IN THINKING about Afghanistan—and about what the United States should do in Afghanistan—I can’t help but think immediately, and primarily, about the women and girls who live there and will never live anywhere else. Such a perspective does not—for good or ill—answer all questions, or even lead me to a strategy, a solution, a line. But I am sure that there are certain realities we should not lose sight of and certain people we should not sell out.
The situation of Afghan women and girls is not bad, or oppressive, or exploitative: it is extraordinary. In fact, in thinking about this situation, I am led to the conclusion that—in addition to all the other wars being waged today—there is, to be blunt, a war on women. And it is Afghanistan, along with the Democratic Republic of Congo, that constitutes ground zero of this war (though it plays out differently in each country).
All comparisons are imperfect and incomplete. Still, I will make one or two. In Afghanistan under the Taliban—and still, to a large extent, today—the situation of women and girls might best be compared to that of German Jews under the Nuremberg laws or to American blacks under Jim Crow (and slavery). It’s not just that Afghan females lack education and skills, though this should not be underplayed. (The female literacy rate in the parts of Pakistan that have traditionally been Taliban-controlled is a stunning 3 percent, and I suspect that the same is true in many parts of Afghanistan.) It’s not just that the political, judicial, and civil rights of women and girls are denied; it’s that their status as human is unrecognized.
A bit of looking back is in order here. Several centuries ago, the Enlightenment thinkers went to war against torture and in defense of bodily autonomy. They argued—fiercely, polemically—that the state’s infliction of agony on the human body and the state’s invasion of the human body, were unsupportable. And furthermore: such agony and such invasions were viewed, increasingly, as crimes against the status of being human and against the idea of a common humanity. “Torture ended,” historian Lynn Hunt has written, “because the traditional framework of pain and personhood fell apart, to be replaced, bit by bit, by a new framework, in which individuals owned their bodies, had rights to their separateness and to bodily inviolability, and recognized in other people the same passions, sentiments, and sympathies as in themselves.” It is from these eighteenth-century thinkers that our modern ideas about physical integrity, physical dignity, and physical privacy arise.
In Afghanistan, such ideas are simply nonexistent when it comes to the half of the population that is female. Women–and girls, sometimes of eight or nine–are traded like any other commodity. They are forced into marriage, sometimes to men old enough to be their grandfathers. They are forced into childbirth. They are systemically beaten and systemically raped.
The problem is not just that these crimes are committed. The problem is that none of this violence, and none of this humiliation, is seen as a crime. In fact, women are, bizarrely, regarded as perpetrators rather than victims. The prisons of Afghanistan are filled with women who have been raped–it is they who are viewed as criminals–or have tried to escape from their marriages. Often, suicide through self-immolation is seen as the only option. The website of RAWA (the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) sometimes displays photos–simultaneously heartbreaking and rebarbative–of the charred “survivors” of these burnings.
Given all this, I can actually understand the fury and panic of some Afghan males faced with the advent (if indeed it is) of ideas of democracy, equal citizenship, etc. An almost unimaginably radical transformation of social relations and social psychology would be required to bring Afghan women–and men–into the modern world; this would be a revolution in the true sense of the word. It would not be akin to, for instance, the end of apartheid in South Africa or of communism in Poland and Czechoslovakia, where extant political institutions and extant social relations could be built upon as those nations recreated themselves as democracies. Democratizing Afghanistan would require something else, something far deeper and, frankly, more dangerous and more threatening: a revolution in intimate relations. This is something that the left doesn’t always want to think about, since such relations cannot be dictated or planned and don’t necessarily “naturally” result from the building of more modern institutions.
And in any case, it’s not clear that such institutions are being built. Last April, President Hamid Karzai–our man in Kabul–signed a law that essentially legalized the marital rape of Shiite women. That law brought veiled women out onto the streets of Kabul in protest, a rare and wonderful sight. Less rare and less wonderful: the women were pelted with stones and called “whores,” “dogs,” and enemies of Islam by a much larger group of enraged men. (Under international pressure, Karzai has promised to “review” and “amend” the law, though it is not clear if or how this has happened.)
The Congo has, obviously, a whole different set of social relations and political realities with which to contend. But the widespread, calculated use of mass rape and mass vaginal mutilation in the Congolese wars of the past decade can, again, only be called astonishing. I have heard no native Congolese political analysts, doctors, or human rights workers “explain” the peculiar, terrifying sadism of this phenomenon; outsiders, too, have been baffled by it. That is probably all to the good; there are some things that can’t, and maybe shouldn’t, be explained.
What’s undeniable is that tens of thousands–more likely hundreds of thousands–of women and girls, ranging from very young children to elderly grandmothers, have been raped or gang raped; in the course of these assaults, their sexual organs are often shot at, stabbed, speared, or ripped apart. The pain is unimaginable; the damage, both emotional and physical, is forever; as one Congolese woman told Human Rights Watch, “My body has become sad.”
Who can explain this barbarism? Who can explain this utter hatred of the female, of female sexuality, of the future, of life? More important, who or what can stop it?
Susie Linfield directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University. This is based on a talk given to the Dissent board in March, 2009.
Links for more information:
>>Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom
>>A Guardian report on violence against women in Congo
>>Enough Project, Eastern Congo
>>More information on the plight of Afghan women
>>The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan
>>Human Rights Watch, Women’s Rights Division