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Kabul has been living with the shame of a frenzied mob mercilessly beating to death and then burning Farkhunda, a 27-year-old Afghan woman against whom trumped up blasphemy charges had been levelled, on March 19. The hapless victim had been falsely accused of burning pages of the Quran in front of a mosque. Those who have seen the horrific video of this dastardly act would have shuddered at the intense brutality and misplaced religious fervour, captured in gory detail on camera, that accompanied the murder of yet another woman in the name of Islam.
While Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and some of his senior colleagues have condemned the incident, local opinion remains bitterly divided. Even some officials of the justice department and the Kabul police have asserted that if Farkhunda was indeed guilty of setting pages from the Quran on fire then they support the mob’s action.
Subsequent investigations have revealed that the accusation against Farkhunda was totally invalid and that the blasphemy charge was triggered by personal animosity. Afghan Interior Minister Noorul Haq Ulumi informed parliament that “she [Farkhunda] was not involved, she was innocent”. He further added, “It is very painful that we were not able to protect a pious young person. We hope this will not be repeated again”.
Most residents of Kabul and the Afghan diaspora are traumatised by the incident. There is also a grim acknowledgement that the probability of such an atrocity being committed again by self-appointed guardians of the faith remains high in Afghanistan and many other Islamic nations, including neighbouring Pakistan.
The local police chief and 13 other police personnel have been suspended and some arrests have been made, but it is unlikely that justice will be done. Most blasphemy cases in Islamic states result in the hasty acquittal of the accused out of deference to collective sentiment. The victims are soon forgotten. Will Farkhunda become another tragic statistic at a time when beheadings advertised by the Islamic State have become all too familiar?
In a rare display of solidarity, the women of Kabul broke convention and insisted on carrying the body of their slain sister to the cemetery and have demanded that the killers be brought to book. Social media and cyberspace are awash with anger at what happened that Thursday when Kabul lost its honour. The central refrain has been that not one man stood up for Farkhunda.
Blasphemy laws as well as the punishments awarded for ostensible religious transgressions in Islamic states and societies have become particularly harsh in the manner in which they victimise women. Tribal societies exhibit levels of discrimination and cruelty that go against the canons of the modern liberal order and an increasingly misogynistic interpretation of the Quran is becoming the norm.
What is the way ahead? One school of thought avers that tribal societies, such as Afghanistan and the contiguous parts of Pakistan, will not countenance any review of existing blasphemy and gender norms — honour killings of women are an extension of this certitude. However, the women of Afghanistan have on occasion defied such oppression — the all-women pallbearers of Farkhunda’s coffin, for example. Slender but symbolic.
One path is to encourage a more gender-equitable, feminist interpretation of the Quran that could review the tenets perceived to be cast in stone. Some efforts have been made by courageous women scholars in different parts of the world but these initiatives remain cloistered and confined to very small groups.
The silver lining to the harrowing Malala experience (the Taliban had attacked her for going to school) is that more fathers in that region are now determined to ensure that their daughters receive an education despite obscurantist diktats. Something similar may happen as a result of Farkhunda’s tragic death. However tentative, civil society, whether in Kabul or elsewhere, must be supported in its efforts to have blasphemy laws reviewed. Concurrently, deliberations that could enable a more equitable and empathetic interpretation of Islam and its practice are imperative.
De-radicalising Islamic societies, which have been either coerced or brainwashed into conforming with an intolerant, insecure and hate-filled interpretation of the faith, is necessary but fraught with potholes and minefields. Any suggestion that debate and discussion on the orientation of Islam is needed is seen as politically incorrect and theologically impermissible. But this is a path that has to be trodden by the thought-leaders and reformist clergy of the community. While conceding that the Kabul killing was not purely gender-driven, the tenet that a human being can be so brazenly killed in the name of the faith has to be challenged.
The writer is director, Society for Policy Studies, Delhi