For the past few days, news about a 27-year-old Afghan woman named Farkhunda, who was brutally and mercilessly killed last week Thursday (March 19, 2015), has been circulating all over the world wide web. Countless articles, blogs, op-eds, and press releases have been written, explaining what exactly happened, how it happened, and why it happened. And each time, something new — something painful and utterly disturbing — was revealed. While I will not delve into the details of that horrific incident, as there are no words — absolutely no words at all — to describe my feelings for this incredibly inhumane brutality that took place that horribly fateful day, one thing I can’t help but question about Farkhunda’s tragic incident is this: Was she really mentally ill, as it was so claimed? Or was her “illness” used as a blanket to hide the shame and dishonour she brought on her family, and the society at large, for burning something so sacred as the holy Qur’an?
As a Pashtun/Afghan woman, it is imperative I mention that I hail from a society where mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities are viewed and addressed unfavourably, and with much disdain and neglect. It is also important to note that there is a distinction between a mental illness and an intellectual disability. Mental illness is defined as,
A mental disorder, also called a mental illness or psychiatric disorder, is a mental or behavioral pattern or anomaly that causes either suffering or an impaired ability to function in ordinary life (disability), and which is not a developmental or social norm. Mental disorders are generally defined by a combination of how a person feels, acts, thinks or perceives. This may be associated with particular regions or functions of the brain or the rest of the nervous system, often in a social context. Mental disorder is one aspect of mental health. — Wikipedia
Intellectual disability, on the other hand, is defined as,
Intellectual disability (ID), also called intellectual development disorder (IDD) or general learning disability (UK and Ireland),and formerly known as mental retardation (MR), is a generalized neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by significantly impaired intellectual and adaptive functioning. It is defined by an IQ score below 70 in addition to deficits in two or more adaptive behaviors that affect every day, general living. Once focused almost entirely on cognition, the definition now includes both a component relating to mental functioning and one relating to individuals’ functional skills in their environments. As a result of this focus on the person’s abilities in practice, a person with an unusually low IQ may not be considered intellectually disabled. Intellectual disability is subdivided into syndromic intellectual disability, in which intellectual deficits associated with other medical and behavioral signs and symptoms are present, and non-syndromic intellectual disability, in which intellectual deficits appear without other abnormalities. — Wikipedia
Despite the differences between the two, there is one common denominator: both affect, or have affected, the brain and the cognitive ability to behave according (or not according) to the norms and expectations of a given society. Any act or behaviour that is seen as “abnormal” or going against society’s established norms, is usually perceived as shameful/embarrassing and dishonourable. And, I can say this with confidence as I have an older brother who is intellectually disabled. For the longest time, I told people that my brother is “normal,” just like everyone else, and that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with him. And there isn’t. He is only slightly autistic. However, the reason I mention this is because when I was growing up, my mother made sure that my younger brothers and I told people, who were not family, that my brother had no intellectual disabilities at all, because if we told the truth, it would be too embarrassing — too shameful. After all, why take pity from strangers? It’s better to just lie and tell people that my brother is all perfectly fine and dandy. Oh yes, that would save us a lot of trouble all right!
Well, no. Not at all.
And it took me a long time to realize this fact — to realize that there is nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be embarrassed about, because my older brother is the most perfect, most intelligent, and most kind and beautiful human being to walk the face of this earth. And I say this with a deep conviction.
Unfortunately, though, this is not how things are usually perceived, and dealt with, in the society that I come from. And I don’t mean to generalize either, because this is our reality. As a matter of fact, quite often when a woman (or man) makes a mistake that is both morally and socially “wrong” or “taboo,” we are very quick to refer to that person, in Pashto, as “lewanay/lewanai,” which translates to “crazy,” or we even say things like, “Maazgha eh kharaab deh,” which roughly translates to, “The brain has a defect.”
While I realize that we use “insane,” “crazy,” and “retarded” quite commonly in the English language as well (and which is something we seriously need to stop saying, especially the word “retarded”; please read this blog post I wrote on words that we need to stop using, in which I explain why the word “retard” should be banned from our vocabulary), among Pashtuns and Afghans it is a disgrace and used quite often as an excuse to hide shame and dishonour.
Hence, Farkhunda’s case was no different, for when news initially broke out about her killing, her family insisted that she had been suffering from a “mental illness” (which they didn’t bother to specify, as there are so many) for the past 16 years, and that she was currently “seeing a psychiatrist” since the past four years. Her family asserted that Farkhunda was mentally ill as soon as news broke that she was accused of blasphemy in the form of burning the Holy Qur’an. Upon hearing that, I couldn’t help but become skeptical about her so-called “mental illness.” Besides the fact that the mental illness was unknown, I kept wondering what if her family quickly mentioned the mental illness bit in order to serve as a cover-up for her behaviour? They had probably thought that Farkhunda’s behaviour was a disgrace. Shameful. So, perhaps, in order to save face and to redeem, and maybe even revive, her honour as well as the family’s honour, they decided to mention that she did what she did because she was “mentally ill,” for if she wasn’t ill — if she was normal like everybody else — she wouldn’t have committed such a despicable “crime.” Because it is believed that no one in their right mind would ever dare to burn the holy Qur’an, unless there is something seriously wrong with them, psychologically.
However, while her family initially claimed that she was suffering from a mental illness, her brother, Najibullah, later on denied the media reports (and which confirmed my doubts about her mental illness in the first place), that his sister was mentally ill; he went on to mention that Farkhunda was a university graduate and a teacher of Islamic studies. The following quote further elaborates on the false reports about her so-called mental illness:
He (Najibullah) said this (the mental illness) was a made-up defense by their father, who wanted to protect the family after police told them to leave the city for their own safety. ‘My father was frightened and made the false statement to calm people down,’ said Najibullah, who is changing his second name to Farkhunda in memory of his sister. — Source
Even her neighbours confirmed that they never suspected that Farkhunda was ever suffering from a mental illness, all those years they’d known her.
“Everyone respected her, she was very religious and never left her home without covering her face with a hijab,” said Mirwais Afizi, 40, who said he had lived on the same lane as Farkhunda’s family all his life. “We never heard anything about her being mentally ill. She was about to graduate,” he said. — Source
It is clear from the above statements, as given by both her brother and neighbour, that Farkhunda was anything but mentally ill. And her family’s lying about her mental illness had more to it than just simply the protection of the family; it was done to protect the family’s honour. Which then begs the question: Had Farkhunda actually burned the Qur’an, would using the excuse of a mental illness suddenly have made her actions pardonable? In a strict, highly-religious society like Afghanistan, I honestly would still assume it would be a big ‘no’. Mental illness or no mental illness, burning the Qur’an would still have been punishable by death, even though there is no such indication or mention of it in Islam, or even the Qur’an/Hadiths for that matter.
Accordingly, let’s assume Farkhunda was in fact “normal,” and not mentally ill, despite what most of the media purports. Farkhunda was a nice, normal woman, going about her usual day. She was a normal woman who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. She was a normal woman who’s only fault was that she got angry and lashed out at a few mullahs for giving out faulty amulets. She was a normal woman, whose only crime was that she raised her voice against fraudulent cheats, and decided to stand up for something she strongly believed in. So, how can we say that she was mentally ill, when the mullah who wrongly accused her was the one who was a scam artist and a cheat? How can we say she was mentally ill when it was the mob that attacked her with fists and stones, like she was some piece of trash? How can we say she was mentally ill when a group of heartless, savage men dragged her body by a car, and then torched her dead body ablaze before dumping it in the Kabul river?
If violence, cheating, shaming, torching, and killing is considered “normal,” then the country seriously needs to wake up and realize how utterly immoral and primitive its values are. I am not a fan of bigotry, of any sort or form, and I would have never approved such an act as the burning of the holy Qur’an. However, at the same time, I very strongly condemn the way most Muslims react to such acts of bigotry. Their inhumane reactions to the Qur’anic burning is far more immoral, far more sinful, and far more opprobrious than the actual burning of the holy book. It’s absolutely horrendous, and it needs to stop! There is no honour is this, and there certainly was no honour in the way Farkhunda was addressed, tortured, and killed. The mob committed the worst sin of all: they murdered her.
So, no. Farkhunda was not mentally ill. She was a fine, smart woman. She was educated, religious (according to the norms of the society), loved, and well-respected.
Her only blunder was this: She was a woman — a woman who happened to live in a corrupt, immorally ill society that has little or no regard or value for human life, much less a woman’s life.
May she rest in peace.
Za yum Farkhunda.