In September of 1955, mourners lined up to view the open casket of Emmitt Till, and each was horrified by what they saw. Emmitt was a twelve year-old African American boy from Chicago on a family visit to Money, Mississippi when he ran afoul of some of the local white men. The official story was that he had whistled at a white woman, raising the ire of the white men who felt compelled to defend her honor. It has always been a ludicrous suggestion, the far more likely scenario was that being from Chicago, Till was simply not sufficiently deferential to one or more of the white men, but regardless, the end result was brutality beyond imagining. The boy was taken to a barn where he was beaten to a pulp and his eyes were gouged out. He was then bound to a cotton gin with barbed wire and he was dumped into the Tallahatchie River. While horrendous crimes against African Americans were commonplace in the American South, the sheer brutality inflicted on a child drew tens of thousands of mourners. It was the decision of Till’s mother to open his casket and put her battered son’s body on display for all the world to see that is generally considered to be the beginning of the American Civil Rights movement. Six months later Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man.
As gruesome as Till’s fate was, it was equaled, if not exceeded, in barbarity with that of a 27 year-old Afghan woman named Farkhunda on March 19th in Kabul. She was accused of “burning the Quran” and was attacked by several men who were soon joined by a screaming mob of men that beat and kicked her and pelted her body with stones. She was then dragged bloodied out into street where she was run over, back and forth, by a truck, crushing her. Then she was set alight to burn. Unlike Till, Farkhunda’s violent end was captured on numerous videos which have brought the sheer horror and gore of the event to the eyes of millions of people around the world, spawning protests and candlelight vigils.
Like the America of the 1950’s, Afghanistan is a nation in dramatic transition. Long held hostage to the machinations of the proxy whims of others, particularly the toxic influence of Pakistan via the export of what came to be known as the Taliban. Washington, or rather the Obama Administration has finally embraced the woeful lesson of the Reagan and Bush era’s careless and neglectful behavior, which ultimately contributed, if not directed resulted in, the smoldering twin towers of the World Trade Center. The Obama Administration, and Secretary John Kerry personally are attempting much more proactive and positive posture in the development of Afghan institutions but it has not been, nor will it be, easy or quick work (and will likely be abandoned altogether by whomever is Obama’s successor). The first post-Taliban elected leader, Hamid Karzai’s primary skillset was confusing virtually everyone with his ever-shifting positions and liaisons while distributing the bounty of international aid to his friends and family. His successor, Ashraf Ghani, may prove at least a modest improvement but his decision to focus on relations with Pakistan seems a dubious one at best. The prospects of negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban seem akin to stepping in front of an oncoming train to negotiate physics.
But it is with the women of Afghanistan that the real change and real hope lay, which makes Farkhunda’s horrific and tortured death before the eyes of the world all the more potentially politically incendiary. Thought it may not be apparent from the outside, Afghan women have made great strides from the Taliban era where they were whipped with car antennas for not being sufficiently covered or subservient. A new generation of Afghan women artists and singers- and politicians- have come out of the shadows and are increasingly taking their place in society. Courageous schoolgirls brave the threats of acid attacks every day in order to study and learn, just as their grandmothers did in the days before the Soviet incursion began the downward spiral of the social and physical destruction that set the country back generations. Unlike other equally troubled nations like Iraq or Yemen, the strides of Afghan women, both up an down, bear testimony to the country’s long history of not only with diversity and relative gender equality, but with financial and social prosperity, a trend line that uniformly mirrors the fortunes of any society’s women.
Fannie Lou Hamer once famously described her motivation to ascend to leadership in the African American Civil Rights movement as “being sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Perhaps the soul wrenching tragedy of Farkhunda will provide the same spark Emmitt Till’s death did, and unite and engage Afghan women, who have suffered far too long and too deeply. Farkhunda’s final words, as she tried to defend herself were “What was my sin?” Hopefully, the entire Afghan nation- men and women alike- will recognize her martyrdom- a term for once used appropriately- and know that their collective sin would be inaction in the days and years ahead.