamid] Karzai’s government,” she told us. “They learned how to wear jeans and look modern but their mentality towards women hasn’t changed.”9

In a fuller narrative, Kargar quotes Sahra Mosawi further:

My friends and I, we promised each other, “We won’t let any man touch this coffin.” 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.10

CAPTION

Women bearing the coffins of Hazara victims of Daʿesh in Kabul, November 11, 2015. (Photo credit: Ahmad Masood)

Although coffin bearing has often had political significance and even functions in some circumstances as a mode of social critique, the assertion by women of the exclusive right to perform this duty for a woman in the name of justice is innovative. The mass protests that took place in the streets of Kabul represent an obvious form of public demonstration, but the meaning of “public” in this context extends far beyond the widespread outgatherings of women that occurred here. There has also been an even more widespread ingathering achieved by way of social media, as evidenced in the reportage of Freshta Karim herself, whose articles incorporate content from her Twitter stream featuring the hashtag #JusticeForFarkunda.11

It remains to be seen how the story of Farkhunda will be sustained, but the inception of a public memorial in her honor has already occurred. Fittingly, it is a virtual memorial, confirming the importance of online social networks as a kind of ingathering in protest, the formation of new community in the cause of justice.12 More recently, the funerals for the victims of attacks on members of the Hazara community by Daʿesh, which included the beheading of two women and a little girl, have echoed the funeral of Farkhunda in that women once again carried the casket of the massacred women and little girl in protest.13

 

OLGA M. DAVIDSON is Research Fellow in the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations at Boston University, Chair of the Board of ILEX Foundation, and member of the Advisory Board of Mizan. She is the author of Poet and Hero in the Persian Book of Kings (Cornell University Press, 1994; 2nd ed. Mazda Press, 2006; 3rd ed. ILEX, 2013) and Comparative Literature and Classical Persian Poetry (Mazda, 2000; 2nd ed. ILEX, 2013), as well as over two dozen articles and reviews.

 

[1] Prospect, August 4, 2015 (http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/world/why-was-a-young-woman-killed-by-a-mob-in-the-streets-of-kabul-farkhunda-afghanistan).

[2] Farkhunda: The Making of a Martyr (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=idN_fV2Qjfk). See also the article of Kargar in BBC News Magazine, “Farkhunda: The making of a martyr,” August 11, 2015 (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33810338).

[3] http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175997/tomgram%3A_ann_jones%2C_citizen’s_revolt_in_afghanistan/. The piece was subsequently republished by The Nation (http://www.thenation.com/article/why-afghan-women-carried-funeral-casket-first-time-memory/), Informed Consent (http://www.juancole.com/2015/05/farkhunda-making-afghanistan.html), and numerous other media outlets.

[4] http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/world/why-was-a-young-woman-killed-by-a-mob-in-the-streets-of-kabul-farkhunda-afghanistan

[5] http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/world/why-was-a-young-woman-killed-by-a-mob-in-the-streets-of-kabul-farkhunda-afghanistan

[6] I have benefited from the advice of Claudia Filos here.

[7] Davidson, Olga M. “Women and Social Protest: Historical.” Natana J. DeLong-Bas (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women (2 vols.; Oxford University Press, 2013) 2.448-454.

[8] https://medium.com/aj-story-behind-the-story/in-death-farkhunda-becomes-a-symbol-of-struggle-for-afghan-women-8046b81abecb#.c6cc6zd10

[9] http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/world/why-was-a-young-woman-killed-by-a-mob-in-the-streets-of-kabul-farkhunda-afghanistan

[10] See again the article of Kargar in BBC News Magazine, “Farkhunda: The making of a martyr,” August 11, 2015 (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33810338).

[11] https://medium.com/aj-story-behind-the-story/in-death-farkhunda-becomes-a-symbol-of-struggle-for-afghan-women-8046b81abecb#.k2rj5laiv

[12] http://www.ilasting.com/farkhundamalikzada.php

[13] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/11/kabul-marchers-demand-justice-for-seven-decapitated-hazaras

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Farkhunda: Mob Murder, Martyrdom, and Redemption through Social Media


Olga M. Davidson


“Farkhunda Malikzada was a fine carpet weaver and a great cook. She always wore black, and recited the Koran early every morning.” So begins an article reporting on the murder of this 27-year-old woman by a mob in Kabul on March 19, 2015. The title of the article, written by Zarghuna Kargar for Prospect, asks the question: “Why was a young woman killed by a mob in the streets of Kabul?”1 Kargar, together with her team, followed up on this article with a heart-rending video report presented on BBC Newsnight on August 12, 2015.2

Many other reports have appeared about the mob murder of Farkhunda, and I highlight here a most sensitive essay that complements the work of Kargar. This essay by Ann Jones, published on May 12, 2015 on TomDispatch.com, bears the eloquent title “Farkhunda is Our Sister: A ‘Martyr’ to Women and the Making of a New Afghanistan?”3 Although my thoughts and feelings are strongly influenced by the essay of Jones, I concentrate here not on the basic question that she asks, which is whether or not Farkhunda has become a “martyr” for the people (especially women) of Afghanistan. Instead, I ask how the death of Farkhunda as a story – a true story – was transformed into a message that can serve to redeem the ideals of Islam. That transformation, as I will argue, was made possible not by way of traditional modes of communication. Rather, what made it possible was a most modern means of communication: social media.

I start with a succinct version of the story in all its horror as told by Kargar in her article of August 4, 2015:

On 19th March, Farkhunda was beaten to death by a mob in the streets of Kabul. She had argued with a caretaker at the Shah-Du Shamshera shrine about the practice of selling charms. During the confrontation, he accused her of burning the Koran, shouting: “In the name of God, kill her! She has burned the Koran!” Hundreds of men flocked to the shrine and began beating Farkhunda, while the police stood by after failing to control the crowd. They ran over her with a car, dragged her through the streets and set her body alight on the riverbank.4

And here, in this scene of horror, we see the intrusion of modernity. I continue to quote the story as told by Kargar, who relates how some of the participants in the mob murder actually shared the sights and the sounds of the brutal event on social media as they filmed what they did to her:

Some of them filmed it on their mobiles. Within hours, the footage of Farkhunda’s murder had been shared widely on Facebook and Twitter. Some Afghan officials and religious leaders endorsed the actions of the mob on social media and to their congregations. Farkhunda’s death, and the reaction to it in Afghanistan, was also beginning to make headlines around the world.5

The perpetrators of the crime – and here I include all the participants in this mob scene as recorded for eternity on video and audio – were like characters in some cheap horror movie of their own making, made possible by social media. But the irony is that this same mode of communication has made the story ultimately transcendent. The same story, viewed by anyone who is not caught up in anger and hatred, becomes the sublime tableau of a martyrdom. And the audience I have in mind here, redeemed and transformed by that martyrdom, is primarily the Muslim population of Afghanistan.

(Photo credit: Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Protest in Kabul, March 24, 2015. Farkhunda’s bloody visage is featured prominently on signs and placards held by demonstrators. (Photo credit: Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

I think of one particular moment in the ghastly footage. Farkhunda has been severely beaten already. Stones and rocks have been thrown at her. But she is still alive and standing. We now see a close-up of her face, covered in her own blood and staring plaintively into a lens pointed at her by one of her tormentors. In this one moment, we are looking at something that has suddenly become two-sided. On one side, there is the torment inflicted by the tormentors, which is degrading and repulsive. On the other side, there is the suffering endured by the innocent, which is exalted and compelling. We have now come face-to-face with the suffering of all humanity. Ecce homo. And to look this humanity in the eye is to experience an awakening. The ideals of Islamic civilization, long suppressed in Afghanistan, can now come to life again. The due process guaranteed by shariʿa must now be remembered. Mob rule cannot any longer be tolerated. The need to presume innocence, not guilt, must be upheld. As the report of Ann Jones describes most effectively, such was the general response of Muslims in Afghanistan who still hold on to these ideals. The evil use of social media that recorded and broadcast the brutal killing of Farkhunda can thus be transformed into a powerful force for the good of humanity.

Values such as the right of the individual to justice and due process under the rule of law are often claimed as monopolies of the West, though they are traditional Islamic values. Conversely, events such as brutal mob killings confirm for many Western viewers that “traditional” Islam is incorrigibly patriarchal, savage, and violent. But the transformation of Farkhunda into a martyr demonstrates that the opposite is true – that, in the eyes of many Muslims, it is violence and patriarchy that are un-Islamic, and justice and equality the very essence of Islam. Further, the irony here is that the assertion of these traditional values occurs not by way of traditional media, but through the quintessentially modern means of communication provided by social media. The recording made by the mob was evil, and the video may have been shared by the participants in an evil way. But the recording, meant as an evil message, contains a powerful, silent, but universal message from the victim herself, and modern social media thus becomes a highly effective tool to communicate and celebrate that part of the double-sided message that is intrinsic to the traditional values of Islam but so often neglected in Western media coverage of Muslim societies. Farkhunda’s tragedy does not confirm media stereotypes of what Islam “really is” or how Muslims “really are,” but rather challenges those regnant stereotypes.6

The funeral of Farkhunda Malikzada, March 22, 2015 (Photo credit: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

The funeral of Farkhunda Malikzada, March 22, 2015. (Photo credit: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

In traditional Islamic societies, women have little opportunity to protest as individuals. That is why they normally resort to their naturally perceived roles as wives, mothers, daughters, or sisters whenever they protest about injustices. However, despite these limitations, as I have noted in my own research, women’s protests can resound, and powerfully so, as in stories about ʿĀʾisha, wife of the Prophet Muhammad. What seems like a reversion to traditional roles is really a renovation that is readily recognizable when it is viewed from a historical perspective.7

Through a most modern means of communication, traditional Islamic values of social justice now resound in mass protests by women expressed through social media – supported by men who at long last hear the true voices of their wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters. A case in point is the reportage of the freelance journalist Freshta Karim, whose piece entitled “In Death, Farkhunda Becomes a Symbol of Struggle for Afghan Women” was published a week after the killing.8 Her post includes dramatic photographs of mass protests by the women of Afghanistan. In one photograph, taken in Kabul on March 24, 2015, one of the protesting women is carrying a placard showing the now-ubiquitous still picture of Farkhunda’s bloodied face staring directly at her tormentors. Another photograph, taken in Kabul on March 22, 2015, shows women carrying the coffin of Farkhunda on the day of her funeral. What is most remarkable about this evocative picture is the unconventionality of the gesture: here it is women who are performing a funerary task that is conventionally the prerogative of men, even for deceased women.

Here is a concise description by Zarghuna Kargar:

Days after Farkhunda’s murder, the largest women’s protest in Afghanistan’s history took place. Women poured onto the streets of Kabul to demand justice and an end to gender-based violence. The demonstrations became a symbol of widespread discrimination against women and their lack of protection. Sahra Mosawi, a women’s rights activist, broke with tradition and in an unprecedented move carried Farkhunda’s coffin, along with other women. “The men who killed and attacked Farkhunda were mostly those who have lived in Kabul and have grown up as boys in [Hamid] Karzai’s government,” she told us. “They learned how to wear jeans and look modern but their mentality towards women hasn’t changed.”9

In a fuller narrative, Kargar quotes Sahra Mosawi further:

My friends and I, we promised each other, “We won’t let any man touch this coffin.” 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.10

CAPTION

Women bearing the coffins of Hazara victims of Daʿesh in Kabul, November 11, 2015. (Photo credit: Ahmad Masood)

Although coffin bearing has often had political significance and even functions in some circumstances as a mode of social critique, the assertion by women of the exclusive right to perform this duty for a woman in the name of justice is innovative. The mass protests that took place in the streets of Kabul represent an obvious form of public demonstration, but the meaning of “public” in this context extends far beyond the widespread outgatherings of women that occurred here. There has also been an even more widespread ingathering achieved by way of social media, as evidenced in the reportage of Freshta Karim herself, whose articles incorporate content from her Twitter stream featuring the hashtag #JusticeForFarkunda.11

It remains to be seen how the story of Farkhunda will be sustained, but the inception of a public memorial in her honor has already occurred. Fittingly, it is a virtual memorial, confirming the importance of online social networks as a kind of ingathering in protest, the formation of new community in the cause of justice.12 More recently, the funerals for the victims of attacks on members of the Hazara community by Daʿesh, which included the beheading of two women and a little girl, have echoed the funeral of Farkhunda in that women once again carried the casket of the massacred women and little girl in protest.13

 

OLGA M. DAVIDSON is Research Fellow in the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations at Boston University, Chair of the Board of ILEX Foundation, and member of the Advisory Board of Mizan. She is the author of Poet and Hero in the Persian Book of Kings (Cornell University Press, 1994; 2nd ed. Mazda Press, 2006; 3rd ed. ILEX, 2013) and Comparative Literature and Classical Persian Poetry (Mazda, 2000; 2nd ed. ILEX, 2013), as well as over two dozen articles and reviews.

 

[1] Prospect, August 4, 2015 (http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/world/why-was-a-young-woman-killed-by-a-mob-in-the-streets-of-kabul-farkhunda-afghanistan).

[2] Farkhunda: The Making of a Martyr (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=idN_fV2Qjfk). See also the article of Kargar in BBC News Magazine, “Farkhunda: The making of a martyr,” August 11, 2015 (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33810338).

[3] http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175997/tomgram%3A_ann_jones%2C_citizen’s_revolt_in_afghanistan/. The piece was subsequently republished by The Nation (http://www.thenation.com/article/why-afghan-women-carried-funeral-casket-first-time-memory/), Informed Consent (http://www.juancole.com/2015/05/farkhunda-making-afghanistan.html), and numerous other media outlets.

[4] http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/world/why-was-a-young-woman-killed-by-a-mob-in-the-streets-of-kabul-farkhunda-afghanistan

[5] http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/world/why-was-a-young-woman-killed-by-a-mob-in-the-streets-of-kabul-farkhunda-afghanistan

[6] I have benefited from the advice of Claudia Filos here.

[7] Davidson, Olga M. “Women and Social Protest: Historical.” Natana J. DeLong-Bas (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women (2 vols.; Oxford University Press, 2013) 2.448-454.

[8] https://medium.com/aj-story-behind-the-story/in-death-farkhunda-becomes-a-symbol-of-struggle-for-afghan-women-8046b81abecb#.c6cc6zd10

[9] http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/world/why-was-a-young-woman-killed-by-a-mob-in-the-streets-of-kabul-farkhunda-afghanistan

[10] See again the article of Kargar in BBC News Magazine, “Farkhunda: The making of a martyr,” August 11, 2015 (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33810338).

[11] https://medium.com/aj-story-behind-the-story/in-death-farkhunda-becomes-a-symbol-of-struggle-for-afghan-women-8046b81abecb#.k2rj5laiv

[12] http://www.ilasting.com/farkhundamalikzada.php

[13] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/11/kabul-marchers-demand-justice-for-seven-decapitated-hazaras

Farkhunda: Mob Murder, Martyrdom, and Redemption through Social Media

Farkhunda: Mob Murder, Martyrdom, and Redemption through Social Media