Afghanistan’s Anna Karenina

by Bina Shah    /  July 24, 2012  / No comments

A woman is publicly executed in the name of “honor”

Footage from the execution. Photo: youtube user AussieNews1


Last month in the Afghan village Qol-i-Heer a 22 year-old woman named Najiba was shot to death in a Taliban-style public execution. The execution was filmed and circulated by the Taliban and shows Najiba, clad in a gray shawl, squat in front of a ditch. She is shot nine times by an orange-capped, Kalashnikov-bearing man, believed to be her husband. After the third shot she slumps onto the ground, to shouts of “Allah hu Akbar” and cheering. The video also shows 150 men perched on a nearby hill to witness the execution.

  1. Pakistan is a country of contradictions – full of promise for growth, modernity and progress, yet shrouded by political, social and cultural issues that undermine its quest for identity and integrity. My bi-monthly column “Pakistan Unveiled” presents stories that showcase the Pakistani struggle for freedom of expression, an end to censorship, and a more open and balanced society.
  2. Bina Shah is a Karachi-based journalist and fiction writer and has taught writing at the university level. She is the author of four novels and two collections of short stories. She is a columnist for two major English-language newspapers in Pakistan, The Dawn and The Express Tribune, and she has contributed to international newspapers including The Independent, The Guardian, and The International Herald Tribune. She is an alumnus of the International Writers Workshop (IWP 2011).

Allegedly Najiba was executed because she was married to one man but had an affair with a Taliban commander. The two men were in dispute over what to do about her, so they accused her of adultery and killed her to save their honor.

The real story might be more complicated than this. The woman’s alleged Taliban lover was shot for giving information to the government and her supposed husband was a member of a local village militia that killed a Taliban leader (although I’m not sure if it was the same one). Najiba may have been executed under the charge of adultery to avenge that killing. The man who executed her may not even have been her husband. Afghan officials have given varying, conflicting accounts of the whole story. However, what is true is that a woman is dead because two men had complete control over her life.

I can’t help but be reminded of Anna Karenina, the heroine of Tolstoy’s classic novel about love and adultery in feudal Russia. Highborn Anna is married to the bureaucrat Karenin, but falls in love with a count and leaves her husband for him. Eventually her lover, Vronksy, abandons her too. Dishonored, bereft of her children and unbalanced, Anna commits suicide by throwing herself under a train.

In the novel, Karenin debates about granting Anna a divorce, and then decides that the blow to his honor would be too great. Though Vronsky pursues Anna and persuades her to leave her husband, he resents her because his actions and Anna’s flight to him have left him vulnerable to a loss of position in the upper-class society of Imperial Russia. In the end, both men put themselves first and Anna’s life second. Anna’s husband devises various ways to punish her, but ultimately Anna finishes the job for him by ending her own life.

Critics accused Tolstoy of misogyny for portraying a woman who chooses personal happiness over self-sacrifice and dies as a result. Perhaps he was just portraying the reality of the time, when women were expected to remain in unhappy marriages for the sake of society and convention. Nevertheless, Anna Karenina can be read as a cautionary tale, or a compassionate and empathetic portrait of a woman who tried to break free from the prison of tradition that she was born into.

Although Najiba was a poor village woman and Anna Karenina a wealthy aristocrat, both women were equally helpless in the face of tradition, honor, society, and the patriarchal structure of their environments. But who will write the tale of Afghanistan’s Anna Karenina, who died because two men used her and then killed her in the name of “honor”? Even if the accusation of adultery was unfounded, Najiba still paid the price as a piece of property owned by men who decided to get rid of her to assuage their need for revenge and retribution. Public execution by Kalashnikov or suicide under the wheels of a train—the method hardly matters when the madness is the same.

About the Author

Bina Shah is a Karachi-based journalist and fiction writer and has taught writing at the university level. She is the author of four novels and two collections of short stories. She is a columnist for two major English-language newspapers in Pakistan, The Dawn and The Express Tribune, and she has contributed to international newspapers including The Independent, The Guardian, and The International Herald Tribune. She is an alumnus of the International Writers Workshop (IWP 2011).

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