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)

Afghanistan’s women prisoners haunt WikiLeaks

Afghan women imprisoned for `moral crimes’

Afghanistan has been in the news of late.

WikiLeaks recently dumped a quarter million diplomatic cables. One of the earliest subjects to emerge from the swelter of data, information and gossip was … Afghanistan. In particular, the world press focused on `corruption’. The Guardian reported, “Rampant government corruption in Afghanistan – and the apparent powerlessness of the US do to anything about it – is laid bare by several classified diplomatic cables implicating members of the country’s elite.” The New York Times responded, “It is hardly news that predatory corruption, fueled by a booming illicit narcotics industry, is rampant at every level of Afghan society. Transparency International, an advocacy organization that tracks government corruption around the globe, ranks Afghanistan as the world’s third most corrupt country, behind Somalia and Myanmar.” National Public Radio’s All Things Considered opened an interview with the New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti, “More now from the WikiLeaks release of U.S. diplomatic cables.  The New York Times has been poring over those cables, including some that document a particular problem in Afghanistan: corruption.”

What are the particularities of corruption, as narrated in these various accounts? On one hand, it seems that graft, bribe taking, fraud, embezzlement, coercion are rife in the corridors of the Afghan government. On the other hand, corruption seems to stop at the gates of the government. Outside, it’s fine.

What are the particularities of corruption, as narrated in the cables themselves? The Guardian has posted 58 cables referring to Afghanistan. Some concern prisoners, many concern government officials, some concern regional affairs, all are about `security’ and `the war effort’. None mention women. In the 58 cables thus far available, not a single conversation, not a single cable, talks about the condition of women in Afghanistan. Afghan women are fine; they are not part of any “particular problem in Afghanistan” that goes by the name of corruption.

Afghan women prisoners, however, are not so sanguine about corruption. According to the United Nations Afghanistan Human Development Report 2007, institutionalized corruption abounds, especially in the so-called justice system, and women are particularly hard hit. For example, this past week, in the Balkh Prison in northern Afghanistan, prisoners went on a hunger strike to protest unbearable overcrowding conditions.

The situation for women at Balkh Prison is particularly dire: “Fariba Majid, director of the government office for women’s affairs in Balkh, agreed that conditions for female prisoners was a concern. She voiced concern that women guilty of only minor offences were being held alongside hardened criminals…. In Afghanistan, women and girls can be imprisoned for up to a year for simply running away from the family home.”

Who are these women who are guilty of only minor offenses?

In Afghanistan, women and girls go to prison for running away: “Fawzia Nawabi, head of the women’s department at the national Human Rights Commission, said that on a recent tour of women’s prisons, she met 15 girls imprisoned for running away from home in Balkh province, 22 in Jowzjan, eight in Sar-i Pol province and four in Samangan. `All of them said they had been married off against their will,” she said. “Some of them had run away because they were beaten for no reason, and others because they had been given away as ‘baad’.’ `Baad’ is an Afghan custom where girls are given in marriage in exchange for debts owed to the other family, or as compensation for a death.”

Once in prison, women often remain in prison for longer than their allotted time: “Zarghoona* has completed her three-month sentence at a prison in Kandahar Province, southern Afghanistan, but she is not allowed home because no male relative has shown up to guarantee that she will not run away from home again.… Women’s rights activists and government officials confirmed that in many cases female prisoners could not be released due to the absence of a male relative. `This is illegal but it happens quite often in Afghanistan,’ said Suraya Subhrang, a women’s rights commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in Kabul. What should women without `Mahram’ [close relative such as father, brother, son or husband] do? Should they end their lives because there is no man to take care of them?’ she said.”

It is illegal but it happens quite often. Afghan women do not appear in the WikiLeaks cables on Afghanistan, nor do they appear in the narratives of Afghan `corruption’. What do you call the state of illegal-but-happens-quite-often? When women suffer that kind of corruption, it isn’t called anything. It’s business as usual, and it’s fine.


(Photo Credit: BBC News)


Ishrat Jahan and the gender of aftermath

Ishrat Jahan

On the morning of June 15, 2004, in Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat in India, Ishrat Jahan and three others were killed by police. In India, these events are commonly referred to as encounters. The government claimed that Ishrat Jahan was “India’s first woman terrorist”. A recent magistrate report suggests that Jahan was simply a college student with no ties to any terrorist group whatsoever, and that the claims by the State were cynically manufactured. In India, this is a cause célèbre. In Gujarat, it is said, a dead woman haunts the State. The State is haunted.

A haunted State is a state that exists in the aftermath, a state in which the real occurs after the event, in which ethics is always deferred, always for a later determination.

Italy is a haunted State. Six Italian soldiers were killed last week in Afghanistan. Monday was a national day of mourning. As Italians gathered in the tens of thousands, it was not the soldiers who were said to haunt the assembled but rather “this gray area between peacekeeping, peace enforcement and combat operations….The ambiguity has haunted the country”. This ambiguity is precisely the clarity of the aftermath. We don’t know exactly what our mission is, but we will, once it’s accomplished. When it comes to war, the aftermath justifies the means … and the deaths.

But it’s not just the military branches of government that rely on the continual deferral of the aftermath. For example, Lauro L. Baja, Jr., a distinguished Philippine ambassador at the end of an illustrious career, faces the ignominy of a court trial: “When Lauro L. Baja Jr. returned to his native Philippines in 2007, he had just finished a four-year stint as ambassador to the United Nations that included two terms as president of the Security Council. A storied diplomatic career that began in 1967 culminated with the Philippine president conferring upon him the highest award for foreign service. Then a three-month episode from his U.N. days returned to haunt him. He was sued by Marichu Suarez Baoanan, who had worked as a maid in New York City for Baja and his wife, Norma Castro Baja. Baoanan, 40, said the Bajas brought her to the United States in 2006 promising to find her work as a nurse. Instead, Baoanan said, she was forced to endure 126-hour workweeks with no pay, performing household chores and caring for the couple’s grandchild. Baja denied the charges, saying Baoanan was compensated. He also invoked diplomatic immunity — a right that usually halts such cases in their tracks.”

How does this haunting work, and what does it tell us? If the allegations in the Baja case are proven, somehow those who committed the violence are haunted, because they are the subjects of history, the actors. What about Marichu Suarez Baoanan? Or Mildrate Yancho Nchang, who worked without pay or a day off for three years and then went to hospital when her employer, a Cameroonian diplomat’s wife, beat her severely. What happened to the diplomats? They got off. Diplomatic immunity.

Diplomatic immunity is one issue, a matter of rule of law and interpretations of sovereignty. Existential immunity is another. Who haunts, who is haunted, how does haunting work, and, finally, is haunting gendered?

These are stories of aftermath. From India to Italy to diplomats’ households, the haunting only begins once the period called aftermath has begun. To be confronted with or to struggle with aftermath is to be haunted, but what exactly is aftermath? “A state or condition left by a (usu. unpleasant) event, or some further occurrence arising from it” and before that, aftermath is the “second or later mowing; the crop of grass which springs up after the mowing in early summer”. The math is the mowing itself, the action and process of chopping down. The aftermath is the grass that follows the violence and the act of mowing it, again and again and again. What is the gender of math? At its root, feminine. And what is the gender of aftermath? Woman. Ask those who haunt. They’ll tell you.

(Photo Credit: news18)

Democracy? We think it would be a good idea

Today’s Guardian reports on headscarf politics, American style: “Georgia judge jails Muslim woman for wearing headscarf to court”. Here’s the nub: “Judge Keith Rollins of Douglasville, Georgia, yesterday ordered Lisa Valentine, 41, to jail after she refused to remove her scarf before entering the courtroom, citing rules governing appropriate dress. Last week, Sabreen Abdulrahmaan was forced to leave Rollins’s court before her son’s probation hearing because she would not remove her scarf.” Time to reread Joan Wallach Scott’s Politics of the Veil, in which is dissected the French laws concerning Muslim women’s coverings. Same questions as in Georgia. Why headscarves and not beards, for example. But more to the point, why jail? Why women? Why Black women? Why now?

Meanwhile, according to “Afghan women fear a retreat to dark days” in today’s Christian Science Monitor, Afghan women are dealing with dealing with the Taliban, dealing with dealing with the government dealing with the Taliban, dealing with dealing with international ngo’s who simply can’t get the concept of sustainable work for women,  and these women ask the world not to forget them. Too late. The point is not that Georgia is Afghanistan. The point is that from Georgia to Afghanistan women fear a retreat to dark days because they experience the darkness, through violence, through persecution, through imprisonment, through threats of all of the above and more.

Across the United States, sex workers find a similar state of dark threat, often at the hands of clients, as often at the hands of the police and the courts. Sometimes the police harass and beat, other times they look the other way. In either case, sex workers find themselves fearing the darkness … at noon and otherwise. So, yesterday, dozens of sex workers marched through the streets of downtown Washington, demanding respect from police, demanding acknowledgement. “Sex Workers Criticize Law Enforcement” concluded with a reflection by Leila, a 24 year old women from San Francisco: “Alone, we’re just prostitutes on the corner and no one respects us,” she said. “Together we are a political movement, and we can change things.” Amen.

In “What is postcolonial thinking?”, a long and interesting interview in Esprit,  translated and reproduced in Eurozine, Achille Mbembe locates postcolonial thinking as opposing a post-ethical securitized world. Although he mentions women, as part of a list of disenfranchised and oppressed sectors, women don’t play a large role in his analytics. What if securitization of the world were to be understood as precisely about gender construction and constitution? What if, when discussing the U.S. attempt to act without morality or excuse, one were to see this move as a traditional tool in the rhetorics of patriarchy? Mbembe argues that “postcolonial thought is…a dream: the dream of a new form of humanism, a critical humanism founded above all on the divisions that, this side of the absolutes, differentiate us. . . . The thinking of the postcolony…is a thought of responsibility and life, seen through the prism of what belies both. It is in the direct lineage of certain facets of black thought (Fanon, Senghor, Césaire and others). It is a thought of responsibility, responsibility in terms of the obligation to answer for oneself, to be the guarantor of one’s actions. The ethics underlying this thought of responsibility is the future of the self in the memory of what one has been in another’s hands, the sufferings one has endured in captivity, when the law and the subject were divided.” Where are law and subject divided, almost universally? At the threshold to the so-called familial household as constructed by patriarchal rule of law, that states that the household is a kingdom unto itself. Fanon, Senghor, Césaire, yes, but also Ba, Head, Saadawi, Vera, and others, women who have written about the enduring captivity.

Mbembe concludes with a meditation on U.S. hyper-hegemony, what E.P. Thompson used to call exterminism: “Historically, successive US governments have claimed to build universalism and promote democracy on the basis of crimes that are presented as so many earthly fulfilments of God’s law and divine providence….Mercy has no part in his laws and precepts. He is a jealous and unforgiving god, swift to destroy and forever requiring human sacrifice.”

Democracy American style has no room for mercy, no room for forgiveness, no room for patience, no room for Muslim women, no room for Black women, no room for sex workers, no room for postcolonial thinking, no room for humans, no room for the human.

The dangerous politics of market radicalism“, in Open Democracy, reminds us that the market eschews politics, and ethics, for profit, and reminds us that the market as protector of democracy “was accompanied in much of the Anglosphere by a mounting reliance on coercive social-control mechanisms, one illustration of which is the existence of the highest levels of prison populations in the democratic world.” The highest levels of prison populations in the democratic world. Democracy. I’m told it’s a beautiful thing. I wouldn’t know, but I think it would be a good idea.

(Photo Credit: Global Fund for Women)