Afghanistan, where life is a cruel race with death

Afghanistan, where life is a cruel race with death. On Wednesday an ISIS suicide bomber walked into an education centre for the national university entrance exam and detonated his bomb belt killing over 40 students in their teens and early 20s. This attack came amid an accelerating spate of violence following the four-day siege of the Ghazni province which resulted in the death of hundreds of civilians and Afghan armed forces. Over 10,000 civilians were killed or injured only in 2017, hundreds of whom were killed in the capital, Kabul. Afghans live in a state of perpetual mourning young lives , dreams that are crushed and smiles that perished forever, with a question lingering in the back of our minds, “Who should we mourn first, yesterday’s victims, today’s or tomorrow’s?”. Yet these people maintain their resilience and strive for a better future while there is no clear end to the war in sight.

Afghans know that a sustainable peace process in Afghanistan depends on overcoming not just one but many formidable hurdles, including the Taliban and the so-called ISIS-Khorasan Province; and the perpetual direct and indirect interference of neighbouring and regional countries: Iran’s subversion, Pakistan and India’s conflict; the US, Russia and China’s influence and ambitions in the region and the list can go on. For now the prospects of peace in Afghanistan remain grim, it has been for the past 40 years and the war is unlikely to abate anytime soon.

However, in the face of it all, the honour and resilience of the Afghan people requires wide acknowledgement and is a source of inspiration.  While students are constantly held in the crossfire of war; and extremist groups  threaten to wipe out the future of a generation of millions of children; many families still prioritize education.  According to the War Child, education helps families in stressful war circumstances give their children a “sense of normality and improves the prospects of recovery and longer-term wellbeing.” In recent years many Afghan youths have been actively participating in book clubs, academic conferences, social discourses and have created an open culture of criticism and free expression within their communities and on social media.  However, this has come at a price of losing lives and loved ones.

In the aftermath of the attack on the education centre, as usual reactions of sorrow, anger and call for justice poured in the social media by Afghans all over the world. Photographs of the scene were widely circulated on the social media, depicting the rubble, the bloodied floor, tattered notebooks and textbooks, shattered windows, broken desks and chairs, and body parts. These photographs accompanied mournful statements and a call of solidarity and encouragement for the youth to continue education. In the obituary of one of the victims, Madina Lali, the family wrote, “No one can derail us from our pursuit of education. If you martyr one of our students, we extend a hand to 5 more and enter schools and universities. Once more we will rise from blood and ashes and will salute wisdom and knowledge. No one can eliminate us.”

Moreover, stabilization of a fragile state like Afghanistan also requires a comprehensive approach to ensure justice. It is not enough to respond to the Taliban and the ISIS who are implicated in the killings of thousands of civilians, just by military action. They always rise again and in more numbers than before. In order to kill the concept and ideology of these terrorist groups; their brutality and corruption need to be exposed and brought to justice.

Since November 2017 till January 2018, thousands of Afghans civilians and journalists have filed complaints with the International Criminal Court of Justice (ICC) against the extremist groupssuch as the Taliban, the Afghan National Security Forces, and the U.S.-led forces. The ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda says there is a “reasonable basis to believe” that war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan have been committed by all sides and asked for authorization from a pre-trial chamber of judges to fully investigate. The people behind these atrocities need to face their crimes in the court of justice and not be given impunity in the course of any peace negotiations.

Afghans are in perpetual mourning of the daily loss of lives. We start our days with a dose of news of yesterday’s casualties of war and end our nights counting today’s casualties; all the time wondering which friend or family was among them. And yet we have maintained our resilience and strive for better tomorrows even though there is no end in sight for the current war. “We will rise from blood and ashes and salute wisdom and knowledge.”


(Photo provided by author)

First Trump Came for the Muslims

We dismissed his unbelievably brusque claims as campaign rhetoric, but Donald Trump is on the mission of implementing his rhetoric of fear and hate in US policies. He had expressed disdain for immigrants and people of colour, people with disabilities, and had called for a Muslim registry among others.

And on Friday he did it. Signing an executive order, President Trump suspended the entire US refugee admissions system. He issued a temporary ban on the entry of the citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries: Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen, Iran and Libya.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein has denounced Trump’s travel ban as “mean-spirited” and illegal under international human rights law, stating: “Discrimination on nationality alone is forbidden under human rights law”.

This executive order has implications for the US compliance with international human rights treaties – particularly the Geneva Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, and potentially the Convention against Torture, and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination.

According to Article 1 of the Geneva Convention and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is a person who:

Owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

With regard to refusing entry and sending people back, the law is also clear. Article 33 provides that:

No contracting state shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

The US who signed the protocol to the refugee convention in 1967 is obligated to apply it without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin. The US is clearly in violation of the convention barring people from entry on the grounds for posing security risk to the country, but not providing clarification and justification to an appropriate legal standard.

Many other refugee agencies have also expressed their concerns about the order stating that it violates international norms and refugee conventions.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), called on the US government to lift the refugee ban order calling it “an inhumane act against people fleeing war zones

Save the Children, said that women and children under 12 make up two-thirds of Syrian refugees in the US. “Now is not the time to turn our back on these families, or our core American values, by banning refugees,” she said. “We can protect our citizens without putting even more barriers in front of those who have lost everything and want to build a better future in America.”

Desperate people flee horrific and bloody civil wars, as well as countries plagued with violence and terrorism, oppression and unlawful persecution. They seek to take refuge in the land that was built on the premise of being acceptable of those fleeing persecution. This order has devastating impacts on people’s human rights, trapping them in war zones and endangering their lives.


(Image Credit: First They Came For)


Ghomeshi’s trial: Men are complicated, women are liars

Humans are complicated beings; they can surprise, anger, disappoint, amaze or frustrate you by what they do and how they react. That is a common and acceptable narrative when one refers to “men”. The narrative changes and complexity is viewed differently when women are the subject of the talk.

In my years of working with perpetrators and survivors of domestic and sexual violence, I have witnessed many women who have felt compelled to ‘be nice’ to their perpetrator. Many often apologize, authorize contact and seek to get back with him. This reaction to trauma is the result of a ‘social conditioning’ that most women are taught from an early age, which they have internalized to be deferential, fix problems, and avoid conflict at all costs. It leads them to second guessing and undervaluing their own experiences with a question hovering over their heads most of the time: “Maybe I’m overreacting?”

If a woman’s reaction to trauma is anything less than “perfect” behaviour deemed suitable for a victim, people are inclined to dismiss it. And when we realize women’s passivity in dealing with trauma and having difficulty with confrontation, we get frustrated and turn on them. We ask them: Why did you stay in touch? How bad could it have possibly been?

So for Lucy DeCouture, the only one of the three women who was publicly named in the trial of Jian Ghomeshi – the former CBC host who was acquitted of one charge of choking to overcome resistance and four charges of sexual assault related to three women, on the basis of ‘inconsistencies’ and ‘deception’- everything came back to one big question: Why did she keep in touch with Jian?

Sometimes, in the moment, says Jaclyn Friedman, “It’s less painful to convince ourselves that we made a poor decision and shouldn’t blame whoever did it because we don’t want to internalize the violation. You then reach for the niceness training as a way to express this denial. Especially as a woman, blaming yourself is really familiar. That script is super handy.” One can see this pattern in DeCoutere’s testimony when she told the packed Toronto courtroom: “As I say this now, it’s outrageous that I stayed and did not leave but that was my reaction.” Later in an interview she said that after giving her testimony she felt like she had to “go up to every person in the world and apologize for ruining the case.”

Among other troubling aspects, the trial of Jian Ghomeshi exposed a double standard, that deep down we have all been taught that a complicated man is a just a complex human being, but a complicated woman is a liar. We need to draw on our innate understanding that no one can be a perfect victim, people are complex, trauma is complicated and reactions to it differ from person to person in different circumstances and should not be scrutinized from outside.

Carissima Mathen, an associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa, says that the frustration and outrage spawned by the judge’s decision is understandable: “Sexual assault law has been stained by sexist myths, unsupportable evidentiary rules, and skepticism of women’s basic truthfulness. Owing largely to the efforts of feminist advocates, Canadian law has formally shed itself of many of those deficiencies. Yet, translating rules into effective enforcement has proved damnably difficult.” However, some have concluded that the judge was left with no choice but to acquit Ghomeshi as a result of the damaging cross-examination of the complainants.

It should be highlighted that in his verdict, Judge Horkins said that while the evidence in the case raises a reasonable doubt, it is not the same as deciding in any positive way that these events never happened. It is also equally important to keep in mind that during the trial Ghomeshi’s lawyer, Marie Heinen, did not ask his accusers the single most important question that was at the centre of this trial: whether Ghomeshi actually assaulted them.


(Photo Credit: Kenny Mason / News 1130)

The Stoned

The Stoned image

“I’m dead,” snorted the giant mammal as it crushed me. It fell on me wailing and crying before silence pervaded it. The world suddenly ceased to exist as a hush fell over everything. Over me.

No more of the savage howling of the wind, or the crackling sound of broken bones as stones rained from skies. I am crushed, not more than goo anymore. And I am lost in the abyss of its huge eye pressing onto me.

“I’m dead,” she says.

She pauses. Searching for words she can’t find.

“What about me?” I ask.

She ignores me, as if I don’t matter enough. That’s so typical of humans, so condescending.

“Ants do matter” I try to assure myself.

“If only I could hide in that crack on the wall. Who knows, I might have found myself in wonderlands,” she snorts with bitter laughter.

She pauses, searching for the look of contempt on my face. I realize that the deep nothingness inside me has dwindled. I can see and remember, as if I have always been part of her, present in all moments of her existence. My imperturbable face assures her.

A streak of light invading the wall from the corner of the curtain illuminates the cracks on the wall. It creates the image of a lonely thunderbolt frozen in time among the dried leafless brunches of a jungle. There is a new crack on the wall. It appeared last week. But it seems so familiar now, as if it has always been there, one of the crowds.

She feels a burning sensation as the cold tip of the knife cuts through the skin on her forearm. The world starts moving again. She licks the cut and tastes the salty metallic taste of blood on her tongue and contemplates the millions of bacteria that might have just entered her blood stream. With a faint lopsided smile on her lips, she imagines herself shrinking and entering the narrow crack on the wall.

The feeble light of an old lamp lights the sombre mud walls of the room. The nails holding the old and heavy blanket that covers the window have bent. ‘People talk,’ her mother had thought when she had nailed the blanket to the wooden frame of the window. She had told her, “It keeps the cold away”. The air outside this gloomy room is pitilessly raw. Stars have long forsaken its haunted sky.

Her frail body is crouched in a corner. Her pale complexion and the weariness in her eyes make her look out of this world. She is nostalgically listening to the tinkling of the stars as darkness infiltrates her skin.

Her heart is not beating. She puts her hand through her neckline, her skin feels hot against her cold sweaty palm. She has the look of someone teetering on a cliff, looking for something to hold on to. Anxiously moving her palm around to feel her heartbeat, she slightly brushes a nipple. Her hand violently jerks and withdraws itself of its own accord, creating a rush on the skin on her neck. Her heart is drumming in her ears as fear and disgust cling in the stifled air. Fear of stepping into forbidden territories.

She imagines beyond the curtain the sky changes colour. A storm roars. Rain impinges on earth washing away the walls like paint. The wind howls and uproots the dried up trees sending logs of wood dancing into the sky. She looks up. The gods are feasting and playing and the world is dancing all around her. Incessant needles of rain kiss her skin and she relishes in the pain of it all.

Clinching her fists so tight that her nails tear into the flesh of her palms, she screams. From the bottom of her lungs, with all the power she can gather in her fragile body. And for the first time, she hears her own voice.

Her sound is lost in the whirlwind of all things that should matter.

“I’m dead,” she reiterates calmly; “it really doesn’t matter, not anymore”.

Her corpse is pulled up as her eyes stare blankly into nothingness. A cold drop of tear washes me away from her. And as I fall into the dirt at the bottom of the pit, I see the question in her eyes. ‘Does it?’


(Image by Leeda Mehran)

The Unwanted Afghan Immigrants In Pursuit of Golden Pavements

Accomplishing the twelve labours of Hercules, Afghan refugees get to Europe. They risk their lives, leaving everything and everyone they love behind. All this time, knowing that they might forever be branded as unwanted refugees and immigrants and might never recover from the nostalgia for “home”. For a better life.

According to Reuters, Afghans are widely viewed as unwanted migrants that form the sixth largest group of asylum seekers in Europe’s economic powerhouse in the first 10 months of this year. Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere had previously said that Afghan should “stay in their country”.

On Wednesday speaking a joint conference with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in Berlin, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel threatened that Afghans who arrive in Germany in pursuit of better financial circumstances will be deported back home, “But where refugees come hoping for a better life – and I know that this hope is big for many – that is no reason to get asylum status or residency status here”. She further stated that “protected zones” should be created within Afghanistan, so that people living in unsafe areas move to protected and safe regions of their own country, instead of heading to Europe.

However, what caused a major backlash in the Afghan social media was the way the Afghan president responded. Concurring with Merkel that false information regarding immigration to Germany has been circulating which should be cleared; Ghani said, “We need to…make sure that everybody understands the streets are not paved with gold”.

With the exodus of Afghans, Afghan leaders have been concerned about the “brain drain”- the departure of some of the best minds of its young generation. Ghani’s government has launched a slick social-media campaign to dissuade Afghans from migrating to Europe urging the people that “our dignity, our respect is in Afghanistan”. “Don’t go. Stay with me. There might be no return,” or “Afghanistan needs you!” are messages Kabul is sending to its citizens who contemplate leaving.

In a recent interview, Ghani was asked if he can’t guarantee people safety and an economy that works, what should they stay for? He was also asked that while the families of the privileged elite – the vice presidents, cabinet ministers, his chief executive – all live outside and their children study, live and have fun in Europe and the United States, how can he ask the ordinary people to stay?

The interviewer astutely did not mention that the President’s own children live in the United States. Ghani condescendingly continued his line of reasoning saying, “If they live abroad, they become dishwashers. They don’t become part of the middle class”. Ghani was widely criticized for this statement in Afghan social media, which prompted a clarification by his spokesperson a few days later. On Sunday, his deputy spokesperson stated that, “what the president meant by that statement was that well educated and experienced Afghans who travel abroad don’t get that many employment opportunities”.

Mass unemployment, prevalent violence and the rise of the Taliban and ISIS as a result of the security vacuum created by the withdrawal of the foreign troops are some of the main factors that have contributed to mass immigrations. And the current government has proved its incompetency over and over in dealing with these issues.

So, Mr. President! As a young Afghan woman living in the diaspora who has washed dishes, I can assure you that it’s much more dignifying than being lynched or stoned a few blocks down your street. Or getting shattered into pieces next to a suicide bomber on the route to the non-existent job that you encourage me to stay for.


(Photo Credit: Reuters / Alkis Konstantinidis)

Predictably, the Taliban easily gained control of an Afghan Province


Last Monday Taliban launched a gruesome and sudden, but not unpredictable attack, on the Afghan provincial capital of Kunduz. The Interior Ministry’s spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, stated that the insurgents had seized the main roundabout in the city and had made it to the prison where they freed more than 500 inmates, who flooded the streets of Kunduz.

Later in the day the Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, issued a statement congratulating fighters for successfully taking over Kunduz, and urged them to keep the residents safe: “All mujahedeen (Taliban fighters) after taking over military targets and finishing the military operation should put their attention on keeping the lives, wealth and dignity of common people safe. Most of the times some opportunists and burglars misuse such opportunities to harm civilians and their wealth. Mujahedeen should be conscious and shouldn’t allow anyone to harm the lives and wealth of civilians and the public wealth.”

However, the Taliban did the exact opposite. Amnesty International reported mass murders, gang rapes and house-to-house searches by Taliban death squads according to the harrowing civilian testimonies emerging from Kunduz, as Afghan troops backed by US air strikes regained the control of key areas of the city. While losing control of Kunduz was a big jolt to the new Afghan government, it was even worse for the people of Kunduz who had run out of food supplies and water, being either afraid of leaving home or were prevented from leaving by the Taliban.

Allegedly the Taliban were using a “hit-list” with the names and photos of activists, journalists and civil servants based in Kunduz, to track down their targets. They also used young boys to conduct house-to-house searches to locate and abduct their targets. A woman’s rights activist who worked with the victims of domestic violence at the local women’s shelter told Amnesty International that she and other women had fled the city on foot, over rough terrain, to avoid the Taliban’s roadblocks on exit routes of the city. She claimed that a member of the Taliban had called her inquiring about the whereabouts of the women who lived in the shelter and when she had informed him that all the shelter had been evacuated and the women had escaped, he became very angry. Taliban had used their hit list to track down the women’s shelter staff and their families and had gang raped and killed several midwives for providing reproductive health services to women in the city. They also raped female relatives and killed family members of many local police commanders and soldiers and looted their belongings.

The recent growing power of the Taliban, and ISIS, in Afghanistan is not a myth to be unravelled. The constant meddling of neighbouring countries and the strategic importance of Afghanistan in international politics makes it vulnerable. The importance of Pakistan’s role should not be overlooked in this matter, because if Afghanistan is cleansed of the Taliban, given the good relations between Afghanistan and India, Pakistan will be sandwiched between two hostile countries.

Furthermore, Taliban are publicly grooming the youth, including young girls, in their madrassas (religious schools). The Afghan government is more concerned about whether or not the religious schools are registered. However, official registration makes little difference in terms of the curriculum.   According to the Ministry of Education, there are 1,300 unregistered, and 1,100 state-run madrassas operating in the country. Kunduz is one of the provinces with the most unregistered madrassas run by fundamentalists and the Taliban. One of the most controversial of all these is Ashraf-ul Madares, an all girls school with 6000 full time students who attend the school to solely study the Quran and the teachings of Prophet Mohammad. The students are radicalized by their male fundamentalist teachers who teach them from behind a wooden box, and are taught to shamelessly chastise other women and students over their un-Islamic dress code and call them “infidels” for not praying.

The Kunduz incident is another failure of the Afghan government, and devastatingly not unpredictable for Afghans. This was an incident that was bound to happen and can happen in many other Afghan provinces where Taliban or the Taliban-mentality is deeply rooted in the society. While the city is under the control of the government at the moment, sporadic clashes are still taking place in some areas while the Taliban intend to expand their fight from Kunduz to other provinces.


(Photo Credit: AFP / Getty / Amnesty International)

Canada’s meager response to the current refugee crisis

Palestinians pay tribute to to Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi

Palestinians pay tribute to to Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi

“The true measure of the moral level of a society is how it treats the most vulnerable people,” –Noam Chomsky

As the woefully unprepared Europe struggles to handle the overwhelming influx of migrants who have endured perilous crossings arriving at its borders, Canada’s response has been terribly disappointing for a country that is proud of its record of compassion.

A week ago, the photograph of the three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach, which woke up the world to the refugee crisis, also awakened the Canadian election campaigns. While the Canadian public ‘decisively and suddenly’ wants the government to start accepting more refugees, Canada’s federal leaders are still contemplating what Ottawa can do to help. The conservative Ottawa dithers, as Harper tries to approach this issue with the same unsentimental approach he brings to governing. As he stated in 2006, “My strengths are not spin or passion, you know that.”

The Liberal and NDP leaders who have also recognized this issue as a game changer in the upcoming October elections are trying to offer few specifics on how Canada could contribute as they still haven’t formulated any solid strategy.

Harper states that he has a target of settling 10,000 Syrian migrants over the next three years and 23,000 Iraqis by the end of this year. However, while pressing the necessity of ‘taking the military fight to Islamic militants responsible for the carnage’ to deal with the root of the problem, Harper said “We have plans to do more, but I would say repeatedly that as we are doing more, we can’t lose sight of the fact that refugee resettlement alone cannot, in any part of the world, solve this problem.”

Harper is concerned about security issues that could follow accepting refugees from the world’s current epicenter of ethno-religious violence. He suggests that these refugees require proper screening. But proper screening takes time and is a long bureaucratic process. As the NDP leader Mulclair said on Tuesday: “You shouldn’t have people in this desperate situation falling into a bureaucratic trap, where they’re being asked to produce identity papers as if you had time to renew your driver’s license when you were walking across the desert with your family”. He suggested that officials should be sent to the refugees in the camps and the Canadian military could help bring the refugees to Canada.

Trudeau, the leader of the Liberal Party, has pledged to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees if the party wins in October and has pushed the Liberals into the middle ground suggesting that Canada needs to keep in mind the importance of training the Iraqi fighters to stand up against ISIS, along with helping to ease the suffering of refugees. “We have a federal government right now that thinks military action is the only solution to the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East,” Trudeau said in Vancouver. “And we have an opposition party that takes the opposite extreme position that there is never a military role to play in solving challenges like the crisis in the Middle East.”

Recently it came to light that Aylan Kurdi’s family’s refugee application had been rejected in June by the Canadian Immigration Department, which allegedly drove the family to attempt their fatal voyage to Europe. Canada’s immigration minister, Chris Alexander, suspended his re-election campaign to investigate why the Kurdi family’s refugee application was rejected. Alexander claimed that “Canada has one of the most generous per capita immigration and refugee resettlement programs in the world”, saying that “the government was planning to accept 23,000 Iraqi refugees and 11,300 Syrians”.

In the wake of elections, the refugee crisis can become yet another rhetorical device to win the electorate, and then be shelved in the forgotten land of election promises. It is up to the public to remind the Canadian government of its moral responsibility following the election and pressure it to live up to its international image of an inclusive, peaceful, and immigrant-friendly society.



(Photo Credit:

Write My Mother’s Name On My ID Card!



Afghanistan is going to issue its citizens their first biometric national identification cards “tazkira”. For decades the Afghan tazkira has been a paper form filled out with black or blue ink, and a stamped photo glued or stapled on the top-left corner of it. The name of the bearer has not been the only name on the tazkira. It also contains the names of the father and the grandfather, which are crucial to an Afghan’s identity.

With the modernization of the national identity card, the Afghan elite and the women’s rights advocates, by writing open letters to the president on the social media, have started asking for the inclusion of the mother’s name in the new tazkiras; with the slogan: “Write my mother’s name on my ID card”.

However, it appears very unlikely that the Afghan government would take such a leap of faith to ensure women’s rights.

In Afghanistan, one’s mother’s name is rarely mentioned in public as it is considered a taboo. There are tragic incidents that mentioning someone’s mother’s name in public has ended in killing the violator, who had broken this cultural norm.

In a country, where identities are formed in relation to fathers and grandfathers, the Afghan policy makers have little political interest in devising policies that are perceived contradictory to the status quo gender norms. One has to look at the last four decades to become wary of introducing modernization policies, which can backfire and lead to civil unrest. This apprehension among the politicians and lawmakers has continually subjugated women’s rights to allegedly “more crucial issues” such as “stability” and “security”. Nonetheless, it should be stressed that the mere fact that this idea has picked up in the country, regardless of how unlikely it is that a mother’s name would appear on the tazkira, illustrates that the Afghan society is making some of its very first steps towards breaking social taboos and deconstructing and reconstructing traditional identities.

What are “moral crimes”? For Afghan women …

According to Human Rights Watch, for incarcerated Afghan “immoral criminal” women, moral crimes can take many shapes, including “falling in love and eloping with the lover”, “running away from an abusing husband”, “being kidnapped”, “getting lost”, “being raped”. What do all these variations share? You might think it’s the woman “victim”. You’d be wrong. For Afghans, the real victim is the woman’s family, and family means “the men of the family”.

Who then is the “typical” Afghan woman? She is the namoos, the honor and dignity of a man.  This is her identity: the woman is the “other” to the man’s “self”. This dependence and otherness makes the Afghan woman oppressed and the object of man’s control over her body – her behavior, the way she walks, talks, what she wears, where she goes – because she must protect the man’s dignity and honor. His dignity and honor are embodied in her vulnerable body. A woman’s body is entrusted with the “dignity and honor” of a man. That is all there is to her being.

If the “dignity” is comprised, the woman’s body can be summarily disposed of. The woman does not even have to be at fault for this to happen. Any violations of dignity can make a woman’s body disposable. There are numerous routes to honor killing.  An Afghan woman is likely to be killed by her male family members after she is thought to have compromise the “dignity and honor” of the male family members by any misconduct. Misconduct includes having been raped.

Through socialization processes at the family and community level, women internalize their “other” identity. The family produces children or youth as disciplinary subjects: “Not only the parental gaze and it’s internalization by children within the family, but also the effects of the multiple gazes originating outside the “parent-child cell” help in producing women as disciplinary subjects. Family members constantly monitor each other. For instance, like the prisoner who takes on the roles of both watcher and watched, a daughter must assume parental scrutiny even in her unobserved or private actions. Women are actively involved in the process. Their identity is tied up in observing the rules and regulations imposed on them, rules and regulations they have internalized as their own.

An Afghan woman will act upon these internalized norms and values.  She will watch her body and her acts.  If any rule is violated, she might punish herself.  There are many instances of Afghan women who committed suicide, which can accurately be termed “honor suicide”, after being raped, to restore the honor and dignity of the family.

But what happens in those rare cases where a woman runs away rather than commit suicide? What happens when a woman who has been raped chooses to live and tell the police? The police put her in jail. If the case makes it to court, the judge sentences her to years in prison for adultery and running away. Finally, President Karzai, under pressure, might “pardon the immoral criminal so that she can marry her rapist. She will not be welcomed at her “father’s” home and she will have nowhere else to go. Either she restores the honor of the family and marries the rapist, or just she kills herself … if she hasn’t already been killed.

“Running away” is mostly associated with love, and “love” in Afghan culture is mostly an immoral word, for boy and girls. In many cases, when families have found out about a relationship, they marry their son or daughter to someone else as soon as they can, to end it.

Girls grow up being taught that men can not be trusted. Therefore, it is expected for a girl to keep herself hidden and safe until marriage. If a girl or young woman decides to run away, she knows that something is going to happen to her. If she is already on the run, she has accepted the consequences. The woman is blamed for whatever happens to her. This belief is widely shared, even among academics and students of the law. Once, in the midst of a hot debate on women’s rights, a classmate stood up and said, “I can do anything to a girl who `breaks the chains’ and steps over the line.” Many in the class, including the professor, seemed to agree, including most of the girls.

This mentality is everywhere, among ordinary people, and among academics, law students, lawyers and judges. What is taught in law school? One professor would teach us, “What goes on in a household is none of anyone else’s business. If a woman is battered or violated, nothing can be done until she goes to the police herself. If she doesn’t have any problem with it, no one can do anything”. Another would teach, “When you bring a woman to your house to `get married’, you are not just going to put her in a glass box and sit and watch.” Then he would laugh, and the class would join in. Another lecturer would teach: “ An adultery case is impossible to prove, unless four male witnesses, who were present at the scene, testify to it’s having occurred.” In other words, the women, who is the “immoral raped criminal,” has to ask the rapists and their witness accomplices to testify to having raped her.

There is no “moral crime”. “Moral crime” is the culture. For Afghan women “moral crime” is another red line drawn around them, a line that makes sure that no woman ever steps out of bounds.

(Photo Credit: Farzana Wahidy / Human Rights Watch)

A Better Half: A New Nose, And a Life Changed?

In Afghan culture noses symbolize respect and pride. A man who feels stripped of his pride by “his woman’s” immoral act of trespassing cultural limits and ignoring traditional norms conceptualizes this as his nose being cut. He in turn cuts “his woman’s” nose. Looking at a beautiful but “noseless” face with piercing eyes looking at you, how can anyone resist sympathy, compassion and an eagerness to help in any way possible?

Helping may be a general human instinct. However most “helpers” make choices on their own assumptions concerning the situation of the ones who need help. How could we know that our help is the help which is needed; how do we know our help is effective?

I agree with Krisof and WuDunn who claim in their book Half the Sky that saving one woman makes a difference, at least in that woman’s life.  However, it also makes me think about Bibi Ayesha, the girl with a mutilated nose on the cover of Time magazine in August 2010. She was maimed; punished for running away from an abusing, baad marriage (a marriage in which a girl is given to solve a dispute). She was helped by American doctors in Kabul and then sent to the United States to undergo plastic surgery to be “given“ a new nose.

Those who do not /cannot speak for themselves – someone will speak for them. Where is Ayesha’s voice? A deeper epistemological and political analysis comes through by replacing the term image with that of representation, representation as providing a likeness or replica for that which it is subject. Representation does not stand for, or as, the original subject itself but rather for its meaning. Representation poses the question of who speaks for whom and which one person stands for the entire group.

Ayesha became an image that represents Afghan women, all Afghan women. And when we see an empty hole on a face where a nose should be, the first thing that comes to minds is covering it.  And now our part is done. Ayesha has a new plastic nose.

But have we really helped? What have we changed? It reminds me of a joke. A man was at the beach when he heard a drowning person cry for help. He jumped into the water and saved him. He had just reached the shore when he heard another cry for help. He saved this one, too. This happened several times and he was saving one after another. What’s the joke? The man never realized that there was someone on a cliff near by pushing people into the sea.

How many noses can we give to “noseless women”? Kristof and WuDunn claim that donating a goat can make a change in a family’s lives, or educating women can make them autonomous. Maybe, but what if the new nose makes her face itch? The irritation might make her throw it away.

Women live not only in families. We live in a larger political, economic and cultural domain. Most developing countries are war torn, entangled in poor economies, and caught amidst international or regional politics. This has left those countries with a continuum of the culture of patriarchy and violation against women. How effective could it be to help individual women by giving them loans, donating a goat, or giving a new nose; whilst in most of these societies according to De Beauvoir, “humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded an autonomous being”? How can a dependent “other” be addressed while ignoring the “self”?

When I became a feminist and became engaged in women’s rights advocacy, I wanted to change people’s minds, to help or at least “save” one friend. But sometimes when we don’t consider the pros and cons and do not understand the situation and the culture, we might make things worse rather than better. I ended up trying to encourage a friend to step up against her parents and say no to a forced marriage. My only intention was to help, but my ideas and beliefs, coming from an educated and open-minded family, ended up in a broken friendship and a forced marriage. I learned the hard way. There are people on the cliffs pushing women into the sea. We should not forget them.

(Photo Credit: ABC News)