In the year 415 in Alexandria, the Byzantine Empire’s metropolis on the Nile, the brilliant philosopher, teacher and astronomer Hypatia was captured by a mob of religious zealots, stripped naked and skinned alive. Hypatia had been the light of Alexandria, an intellectual powerhouse whose counsel was sought far and wide. And she was a woman writes Lauryn Oates.
Hypatia lived at a time when when pagans, Jews and Christians uneasily coexisted in Alexandria. The power-hungry were eager to foment conspiracies and religious bigotries among the people. As tensions between the city’s Jews and Christians came to a head, a rumour was spread around that Hypatia had colluded with the Christian governor Orestes against his rival, the Archbishop Cyril, who had sanctioned pogroms against Alexandria’s Jews.
A mob loyal to Archbishop Cyril dragged Hypatia to a church, and it was there that they tortured and killed her. (See illustration).
On March 19 in the heart of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city, a similarly bloody event unfolded. Farkhonda, a 27-year-old teacher at a local mosque, was beaten, stoned, crushed under the wheels of a car and finally set on fire. The atrocity had begun after the mosque’s mullah had taken charred bits of paper into the streets outside, wailing that the young woman, an “infidel,” had burned a Koran.
Hundreds of people have blood on their hands in Farkhonda’s murder — the perpetrators who gleefully brutalized a defenceless woman, the scores of men who stood by and watched, many of them happily filming the carnage on their cellphones. In the police investigation so far, several people have been arrested, including 13 police officers on charges that they failed to intervene.
As happened in Alexandria 1600 years ago, the barbarism in Kabul was unleashed by a deliberately malicious rumour. A Kabul police investigation has found no evidence that Farkhonda burned a Koran, and initial reports that her family described her as mentally ill appear to have been concoctions, at the urgings of police, to shield the family from mob violence. It appears now that what really aroused the fury of the imam was Farkhonda’s complaint that he was enriching himself by requiring women attending the mosque to purchase worthless amulets.
But the imam’s accusation ripped through a crowded Kabul street like wildfire, igniting the misogynist sadism that always seems to lie just below the surface among blindly-religious men who have become unthinking, unfeeling slaves to their own obscene self-righteousness.
In the days since Farkhonda’s murder, many brave Kabulis have risen up in protest. In defiance of Afghan custom, Farkhonda’s coffin was carried to her burial ground by women. Her murder has set off an intense debate about the oppressive role of religious fanaticism in Afghan society. The protests are a reminder, too, of a similar upwelling of popular resentment against religious bullying that occurred only six years ago.
In 2009, the immensely wealthy Iran-backed Shiite mullah Asif Mohseni, a self-proclaimed religious scholar, took it upon himself to write a family law code for Afghanistan’s minority Shia population and attempted to force the law through the Afghan parliament.
The law proposed to force Shia women back into the time of the Taliban, reducing their right to work, study or even leave their homes to the whims of their husbands. One provision of the law stipulated that women were required on penalty of criminalization to submit to their husbands’ sexual demands, causing the proposed legislation to be dubbed the Rape Law.
In April that year, Shia women bravely took to the streets to march in protest. When Mohseni got wind of the demonstration, his cronies spread a rumour that the women were protesting against Islam itself. Mohseni’s students poured into the streets. They threw stones at the Shia women, spat on them, shoved them around, ripped the placards out of the women’s hands and ripped the hijabs from their heads. One of Mosheni’s men, when asked what the women had done to send him into a rage, said: “I don’t know, someone said Islam was being attacked.”
The hatred that feeds extremism boils to the surface fastest when attacks on the symbols of the sacred, whether real or imagined, are associated with real or imagined transgressions by women. The fanatically religious find themselves gripped in the throes of an identity crisis. Fanatical men will become unhinged by the delusion that their identity as men is being challenged.
In the clash between modernity and tradition, between the sacred and profane, mere symbols — books, images, clothing — can take on a super-charged meaning. The combination of religious non-conformity with “deviant” behaviour by women inevitably becomes fatally explosive among men whose patriarchal religiosity has denied them the ability to think freely and act compassionately on their own conscience.
After Hypatia was killed all those years ago, there was much soul-searching among the people of Alexandria. In Kabul, the word I am hearing spoken over and over by Afghan men and women alike is “shame.”
In Afghanistan’s Khaama Press, Amina Zia Massoud wrote, “If only one brave man shielded her, if only one man wasn’t afraid, if only one man raised his voice; Kabul needed one man to save its honour.” But that is not everyone’s opinion. Even an official from Afghanistan’s Ministry of Religious Affairs said that if Farkhonda did indeed burn a Koran, then she deserved her fate.
But what an increasing number of Afghans are saying — including President Ashraf Ghani — is that even if Farkhonda had burned a Koran, her murder was an outrage. What Afghans are beginning to say, publicly, is that it is far more important to focus on and root out the source of the savagery that led to the public torture and execution of a human being by a crowd of people on a city street — the performance of a murder for an audience.
So long as the likes of the men who killed Farkhonda are endowed with the power to mete out justice, on the basis of hearsay, based on their own dimwitted interpretation of what is sacred, then the idea of a civil society, of justice, is just that — an idea.
Unless the hateful superstition that led hundreds of men to tear apart a young woman in broad daylight is confronted head on by Afghanistan’s spiritual, intellectual and political leaders, Farkhonda’s story will continue to haunt Afghans. Dialogue and vigils are not enough.
Only a complete paradigm shift — the tolerance of dissent, the protection of women from violence, the primacy of free thought over unthinking dogma and the rule of law over mob “justice” — will restore a city’s honour and wash away its shame.
Lauryn Oates is a Canadian who has worked on gender issues in Afghanistan since the 1990s.
Lauryn Oates, National Post | March 30, 2015