Though now based in Kabul, I learned about Farkhunda’s death on social media — as many people did both in and outside Afghanistan. Pictures of the tragic and shocking event had been posted on a Facebook’s security page used by Afghans in and out of Kabul to navigate suicide bombs, protests, shootings, traffic accidents and explosions in their city commute. These postings, which include pictures, eye-witness accounts and on the spot news stories (once media teams make it to the site), also are filled with discussion and venting about the state of security in Afghanistan. The death of the 27-year-old Afghan woman living in Kabul came on the eve of Nowruz, or the Afghan New Year, which for many also heralds the beginning of the fighting season for insurgents who target government and international organizations. But the Taliban were not connected to this case.
Farkhunda was killed by a mob for allegedly burning the Quran, which is forbidden under Islamic law. While at first photos of her bloodied face were shared on social media under the headings such as “a woman killed for burning the Quran” to justify her death, the tide of public opinion quickly changed.
“When initial reports came in, some people on social media expressed approval for the murder. But as details began to come in, including videos of the brutality, the lackluster response of the police, Farkhunda’s family’s comments and Farkhunda’s background in religious studies, then those attitudes changed,” Ahmad Shuja, a Research Associate for Human Rights Watch, who relies on social media tools for his work, told Asian Correspondent.
In the instance of the post that I initially observed, which has since been removed, an Afghan had passionately pointed out that he did not see any videos of her burning the Quran, only videos of her killing. And it was this that turned the tide of public opinion against her killers.
Shuja points out some heartening themes in the tragic case. “More people began showing outrage and demanded justice for Farkhunda, including demands that the police be investigated for not doing enough to save her.”
On the many Facebook pages dedicated to “Justice for Farkhunda,” still images have been posted from videos, showing point by point stages in the violence against her, which included being beaten, jumped on, run over by a car and then thrown on the banks of the Kabul River and burnt. These graphic images were used as evidence to prosecute her killers and show the lack of protection afforded to her against a mob of hundreds.
Yet, easily visible in the disturbing videos of the attack are the bystanders filming her with their smart phones. An estimated 1 million Afghans have access to the internet according to a 2012 USAID report on the ICT industry. Another report shows mobile phone penetration estimated at 71 percent.
Asian Correspondent asked Shuja if the many bystanders filming her death possibly spurned on the violence.
“Of course, the people should have done everything to stop the lynching. But the clips that came from cell phones of those witnessing the lynching, even if filmed by people who supported the violence, helped convince Afghan netizens that a great injustice was done. These same clips were also used on national television, which spread the horror of the incident to places not normally within reach of Facebook. Together, the clips highlighted several issues and created some debate around them: the non-existent mental-psychological services, violence against women, issues with the rule of law and the need for the government to prioritize the protection of the rights of every citizen.”
This debate went far and wide, reaching a range of demographics in Afghanistan. Afghans both in the country and abroad have expressed their opinion. “Justice for Farkhunda” events have been created and shared on Facebook in the past week both across Afghanistan and by Afghans living abroad in Canada, the UK, and United States.
Even the Taliban have publicly condemned her killers.
“It is now proven that it was a conspiracy by a few individuals,” stated Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman. “The Islamic Emirate condemns those who hatched this conspiracy to misuse Quran for killing an innocent human being. We also convey condolences to her family.”
This misuse, according to Karim Haidari, an Afghan correspondent for the BBC who had recently visited the Shah-Du-Shamshaira shrine where her death was instigated, revolves around the selling of charms, which Farkhunda publicly challenged. Haidari wrote this is “a common sight” at the shrine.
“Women come to ask such men for charms or amulets to help deal with a family problem – to bring good health to their husbands, to keep their sons safe in the army, or to find good husbands for their daughters.” He also points out that this practice is a livelihood for “poorly educated mullahs”, though there is an increasing criticism of the practice on social media.
“Farkhunda, the woman who was killed in Kabul last week, was one of these critics,” Haidari wrote. It is alleged that the mullah connected with her death falsely accused her of burning the Quran to divert attention from his charm-selling business.
“You can see the clarifications and apologies issued on Facebook by several government officials, including a Ministry of Interior spokesperson and a deputy minister,” explains Shuja. “The turnaround in public attitude about Farkhunda and the senseless mob lynching was very interesting and encouraging.”
Shuja points out that the Ministry of Interior “is crowdsourcing on Facebook for information on the perpetrators, videos, etc. They have a sponsored post to this effect.”
Shuja identifies several important points in which social media has helped bring justice to Farkhunda. Suspects have been identified through social media using video footage and photos, but also through social media posts bragging about the killing.
“We know that police has relied to a significant degree on the videos posted on social media in its investigations,” he explained.
Social media is widely used as a platform for discussion in Afghanistan. As a popular means of expressing opinion, it has helped identify government officials who initially supported her death.
“Social media platforms, in particular Facebook, were also used by government officials to condone the lynching, even to justify it, in the immediate aftermath of the incident. In this way, social media has been important in identifying government officials who aired irresponsible and negligent comments that need to be investigated and, where appropriate, the officials need to be disciplined. In at least one case, the official has been dismissed. But more needs to be done.”
While none of this will bring Farkhunda back to her family, it might help prevent future cases by showing that the Afghan society is not only watching but is mobilized to do something about religiously incited mob violence. However, Shuja cautions against too much speed in the investigation and encourages the careful following of Afghan law.
“Under Afghan law, everyone, no matter how egregious the crime they are accused of, is entitled to a fair trial,” he explains. “One aspect of the collective outrage in this case, as in the case of Paghman gang rape, is that there’s a tremendous force of public opinion on the police, the prosecutors and the judiciary.” With the highly publicized rape case, four women were raped at gun-point outside of Kabul by men wearing police uniforms. Five suspects were hanged within weeks of the crime, calling into question the validity of the investigation.
“We hope that, unlike in the previous case, this doesn’t affect the ability of law enforcement to do their best to offer a fair trial to the alleged perpetrators.”
So far, 28 people have been arrested in connection to Farkhunda’s death and 13 police officers suspended from their posts.