By Syeda Hameed
May 20, 2015
On May 3, 40 people, including 19 policemen, went on trial in Kabul on charges of mob violence. Three days later, four were sentenced to death. In March, a woman named Farkhunda had been brutalised, killed and burnt by a lynch mob in the city. For me, the tragic incident would lead to a cathartic moment at the International Conference on Gender Community and Violence, held at Jamia Millia Islamia University in April, where Afghanistan’s first lady, Rula Ghani, delivered a hard-hitting keynote address.
She told the story of Farkhunda, a 27-year-old teacher of Islamiat who had studied and imbibed Islam, and was not afraid to profess as much. On the day of her death, she was in the Shah-e Doh Shamshira mosque square, where she got into an argument with amulet sellers. Farkhunda is said to have challenged them on their knowledge of the Quran and admonished them for duping credulous worshippers in the name of religion, by selling them amulets that claimed to work miracles. Enraged at being told off, especially by a young woman, the hawkers raised the cry that she was an “infidel” who had been seen burning the Quran. The word “blasphemy” rose in the air and an angry crowd bore down on Farkhunda. The voice of the woman who had challenged the self-appointed guardians of religion was silenced.
Her death galvanised the collective conscience of Afghanistan. Women’s organisations, lawyers and civil society demanded answers. Women bloodied their faces and carried Farkhunda’s casket to the graveyard — a revolutionary gesture. The president of Afghanistan ordered a commission of inquiry and announced that Farkhunda had never burnt the Quran; it was a lie meant to inflame passions. The Afghan media questioned why the police had been present at the spot but not intervened. In Parliament, legislators discussed the credentials of the people who call themselves “mullahs”. Women senators demanded public and exemplary punishment for the accused. Thus began the groundbreaking search for justice against the “pious” perpetrators and spectators, some in uniform. For that beautiful country, tragically destroyed by the West and by the internecine conflicts of its own warlords, Farkhunda’s killing was an epiphany exposing the monstrous face of violence.
Rula Ghani ended her speech with an anecdote about a woman in Kabul who had hailed a taxi and the driver started misbehaving with her. “She looked him in the eye and spoke three words,” Rula said, “Man Farkhunda astam (I am Farkhunda).” This is the Farkhunda moment in the history of the women’s movement, not just in Afghanistan but all over the world.
All my life I have believed in and practised Islam. And for the last 30 years, I have been its student as well, reading and imbibing each word of the Quran. To deepen my understanding I have studied two individuals whom I see as knowledgeable and enlightened scholars of Islam — Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. In “Madd o Jazr-e-Islam (Ebb and Tide of Islam)”, an epic poem written in 1876, Hali speaks of these religious marauders, found in all times and places. He rejects their authority to speak on matters of religion. In the very first issue of his journal, Al-Hilal (1912), Azad also writes on these so-called keepers of religion: “It is a strange phenomenon that the very same priests who at the birth of new faith are agents of uplift and reform, become the instruments of vice and depravity once the movement has peaked. Rarely has any group caused as much harm to a religion as its own perpetrators and servants… Since the beginning of its history, Islam has been infested by the superstition and communalism of this group. Islam’s great achievement was to rid the world of their domination…
But much to the world’s surprise, in a very short while, Islam played right back into their hands.”
As Muslims, we need to heed such voices of sanity. These voices are among us; we don’t have to look towards the Western world. They are being raised in Afghanistan, in South Asia and West Asia. We need to rage against those who deliberately kill the spirit of a religion that was revealed to humanity, both women and men, as “rahmat” and “rahmaniyat”. Farkhunda is dead. Long live Farkhunda.
Syeda Hameed was a member of the Planning Commission