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Afghan women's rights activists carry the coffin of Farkhunda. (Reuters/Mohammad Ismail)
Afghan women's rights activists carry the coffin of Farkhunda. (Reuters/Mohammad Ismail)

“Sophia,” Ray says in frustration, “You are not taking me seriously!”

He’s the manager of a community non-profit office in Hanover Park, a rough area of Cape Town, South Africa. The nonprofit, an affiliate of an international organisation called Ceasefire, works to prevent gang violence, which in this area kills hundreds of people each year.

Their task is not small – the first day I meet them this March, my cab driver had been so terrified of the dangerous neighborhood, he’d had trouble driving straight – and some people in the office have a mild paranoid vibe, as though they’ve been face-to-face with too much traumatic violence for too long. Their attitude has meant an emphatic insistence on my safety – including Ray’s well-meant demand that I never walk alone.

“You’ll get robbed,” he explains, describing how a gang member could hold a gun on me while relieving me of my camera.

I nod while he grumps about the three blocks I’d walked from the neighborhood taxi terminus by myself, but think, he’s right. I’m not taking him seriously.

I know why.

In part, it’s about the luxury of everyone else at Ceasefire worrying about me. In part, it’s about my strange inability to fear guns, which I know from experience persists even when I’m threatened with one.

But mostly, it’s because I believe the death worthy of my fear, is not gang-related – a crime to which, as an outsider to the most-affected geographical location, gender, and race, I am relatively immune. If murder ever touches me, I bet I will not die like a gangbanger on the Cape Flats of South Africa.

Nope. The death of Farkhunda: that is the death I fear.

The video on YouTube is blurry, the sort of thing that one could shoot on a bad old flip-phone. It begins in the middle, well after the story does. Farkhunda, a 27-year-old woman in a black burqa and blue jeans, is already staggering, hijab missing, while a mob of men surround her, beating her.

The video cuts abruptly, and two men are dragging Farkhunda onto the tin roof of a one-story building. They seem for a moment to be helping her escape, but after she stands, one knocks her down off her feet, and then off the roof onto the ground.

She gets up, pushing loose hair and blood out of her eyes, and walks forward with hands up as though arguing for mercy. A man kicks her in the chest, and she tumbles, stiff-bodied, over a barricade. When she’s face-down, another man hits her with a plank. Soon there’s another cut, and then the video shows a car rolling over her body.

In the end, the mob will move her to the riverbank and set her alight on an improvised pyre. That final indignity is not in the video, though, and is mercifully painless. By then, Farkhunda is dead.

Farkhunda was a 27-year-old woman studying Islamic theology in Kabul, Afghanistan. On March 19, 2015, she went to a local shrine to complain about their selling trinkets which she considered a perversion of the faith. She began to complain in the street outside the shrine, continuing undeterred as men tried to get her to stop. Finally, someone shouted that she’d burned a Quran. She hadn’t, but the horde descended, not understanding her innocence until after she herself had burned.

Death by mob violence sadly isn’t novel. A cell phone video shot in 2009 in my own city, Chicago, resembles Farkhunda’s death just as closely: it shows a crowd of teenagers beating a 16-year-old named Derrion Albert to death with a railroad tie. A video from South Africa’s Johannesburg shows a mob beating a Zimbabwean man to death in 2011.

What I fear isn’t just mob violence, as gruesome as that is. Watching the video of Farkhunda on a sofa one day when I am on assignment in South Africa, I am afraid because she is in Asia, and she is a woman, and above all, because she is being killed just for having an opinion. I feel her pain in my body, as though she is me – or rather, me in Bangladesh.

“You might not be able to come back here,” a Bangladeshi friend tells me over the phone in late February. “It might not be safe for you.”

“I know,” I say. “I’ve already thought of that.”

We are discussing an essay I published here in bdnews24.com on Bengali language. The article was polarising, with a critique directed at an ethnic nationalism that sometimes offers idealism without safety.

A week later, I noticed that this conversation came one week before fundamentalists murdered Avijit Roy. It felt as though all signs were pointing to the same conclusion: polarising opinions are not safe to express in Bangladesh.

Clearly, the murders of Roy and that of blogger Washiqur Rahman Babu are dangerous crimes that merit imprisonment. But it is other sources of violence I fear – ones that also make dissent impossible, and that set Bangladesh apart from South Africa, the US, and other nations where mobs might kill.

In Bangladesh, the repressions against freedom of expression are wide-ranging and devastating.These include the ICT Act, which imposes up to fourteen years’ imprisonment on anyone who makes public statements that can offend in various vague ways like hurting religious feelings, causing “the possibility for the deterioration of law and order.”

They also include the over-frequent use of contempt of court against human rights organisations, the government’s round-ups of activists, extra-judicial killings, and increasingly blatant torture. Press freedom is sinking, and the ICT which hinges on evidence from witnesses, offers these war survivors far too little protection.

A few prominent Bangladeshis support freedom of speech, but the broader picture is somewhat darker. Bangladeshi nationalists may support free speech in principle, but they tend to excuse violent repression of opposition groups simply because they disagree with them

The popular movement of February 2013, for instance, called for the executions of Jamaati leaders, whether or not evidence supported their hangings. The movement offered no counter-point about freedom of speech or rule of law, and in fact demanded that laws be overlooked to allow for an execution.

Through its monomaniacal focus on hangings, the movement had a bit of the same character as the mob that beat Farkhunda to death in Kabul.

There was an important difference, though: that movement gained support from the Bangladeshi government within days. The crowd’s enthusiasm about the intense co-optation signaled dismal complicity with repression, and helped open the door to the increasing disruptions of civil liberties happening now.

It’s the opposite of how other governments tend to respond to such demands. In particular, these videoed killings have prompted changes. In Afghanistan, Farkhunda’s death has become a rallying cry for women’s rights.

In Chicago, the Albert killing ended with substantial changes to the surrounding community. South Africa is doing a range of things to address its problems with violence. This includes through Ceasefire, which has reduced the murder incidence by half in Cape Town’s Hanover Park neighbourhood in the past two years.

In contrast, Bangladesh seems unlikely to improve in the near future. If anything, repression is accelerating. The year 2015 has seen a recurrence of the heavy hartals that killed so many in 2013. With the government and opposition parties entrenched in conflict and the public offering no organised movement supporting freedom of speech or safety, the prospect of positive change seems very dim.

Everyone in Bangladesh could be Farkhunda.

Hanover Park feels a million miles away from South Asia. Despite the gun violence, the neighborhood has some peaceful traits: there are no riots and although there is overcrowding here, the broad streets aren’t busy. The people too are reassuring. In this post-apartheid era, South Africans tend to have a self-effacing sincerity, an openness to share even unseemly information, and a Mandela-esque commitment to democracy.

The effect is a feeling of trust despite the obvious problem with violence. Walking through Hanover Park alone one afternoon offers nothing disturbing, or even eventful. There’s just a lone road worker, smiling and calling out “Hi, Miss Ceasefire,” to me as I pass.

I have another reason to feel calm. In Bangladesh, I constantly craved a refuge from the hartals, killings, and the feeling that speaking freely would trigger brutality. The video of Farkhunda, for all its ugliness, offers a strange validation. The person I still fear becoming – someone facing a grim, senseless fate for her outspoken opinion, has a name, a face, and sympathy across the globe.

So when Ray chides me in the office entrance, I’m tempted to interject that the violence I fear is far away, in a place I’ve promised to never return.

But I realise that the present moment is actually the refuge I wanted so long, and that more than anything I wish the many people in Bangladesh who could suffer a fate like Farkhunda’s could have the same relief.

That is rather too much to say to a man I’ve just frustrated, though. And so I leave the story of the painful past and risky future unspoken, and, in just a few words, I tell Ray I appreciate his concern.

And I mean it, seriously.

Sophia Newman, MPH, is a freelance writer. She completed a Fulbright fellowship in Bangladesh in 2013, and is currently reporting in Africa.

This article was written with the help of a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

11 Responses to “Repression in Bangladesh, Farkhunda in Hanover Park”

  1. Jeniffer Hoque Chowdhury

    MSN is also a great fan of the Jmaati war criminals; we should not forget that point. If anybody browses through her many write-ups and comments in this English Page, he/she can find ample proofs in this regard. It is rightly said : “He doesn’t need an enemy who has got friendship with America.”

    Thank you, all.

  2. Harun Shafiuddin

    Judging by the tenor of the majority of the responses, it is clear that the light Ms Newman is trying to get everybody to see will take another hundred years to kindle.

    To be human, writes Jean Vanier in his “Becoming Human”, means liberating the heart and mind “from the tentacles of chaos” as well as from “the fears that exclude and reject others”. Discovering “our common humanity” pulsating in others around us inspires us to “work together for common good.”

    Set aside the airy nothingness of such moral abstractions. Will the youth in Bangladesh pay heed to what biologists and anthropologists and historians say? Will they ever open up to the adversary? Because the failure to create a shared identity and pursue a common goal will lead this community, this nation, like an endangered species, straight to the mortuary. Future will stop here and now.

    Rabindranath Tagore said it so poignantly in “Shesher Kabita”: “Civilization is open to possibilities; barbarism is always unprepared for everything.”

    What is mindbogglingly surreal is that some really believe that Farkhundas are born only in Afghanistan.

    Ostriches are born not only in South Africa!

    Reminds me of a tale from the Mahabharata. When Yudhisthir is affronted by Dharma, appearing in the guise of a stork, with this question: “What is the most astonishing thing in the world?”, the Son of Truth replies:”Everyday, without end, people go to the house of Yama (God of death) and yet those who are in the world think they will live forever.”

    Ms Newman, you found the affairs in Bangladesh distressing? Democratic rights trampled upon? Women and minorities writhing under a repressive regime? It must have been because you were a supporter of the Islamists. Worse – a woman, and an American at that.

    When logic like this overshadows a collective psyche, you know the boulder gets a little heavier in your Sisyphean task.

    • MSN

      You write so beautifully.

      I agree with what you said, but the lovely way you said it really made my day.

      Onek dhonnobad, bhaiya.

      -Sophia

      • M Alam

        I’d say Sophia, Hanan Shafiuddin’s message was complete ‘nonsense’ for me, I couldn’t understand anything.
        It should be simple and easy for ‘common people’ like me.

      • moshiurrahman-tonu@gmail.com(Ex-JSD)

        Ms. M. Sophia Newman,

        I read many of your articles and remarks thereof published in http://www.bdnews24.com on different dates and you are a trustworthy supporter of dreaded war criminals for whom trials are going on in Bangladesh but every war criminal deserves capital punishment and hanging of them to death will be right answer. And I pray for that.

  3. Akteruzzaman Chowdhury

    Ms Sophia has written many opinion articles supporting the Islamist party Jamat. I think she gets paid to do this work. The ICT courts are working according to the Laws of Bangladesh and had changed the sentence after an appeal case. Even the rabble raisers of Shahbagh have been reprimanded when they crossed the red line. Ms. Sophia should turn her attention to Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Libya. There are many mental cases in those countries.

  4. Mohammad

    We have Khaleda Zia, and we need Tareque, the traitors to bring to book!! Nobody can stop it! There’s no place for these ‘Nexus of all terrors’ in Bangladesh.
    .
    BNP is going to lose and they know that but, they’ll complain as they burned and killed people, want to save criminals and small tareque to rule the country Bangladesh. Western countries are pretty much aware of BNP tactics
    .
    What PM Hasina is doing is the best Bangladesh can get; simply, the best prime minister ever and nobody can deter her missions. She needs ‘one more term’ after 2019 to bring terrorists to book.

  5. mahumud

    ms newman:

    were you not in BD for sometime? did you then write about our repressive society? you should have…or may be you didn’t have the courage to do it? why not leave the painful story in the past and move on? did you consider therapy? after Africa, consider going to Kabul and save the women there. you are done with Bangladesh, but to me as a reader it seems you have lingering resentments… and sooner you face those demons the better it would be for you. we all are frustrated for some reason or other, so no one has the patience to go through yours. you should have dealt with whatever problems you were having while you were in BD, now too late. don’t come back to a country where you did not have a good time. have a good life and be safe out there!

    • MSN

      I did write about it when I was there, and yeah, I’m aware of press freedom issues. I’m gone for now, but South Asia comes up in my line of work all the time. Plus, experiences like mine in Bangladesh will change one’s life in a lasting fashion, and there is really no reasonable way to pretend that the past didn’t happen, anyway.

      The story has some broader purpose, I suppose, but if you don’t see yourself in it or like it, of course you’re entitled to that viewpoint as well. Have a nice day and stay well.

    • mithun ahmed

      The following are all facts. Thanks Sophia for the courage to speak the truth. Bangladesh was once a symbol of global liberalism, it has now turned into a fascist mecca. How sad!!!

      “Clearly, the murders of Roy and that of blogger Washiqur Rahman Babu are dangerous crimes that merit imprisonment. …..
      In Bangladesh, the repressions against freedom of expression are wide-ranging and devastating.These include the ICT Act, which imposes up to fourteen years’ imprisonment on anyone who makes public statements that can offend in various vague ways like hurting religious feelings, causing “the possibility for the deterioration of law and order.”…The popular movement of February 2013, for instance, called for the executions of Jamaati leaders, whether or not evidence supported their hangings. The movement offered no counter-point about freedom of speech or rule of law, and in fact demanded that laws be overlooked to allow for an execution.”

  6. M Alam

    Thank you M. Sophia Newman, another message for the persons above the law.

    ‘Democracy is in Bangladesh’s DNA’ stated by the US Ambassador and it shows too in real life, ‘one rotten fish can spoil the whole pond’ or one hooligan can destabilize that local area, and in progression. These unruly persons use arabic word ‘nastik’or non-believer and the nastiks should be slaughtered, killed, is ‘astik motto’, they (ISIS) declared Khalifat!

    But it’s written in Qur’an, “lakhum dino khum oliadin”. These famous words, meaning ‘respect each other in terms of religious beliefs and no forcing conversion’, are strictly followed by non-medieval civil societies; in fact, these words are the basic principles of biggest democracies like USA, India, France, Canada, UK, Germany, etc and there are some stray-dogs too but not in this level in Bangladesh.

    They always use Islam as Shield to their crimes! Modern technologies, girl education, any education, all are ‘haram’ means forbidden; girls are play toys, slaves only.

    Question remains: Why are all terrorists using Islam and destabilizing the whole world? There is always a way out, DO NOT SUPPORT THEM.

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