Afghans residing in the Seattle area gathered on Thursday evening to share their thoughts, tears and grief over the vicious killing of a 27-year-old woman who was beaten to death by a mob in Kabul.
In similar fashion to diaspora communities around the globe, Afghans lit dozens of candles at Seattle’s Westlake Park to honor her memory and call for justice in a case that has managed to grip the nation since March 19.
“We gather here tonight to shine a light on what we have been ignoring all these years,” said Dr. Shinkai Hakimi, a pulmonary and critical care physician from Tacoma who spoke at the Thursday vigil.
Hakimi was spurred to organize the vigil in hopes it would raise awareness on the plight of women in Afghanistan.
“I don’t know if it was the fact that I actually had to see the inhumane attack on a video that marked my attention thousands of miles away, but the violent scenes have followed me here,” she said.
The stories about exactly what happened that day to Farkhunda vary, but the images and videos of the brutal attack captured and shared on social media don’t lie. It tells the story of a lone woman lying on the ground, her face bloodied and bruised, her hair disheveled, her clothing dirty.
Her chilling screams for help met deaf ears, and instead of aid dozens of smartphones capturing it all were drowned in a frenzy of shouts from the bloodthirsty mob. This is the story of a woman who dared to speak out against the status quo in a country like Afghanistan.
It was a few days before the Spring Equinox, marking the start of a new year in Afghanistan. Farkhunda, enveloped in folds of black from head to toe, made her way into Kabul’s Shah-do Shamshira Mosque, a yellow, Italian baroque-style building which name translates into “Mosque of the King of Two Swords.”
Here, the theology graduate would volunteer her time twice a week, teaching young kids the Quran.
But on this day, an argument would break out between the young woman and a mullah, who was selling amulets in front of the religious shrine. Called “taweez,” these trinkets are a cultural phenomenon considered forbidden in orthodox Islam and Farkhunda was speaking out against them.
According to TOLO News, “in order to save his job and life,” the mullah began shouting accusations that Farkhunda had burned the Quran.
When people in the surrounding area heard the shouts, countless young men — mostly from urban and middle-class backgrounds — started beating Farkhunda. Her body was then run over by a car before being set on fire and dumped into the Kabul River. Two hours later, the deed was done, all in the bustling center of Kabul, in broad daylight, in the presence of policemen.
Many who spoke at the vigil said they were shocked the assailants were not terrorists or religious extremists, but “ordinary urban young men who were most likely educated” and “who lived in one of the major progressive metropolitan cities in Afghanistan.”
Thus far, 27 arrests have been made. This includes 17 police officers who have been sacked for their failure to protect Farkhunda.
Under the glow of candles and city lights, Mojda Hooshang of Seattle also spoke through tears about her upcoming trip to Afghanistan to visit her family.
“People ask me questions, and I don’t know what to say,” she said. “They ask me why you are going there, why do you want to put yourself in position like that?”
“All I can say is, it’s my country.”
Kamelia Sarwary, who founded Help & Inspire, a nonprofit promoting education and providing basic needs to children, urged everyone to not just “watch and talk about,” but do something to help improve conditions.
“The minute I saw the video clip, the pictures, everything that was viral on the Internet, the question that came to my mind was: if this was a man, would they have done what they did to Farkhunda?”
Dr. Noor Aaf, of Seattle, founded the nonprofit, REACH, which helps build schools in Afghanistan.
“As an Afghan man, I’m really ashamed about what happened in a city and country I grew up in and went to medical school in,” he said. “I can tell you that doesn’t represent Afghan men or women.”
Ginna Brelsford, executive director of Seattle-based nonprofit organization SAHAR, helped organize the event. Brelsford emphasized the importance of education in creating long-lasting change. Her organization works to support girls’ education in Afghanistan.
Undeniably, Farkhunda’s death has pushed women’s rights and the failing legal system to the forefront in a traumatized society affected by three decades of continuous warfare.
According to Time Magazine, the U.S. government has sent $12.9 billion in aid to Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion. In 2013, the country received just over $500 million in international assistance.
We are 14 years deep into an invasion that used women’s liberation as its justification.
In light of March 19’s tragic event, it would seem progress has not been made.
“We can throw money at the problem and … we actually have,” said Hakimi. “We have so many new shiny buildings in Kabul, it’s starting to look like a ‘normal city’ but that didn’t stop that barbaric event from happening last week.”
However, change is afoot in Afghanistan. The past week has seen peaceful demonstrations across the country attended by thousands, particularly women, who chanted “we are all Farkhundas,” while wearing red masks symbolizing her bloodied face.
This would have been unthinkable a decade ago in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
It was later determined that the burned text was not the Quran, but rather prayers written in Farsi designed to make Farkhunda look guilty. It is perhaps the ugliest irony of all that this act was done in complete contradiction to the teachings of the same book the attackers claimed they were defending.
“This barbaric act has nothing to do with Islam, nor with what our Prophet taught us,” said Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, one of the most influential clerics in Afghanistan. “To commit such an act only comes from hearts that are dead and devoid of the remembrance and Mercy of Allah.”
Planted by Kabul activists, a pine tree now grows on the riverbank where Farkhunda’s body was dumped.
It’s a new year, a new day and hopefully a new era of change in Afghanistan inspired by the story of Farkhunda.