Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Does violence against women in Afghanistan reframe the war?

A Time cover forces us to confront difficult questions

The controversial Time magazine cover featuring a badly disfigured 18-year-old Afghan woman, Bibi Aisha, raises questions about using visual images to arouse emotions and shore up support for an increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan.

Despite the shock value and the odd coincidence of appearing immediately after Wikileaks exposed the Afghan war documents, I am delighted that Time magazine is broadening the discussion from the all-too-common "surge or withdrawal" frame to posing an expansive question with "What happens when we leave Afghanistan?"

Now, thanks to Time magazine (and Wikileaks), we have more wiggle room in the Afghanistan debate. So I'd like to add to the discussion. Is Bibi Aisha a saint or sinful for her actions?

Adela Gondek, Columbia University Professor who teaches ethics courses at the School of International and Public Affairs, says, "It would be nice if our children, parents, spouses, and even enemies never did anything that was embarrassing or shameful to us. People will tend to think more about how things seem in the eyes of others, than about how things really are."

Making value judgments also depends on your cultural lens and the country you are acculturated in. In a collective society, like Afghanistan, it is difficult to maintain one's honor given that a close relative or kin who acts in a way that makes one "looks bad" can actually brings shame for the entire clan. In Afghanistan, women are considered a source of pride and one of the pillars in the core values of zan (women), zar (wealth), and zamin (property)-all of which have the power to incite blood feuds. While traditional Afghan customs elevate women's value and status in society, the Taliban have convoluted tribal customs with their austere brand of Islam-creating a culture of impunity and a violent cocktail for those they punish.

But who is virtuous and who has committed vice is often difficult to judge. Was Aisha's husband who cut off Aisha's ears and nose, upon the Taliban commander's order, the one who acted morally by punishing his wife for dishonor? Or was Aisha's initial escape from her abusive in-laws, despite "violating" the Pashtunwali tribal code, acting justly by defending her universal human rights?

These ethical questions will need time for reflection. What is clear is that the radical Taliban worldview poses a moral conundrum for the international community that is united under shared values of freedom and equality. The Taliban resents these values and has no tolerance for secular laws.

But for Bibi Aisha, a victim of barbarism, there is light at the end of the tunnel. This past weekend, thanks to the Grossman Burn Foundation, Aisha arrived in Los Angeles to undergo reconstructive surgery. While the global conflict between modernity, tradition, and the uncivilized continues to be waged in Afghanistan, Aisha's will to survive, after being disfigured and abandoned for death, has resulted in a second chance to live an honorable life.

With thousands of Afghan already victims of domestic abuse and millions vulnerable to a similar fate, we have no choice but to empower Afghan civil society and stabilize the region before any retreat from Afghanistan is possible.

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