“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.