Why was a young woman killed by a mob in the streets of Kabul?

The murder of Farkhunda in March sparked the biggest women's protest in Afghanistan's history

August 04, 2015
Farkhunda Malikzada, a devout Muslim, was killed in Kabul after being falsely accused of burning the Koran © BBC
Farkhunda Malikzada, a devout Muslim, was killed in Kabul after being falsely accused of burning the Koran © BBC

Farkhunda Malikzada was a fine carpet weaver and a great cook. She always wore black, and recited the Koran early every morning. She was kind and loved her family. Like many other 27 year olds, she dreamt of starting a family of her own. Her mother, Bibi Hajera, cries as she talks about Farkhunda. “Mother,” she remembers her saying, “I don’t care if my future husband is poor or older than me; as long as he is educated and good looking, I will be very happy.” Most importantly, her mother tells me, “Farkhunda was brave and she wasn’t afraid of speaking her mind.”

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. 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.

As an Afghan woman who has reported for more than a decade about the life of women and girls there, I was determined to find out what had happened that day. I wanted to know what was really behind this brutal killing, and why the police failed to protect Farkhunda. In a forthcoming Our World documentary for BBC World News, we speak to Farkhunda’s family, and have the first interview with the family of one of the men imprisoned for her murder.

Farkhunda’s murder was condemned by President Ashraf Ghani, who ordered an immediate investigation into the incident. Both the President and his wife, Rula Ghani, met with her parents. Rula tells us that, “what happened was barbaric… Farkhunda’s killing shows how violent Afghan society has become after more than 30 years of war.”

But not everyone shares this attitude. Following Farkhunda's murder, a senior Afghan imam addressed hundreds of men at a mosque in Kabul, saying that: “If someone disrespects [the Koran], you cannot expect people to control their emotions and wait for judges to decide the punishment.” He warned the government that attempts to arrest the men would lead to an uprising. His comments sparked outrage among women and human rights campaigners, who ejected him from Farkhunda’s funeral and demanded his resignation. I asked the imam to talk to us about his remarks but he declined, insisting his comments had been taken out of context by the Afghan media.

Government officials, including the female Deputy Information and Culture Minister Simin Ghazal Hassanzada and police spokesperson Hashmat Stanikzai, also made comments that were seemingly supportive of the killing on social media. Stanikzai wrote on his Facebook page that Farkhunda “thought, like several other unbelievers, that this kind of action and insult will get them US or European citizenship. But before reaching her target, she lost her life.” Both these officials have been suspended or dismissed from their positions. Later, Afghan authorities who were investigating the incident said there was no evidence that Farkhunda had burned the Koran; it emerged that she was a scholar of the Holy Book.

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.”

Forty-nine suspects were initially charged with Farkhunda’s murder, including 19 policemen. The trial was swift and broadcast live on TV. In May, four men were sentenced to death, and eight others received 16-year jail terms. However, at the beginning of July, the Kabul appeals court reduced the death sentences to 20 years in prison for three of the men and 10 years for the fourth, who is believed to be a minor. I spoke to the parents of the youngest perpetrator, Yacoob, who had been found guilty of murder. I wanted to know why their son had got involved. His father, Mohammad Yasin, told us: “He is a Muslim, he is young and when they shouted that this person has become Jewish and burned the Koran, he couldn’t control his emotions.” Not many people would tolerate such insults to their religion, he said. But Yacoob's parents condemned the killing and said the courts should have been the judge of the allegations made against her.

The case has led to a collapse in women's trust of the police force. Eleven officers were sentenced to a year in prison for failing in their duty, but were later freed on bail pending an appeal. Sahra believes that if Farkhunda had been a man, the police would have intervened. She tells us she doesn't feel protected by the police: “Going out of the house is a risk and I know the police will not stand by me.” Farkhunda’s mother says that “if they couldn’t protect my daughter, how could they protect me and my family now? I do not trust the police who are guarding my home.” A Kabul police chief admits that several men seen in the videos of the attack are still on the loose.

Farkhunda’s story shows that the little freedom Afghan women have gained since the US invasion in 2001 is regarded by many with resentment, as a product of western influence. But at the same time, the international scrutiny Afghanistan is under on the issue of women's rights may have resulted in speedy, unfair trials as the government struggles to make progress. During the trial most of the defendants didn’t have lawyers. I spoke to 16-year-old Jalal, whose father is serving 16 years in prison for inciting violence by shouting slogans during Farkhunda’s murder. Jalal says he found out about his father’s trial from the TV reports and that his family, like those of the other accused men, could not afford a defence lawyer. “People with money and power who were the real culprits are not arrested,” he said, “but men like my father who are poor are facing the consequences.”

Women’s rights defenders believe that for real change to take place, the pervasive misogyny of Afghan society must be eliminated, and equality within the legal system implemented. They acknowledge that there is a long way to go. Maybe the next generation of Afghan women will feel the benefit of their efforts.

Our World: The Killing of Farkhunda with Zarghuna Kargar will be broadcast internationally on BBC World News at 2.30am and 9.30am BST on Saturday 8th August and at 3.30pm and 9.30pm BST on Sunday 9th August, and in the UK on BBC News Channel at 9.30pm on Saturday and Sunday