Wednesday, January 9, 2019

From Traitor to Martyr: The Story of Farkhunda Malikzada

March 2015 saw to the brutal death of a young, outspoken teacher and devout Afghani-Muslim woman, Farkhunda Malikzada. She was a woman with hopes of starting a family and had high career aspirations, as she dreamt of becoming a judge one day. Her mother described her as a brave woman who was not afraid of speaking her mind, and it was this bravery and belief in her intellect that got her killed.

In preparation for the Afghan New Year, Farkhunda promised her mother, Bibi Hajera, that she would help prepare for the oncoming celebrations after returning from her Quran recitation class. On her way home, she stopped by the Shah-e Du Shamshira shrine in the centre of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul. What should have been a simple stop for prayer, ended in an altercation with the shrine's caretaker over the selling of religious charms, which Farkhunda believed to be superstitious and un-Islamic. She tried explaining her point of view, which ended up with the caretaker, Zain-ul-Din shouting "this woman is American and she has burned the Quran!"

Fast enough, a crowd began to gather as she was dragged out of the shrine and thrown to the ground and kicked. A mob begins to gather and cries of "kill her!" are shouted as onlookers film the atrocity that is about to occur in front of them, despite her begging not to be filmed. There are repeated references to her being American and that they have sent her. It takes a police gunshot for the crowd to disperse to reveal a crumpled figure on the ground, veil and headscarf gone, hair in disarray and Farkhunda covered in blood. The police are completely and utterly useless, as they simply give up trying to hold the crowd and camera footage shows them watching her being beaten within an inch of her life and run over with a car that drags her down the street.

Among the individuals involved was a teenage boy named Yaqoob. He was helping in his uncle's shop when he joined the mob after they dragged Farkhunda's body passed his doorstep. She was thrown into a riverbed and Yaqoob is caught on camera throwing large rocks at her limp, lifeless body. After she had been beaten, dragged and stoned her body was torched and marked the end of a long and horrific attack.

After the media footage surfaced online many boasted about their role in the attack or made clear their support for the murder of Farkhunda. President Ashraf Ghani ordered an investigation condemning the lynching, however, some officials quickly endorsed her murder - including the Deputy Minister of Information and Culture, Semin Ghazal Hasanzada and police spokesman Hashmat Stanekazai.

But soon after the narrative changed Hasanzada and Stanekazai retracted their statements of support after the ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs found no evidence that she had burned the Quran. This saw to the sacking of both Hasanzada and Stanekazai. This government announcement of her innocence saw the making of Farkhunda into a martyr. 

Her funeral was an iconic event, attended by over 1,00o people and her coffin was carried to the grave by women only carrying huge significance as this was a country where burials are often male-only events. Women's rights activist Sahra Mosawi proclaimed "my friends and I, we promised each other, we won't let any man touch this coffin... we said, 'Don't touch it. Where were you that day when 150 men attacked Farkhunda? Where were you?" Farkhunda's funeral served as a symbol for unity and support among Afghani women, who then led a protest march a few days later demanding justice for Farkhunda's death.

49 men were charged in connection to her murder. In a televised trial, eleven police officers were sentenced to one year in prison for their failure to intervene, eight civilians were given 16-year terms and four death sentences were given. Two of them were given to the shrine caretaker Zain-ul-Din and Yaqoob. The courts appeals took away these death sentences in a session held behind closed doors and reduced to a twenty-year sentence, and the police officers were acquitted and resumed their jobs as usual.

In remembering Farkhunda, Sahra Mosawi makes a striking point in relation to her murderers "they learned how to wear jeans and look modern but their mentality towards women hasn't changed." Farkhunda's killers were not religious extremists, they were ordinary Afghani citizens. Little has changed since then, and no new laws have been put into place to protect women against violence. 

But, Afghanistan was not always like this. Before the 1979 invasion by Russia, the 20th Century was one of progress for women's rights in Afghanistan. Women became eligible to vote in 1919, a year after women in the UK and before women in the United States. In the 1950s, purdah - gendered separation - was abolished and the 1960s brought in a new constitution which included political participation. Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty International's Afghanistan Researcher, notes before the invasion that she remembers her mother "wearing mini skirts" and taking her to the cinema, her aunt even went to university in the capital. 

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 90s, who aimed to make Afghanistan an Islamic state holding control from 1996-2001. Under their control, women and girls were discriminated against for simply being born a girl. They enforced their version of Sharia law, banning women and girls from education, work, leaving the house without a male chaperone, from showing their skin in public. One of the most worrying being that healthcare was virtually inaccessible for women because they were banned from accessing healthcare delivered by men and as women could not work, they were stuck without this basic need. Women became prisoners confined to their home, without a shred of independence that they had in the 1960s.

So, it hardly seems shocking that Farkhunda met the fate she did when the country has a recent history of abuses against women. In the years that should have been a progression towards women's freedom has taken the country way back beyond the freedom women had in the 1960s. Like the previous post on Asia Bibi, both Farkhunda and Asia's voices were silenced because of their differences in society. Because they did not conform to their societies expectation of women, because they were outspoken women, women with voices and stories to tell. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Case of Asia Bibi

A mother of five. A farm labourer. A practising Christian.

Part of the forgotten Christian minority in the majority Muslim Pakistan. In 2009, Asia Bibi was charged with the crime of blasphemy, in which she faced the absolute sentence of death. What should have been a regular day at the farm changed her life in an unimaginable way. Asia was offered out water from a well to her fellow farmhands, a simple and kind gesture was met with a petty animosity from her peers. The Muslim women refused to share the water because she was a 'non-Muslim,' implying that there is a dirtiness that comes with not being Muslim. Allegedly, Bibi had, in turn, said something offensive towards the Prophet Muhammad. After the women reported this to the village cleric, the police were informed and Bibi was charged with blasphemy. 

She now faces a lengthy eight-year journey on death row, largely spent in solitary confinement. Her case took centre stage in Pakistani politics resulting in the brutal deaths of one of Pakistan's pluralist politicians - Salman Taseer. As the son of Salman, Shaan reports the case has been "extremely traumatic" for Asia and in the last year she was ready to give up, as she had lost her strength and could not take the pressures of the case anymore. Her case also raised the issue of the ambiguity of Pakistan's blasphemy laws making her case one of the prominent human rights cases of the current decade. After an almost decade-long battle, her case claimed centre stage in October 2018.

There were calls to Imran Khan, Pakistan's new Prime Minister, who throughout his campaign defended this stringent blasphemy law, to ensure justice was achieved for Asia. As outspoken Ex-Muslim, activist and founder of Empower Ex-Muslims, Rayhana tweets to Khan - "this is your chance to show humanity... If Asia Bibi is killed while you are in power,
the world will remember." Khan's response to Bibi's acquittal is that we must have the utmost
respect for the law, which allows him to keep his campaign defences in check, whilst not
condemning the ruling.

Salman Taseer, a pluralist Pakistani politician, was undoubtedly an incredibly brave man for
campaigning for Asia. He was one-of-a-kind politician in Pakistan, openly condemning
extremism and supporter of repealing the blasphemy law. He pressured the government for a
presidential pardon for Bibi, appeared publicly on television with her in hope to achieve justice
and as a result cost him his life.

January 4th 2011, Taseer was gunned down by his bodyguard. Why? Because he was viewed as
a traitor. As Ed Husain writes - "Taseer was part of the English speaking elite who were in
cahoots with the "enemy,"" this enemy being the West and his "public support for a woman
who insulted the prophet Mohamed was ample evidence, in their mind, of this global
conspiracy against Islam and Muslims."

Beyond Taseer's death his son, Shaan remains just as vocal on the Bibi case and Pakistan's harsh
blasphemy laws. As the comments that the blasphemy law is unjust because it is very broad and
vague in its description, but very absolute in it's punishment - death.

A derogatory remark, whether it is direct or indirect, by representation, by innuendo or
insinuation is punishable by death. This caused me to reflect on myself, coming from a Muslim
background myself, my other Muslim friends and I would make jokes about our religion. Now,
taking this in consideration our remarks if heard in Pakistan could have cost us our lives if
heard by the wrong person, even as Muslims ourselves, could be viewed as untrue Muslims for
the jokes we made.

Shaan himself has faced threats against his own life for openly speaking out against the blasphemy law.
Similarly, other human rights activists call for Pakistan to change their attitude towards the law, and
its overall attitudes towards religion. As Mohammed Jibran Nasir says that it "needs to be set in stone
that religion will not be used for petty political gain, that religion will not be used for regional and
short-term gain, not used for certain laws." This implies, as other human rights groups have noted,
that the law is open up to abuse. As people have been using the law to settle personal grudges and

Bibi's acquittal is not the end of her arduous journey, her path to living a life of freedom is still uncertain. In the aftermath of the ruling, a wave of protests conducted by the hardline religious group Tehrak-e-Labbik Pakistan (TLP) calls for her to be hanged, pressuring the Pakistani government into reviewing their decision. 

In terms of repealing the law anytime soon, the future does not look so bright. The current PM Imran Khan had publicly defended this law and in the aftermath of Asia's acquittal has failed to take a direct stance on the issue. He is fumbling between appealing Pakistan's hardline religious groups and supporting the verdict. Despite calling the violent protesters "enemies of the state," and supporting the Supreme Court decision, he has allowed a court to review the acquittal and work to prevent Bibi from leaving the country, putting her life at risk. The TLP's influence on Khan and the government is worrying, as their pressures have opened up the case against, caused her lawyer to flee the country and called for her death alongside the three Supreme Court Judges who acquitted her.

With Khan as PM, who has aligned himself with the views of these hardliners, her future in Pakistan does not look promising. Her current location remains a secret and with her children unable to live safely in Pakistan, as her daughter Eisham Ashiq says that she does not go out and if she does she has to with the utmost caution. The only option for Bibi and her family is to seek asylum abroad, as life in their home country is no longer an option. Reports have noted that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has looked to bring Bibi to Canada. Yet, this should not have to be the case, Asia Bibi and her family should be able to live their lives in their home country and should not be persecuted for their religious beliefs. If Pakistan does not do more to change their attitudes towards other religious beliefs and rid their country of the unjust and intolerant blasphemy law, then their reputation on the international playground will suffer.

About the Blog!

A little bit about me...

I am an ex-Muslim atheist from the UK, I talk about leaving religion on my Twitter page (@saffdotcom) in order to raise awareness of apostasy laws, where leaving the religion of Islam is breaking the law and carries a death sentence 13 countries. I also discuss leaving Islam on a podcast I co-founded and host, The Sinning Skeptics. Through this my team and I discuss various topics in Islam and the consequences and effects of leaving the religion, inviting young ex-Muslims on to discuss their experience with leaving Islam.

I have also recently graduated with a degree in American Studies and History, and aspiring to be a journalist, which leads me to my upcoming masters of International Journalism.

The style of journalism, or news journalism I am particularly interested in is political and human rights journalism, in the cases of apostasy and women's rights in Middle Eastern and South Asian countries, which will be the focus of this blog. Alongside, anything in the news that takes my interest.

Besides, the formalities of my studies, I am a huge film fanatic and love baking purely to satisfy my sweet tooth!

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