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Is violence against Afghan women OK because it’s rooted in "tradition"? How about Crap Christian craziness?

Posted by DownWithTyranny on November 28th, 2010

From our partners at DownWithTyranny!

Kenneth Branagh talks about his role as the dour Swedish detective Kurt Wallander in this preview of the (now already aired, even in the U.S.) second series of three episodes of Wallander.

“There are men who live by taking advantage of women. They use women for comfort, and excitement, and then they dump them. It may be a crime, but it’s not illegal.”

– from Alan Cumming’s introduction to the last of the second-
season episodes of Wallander, “The Fifth Woman”

by Ken

You know how sometimes when your mind locks on a subject, everything around you seems to feed into it? This is more or less the state I was in when I finally got around to watching this season’s DVR-stored episodes of Wallander, the adaptations of Swedish mystery writer Henning Mankell’s books about the dour detective played by Kenneth Branagh, and the state I was in when I stumbled across this:

At a shelter in Kabul for women who have escaped domestic abuse, I heard about a girl from one of the richest Pashtun families in a province bordering Pakistan. She fell in love with a boy from the wrong tribe. Her father killed the boy and four of his brothers, and when he discovered that his own mother had helped his daughter escape her father’s wrath, he killed his mother too. Now he is offering a $100,000 reward for his daughter’s dead body.

These are extreme actions by an extreme man. But many Pashtun men perceive that their manhood and very way of life are under assault—by a foreign military, foreign religious leaders, foreign television, international human rights groups—and they hold fast to traditions that for so long have defined what it means to be a Pashtun man.

– Elizabeth Rubin, from a Dec. 2010 National Geographic
Veiled Rebellion

As you may see in my music piece tomorrow, I’ve been thinking, spurred by an accidental immersion in Verdi’s Il Trovatore and Aida, about the whole question of who we as humans are and how we figure out who and what we ought to be — in terms, not so much of the rights and privileges but of the responsibilities and obligations. In 19th-century operas, not surprisingly, these roles tend to be defined by and for men, with women fitting in as best they can, but because women are so important to opera (without divas, you lose an overwhelming chunk of the repertory), it’s an especially good medium for this kind of exploration, and Verdi in particular had a jaundiced view of the standard assumptions about automatically assigned life-roles, which tend to be heavily gender-based. You know, like “traditions that for so long have defined what it means to be a Pashtun man.”

Immersed in this train of thought, I happened to be looking at the December National Geographic, which devotes 26 magazine pages to the condition of Afghan women. Most of it is a photo gallery by photojournalist Lynsey Addario — a series of photos taken in Afghanistan over eight weeks in 2009 and 2010 “focusing on the challenges that women face,” with comments that “tell the stories behind the images. In addition, nestled inside the photo gallery is the essay by New York Times Magazine contributing writer Elizabeth Rubin that includes the story I’ve already quoted.

Rubin poses the question:

Why do husbands, fathers, brothers-in-law, even mothers-in-law brutalize the women in their families? Are these violent acts the consequence of a traditional society suddenly, after years of isolation and so much war, being hurled into the 21st century? And which Afghans in this society are committing the violence? There are significant differences between the Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Pashtuns, the most populous and conservative group and the one that has dominated political life since the 1880s.

In the Pashtun crescent, from Farah Province in the west to Kunar in the northeast, life was—and in many ways still is—organized around the code known as Pashtunwali, the “way of the Pashtun.” The foundation of Pashtunwali is a man’s honor, judged by three possessions—zar (gold), zamin (land), and zan (women). The principles on which the honorable life is built are melmastia (hospitality), nanawati (shelter or asylum), and badal (justice or revenge).

The greater a Pashtun man’s hospitality, the more honor he accrues. If a stranger or an enemy turns up on his doorstep and asks for shelter, his honor depends on taking that person in. If any injury is done to a man’s land, women, or gold, it is a matter of honor for him to exact revenge. A man without honor is a man without a shadow, without assets, without dignity.

But it is not generally acceptable for Pashtun women to extend hospitality or exact revenge. They are rarely agents. They’re assets to be traded and fought over — until they can stand it no longer.

I like to think that no one could fail to be violently outraged by Elizabeth Rubin’s tale of the Pashtun father exercising his Pashtun manhood eradicating his daughter’s unfortunate attraction. Of course this isn’t the case, and even in the Christian West we are apt to told we’re applying “moral relativism.” And unfortunatley, the people most likely to denounce “moral relativism” take it for granted when it’s their own relative morality at issue, as in the stranglehold of all sorts of sociopathic tenets of Crap Christianity which those very same people are likely to insist on imposing wherever they can as if it were a matter of absolute morality — as if those people have any sane idea of what’s moral. (For sample particulars, see Noah’s post this morning on confirmed Christian haters.)

After all, the Crap Christians by and large have no problem with the idea that women are nothing more than “assets to be traded and fought over.” It’s part of their value system too. (I’m sure the National Geographic editors are hearing expressions of psychotic outrage from lots of those people for involving itself in “politics.”)

I can’t help that the following from Elizabeth Rubin’s piece is trying to paint too optimistic a picture of what’s happening in Afghanistan, but I think it’s worth reading if only for the poignant observation of Afghan parliament member Sahera Sharif: “”Much of the violence and cruelty you see now is because people are crazy from all these wars.”

The Afghan Parliament recently drafted a law intended to eliminate violence against women, who are beginning to reject old cultural practices and assert themselves in public and in private. I went to the Kabul home of Sahera Sharif, a Pashtun and the first female member of parliament from Khost. “No one knew a woman could put up campaign photos and posters on the walls in Khost—men didn’t allow women to even have jobs in Khost,” she said.

As a girl, Sharif stood up to her father, a conservative mullah, locking herself in a closet until he allowed her to go to school. She lived through the civil war between competing mujahideen groups, who ravaged Kabul before the Taliban conquest in 1996. She witnessed unimaginable cruelty and many deaths. “Much of the violence and cruelty you see now,” Sharif said, “is because people are crazy from all these wars.”

After the Taliban fell in December 2001, Sharif started a radio station to educate women about hygiene and basic health. More radically, she volunteered to teach at the university in Khost (a first there). She took off her burka (another first) and stood before the male students teaching them psychology. They blushed. And so she began to reeducate them.

As we talked, I could see what an inspiration Sahera Sharif has been to her 15-year-old daughter, Shkola, who interrupted her mother to show me a photograph of a woman in a magazine. The woman was lying with her throat cut, murdered by her husband’s family. The woman’s mother, mad with grief, had begged the magazine to publish the photograph. “I became crazy from this picture,” Shkola said. “I saw it over and over like a film.”

Shkola is studying Islamic history and law. She intends to become a lawyer in order to help women defend themselves against violence and injustice. In the meantime, she is scouring books from Iran to find stories for children “like you have,” she said. “We have almost none here. So I’m translating them into Pashtu, and I’m also writing a novel.”

Sadly, there’s rarely much shortage of stuff to cause violence and cruelty. Violence and cruelty seem only too ready to pop out of us with the flimsiest excuse — or, when absolutely necessary, without any excuse.

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