Rick Morris responds to Tom Matlack.
Like many others, I read with disgust of the release terms for Gulnaz, an Afghan woman imprisoned for the crime of rape. Unsurprisingly, she was not the one who committed the crime; she survived it. Tom Matlack, admirably quick off the draw, has already responded to this story here. In his piece, Tom asks several questions which I feel deserve a better response than comments on the blog might permit. I will be responding partially based on my own experience in rural Helmand province.
What did we spend a trillion dollars on in Afghanistan if this treatment of women still goes on?
There are many things right with Afghan culture (or, more accurately, cultures). There are also many, many things wrong. The status of women in Afghanistan is generally very poor. For example: the name of a man’s wife is generally considered not to be the business of outsiders, and asking that question may be considered a fairly serious insult. Rural Pashtun men regularly do not know the true names of their mothers or young daughters.
Apologists will point to a generation of conflict in which rape was used regularly as a weapon of war and to the fact that the Taliban was initially started to protect Afghan women from rape. But it’s simply true that the low status of women goes far beyond the desire simply to protect them; it’s also about controlling them. As with many other fundamentalist societies, women are viewed as culpable for tempting men.
How could we spend so much money there with apparently little result for Afghan women? Well, it’s simply true that we have limited resources and many problems. Stability has been the first and primary goal, and I think that’s correct. If religious totalitarianism controls the country (or at least the countryside), Afghan women will forever be limited to what we see today. If religious totalitarianism is challenged, the potential at least exists for Afghan women to gain rights (as they generally have since the invasion). While Afghanistan will never take its place at the table without empowering and liberating its women, trying to build schools for girls or to change laws will be unsuccessful if the liberal judges are killed and the schools blown up. Eliminating the extremists is a necessary precursor to women’s liberation. Unfortunately, US policy in Afghanistan has only started to effect significant change outside the large cities in the last two or three years. Rural women’s rights are far off.
A small point for hope: an Afghan acquaintance who had once worked for the central government in Kabul told me that his department received mandatory training focusing on the rights of women. He told me that the training emphasized that women were equal to men and should be given the same treatment under the law. Perhaps change hasn’t happened yet, but seeds are being planted.
Do we as Americans have the right to judge another completely different culture when it comes to the treatment of women?
Of course we do. This does not exculpate us of the misogyny present in our own culture, but Afghan women really do have it dramatically worse than American women, and there are far fewer critical voices in the various cultures of Afghanistan. The first question, though, is this: what do we, as a country, do with that judgment? Do we simply exclude Afghanistan until it’s up to snuff? Do we turn a blind eye, welcome Afghanistan to the table, and hope that women’s liberation osmoses into Afghanistan? Do we take a third option? The second question is this: what do we, as individuals, do with that judgment?
I would argue that as a country, we’re probably doing nearly all we realistically can for Afghan women. I went to Afghanistan with the military with the hope that eliminating the Taliban would create breathing room for change. If we can keep the schools open and functioning, we can help Afghanistan create a generation with exposure to the outside world. As an individual, you might consider helping Spirit of America.
Why did the documentary film get black-balled instead of used as way to win the freedom this innocent woman?
I don’t doubt that political reasons were involved, as the article states, but it seems pretty plausible to me that members of the European Union were genuinely concerned about the safety of these women. Many Westerners seem to have a hard time believing that Afghans are not totally cut off from the world, but Afghans do often receive our news and watch our movies. Comments our politicians make about Afghanistan are heard (sometimes in garbled form) by Afghans.
The Bradley Manning debacle, you may recall, led to the Taliban attempting to use WikiLeaks to identify collaborators. Many people Stateside seemed doubtful that this could really happen, and I think this is simply our cultural privilege: we can ignore Afghanistan, if we choose. Afghanistan cannot ignore us. Our national discussions have an international audience. The leadership of Afghan extremists would undoubtedly have seen this documentary, had it been released. Whether that would be good or bad is, I suppose, a subject for debate.
Does the treatment of women as property in Afghanistan in any way provide a mirror for lingering attitudes here in American?
Women are viewed as public property by many Americans. We see this in cat-calling, victim-blaming, slut-shaming, and the obsessive focus on the personal lives of various celebrities. (Obviously, women are not the only ones who receive this attention, but it does seem disproportionate to me.) A friend of mine recently defended her slut-shaming as an attempt to keep her own value high. I found it pretty troubling that, even in America, a woman would feel that in order to maintain demand for herself she has to reduce supply. So viewing female sexuality as a threat to our society or our relationships is certainly something Americans have in common with Afghans. The primary difference, again, is that there are many American voices challenging these perspectives.
As a guy who likes to think about manhood and goodness what can I possibly make of this story?
We should help. Decide for yourself how.