When I checked the news today, the horrific picture– selected by Time as a front-cover–of Aisha’s face, an 18-year-old Afghan woman whom was sentenced by the Taliban to have her nose and ears cut off for fleeing her abusive in-laws greeted me. International newspapers reported the news and the picture is now one of those icons of Afghanistan, which, interestingly enough, are often released in an apparent attempt to provide an ethical dimension to a war (particularly after Wikileaks leaked the massive documentation on the Afghan war) which is increasingly difficult to justify. Indeed, I am sure that many will remember the National Geographic split cover image that contained two photos of Sharbat Gula, the first having been taken at the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the second at the end of the Taliban regime. While in the first picture she is a beautiful young girl with intense green eyes and her hair gently covered by a burgundy scarf, in the second she lifts the oppressive burqa to reveal a hardship-worn face that has been marked, as the article explains, by life under the Taliban.The message, during the war, could not have been clearer: the war will save the beautiful girls of Afghanistan from the barbaric conditions of living under the Taliban’s ‘Islamic” regime. That is, of course, provided that they survive the bombs which the civilizing liberators drop on their homes, relatives, children, and livestock.
A picture, they say, is worth of thousand words; in the case of Aisha’s photograph, it may be worth ninety thousand embarrassing and incriminating leaked documents.
Today we have the dramatic story of Aisha and the grotesque punishment she was subjected to. I have started to read blogs and forums which immediately accuse the ever-evil Islamic Shari’a for such mutilations. Little do these self-appointed commentators know but for the great majority of the the non-Pashtun Muslims, Aisha’s mutilated face is not the mark of law but of intolerable violence and a certain punishable crime. Indeed, the disfigurement of Aisha is the result of a radical implementation and even distortion of the Pashtunwali tribal law.
It is interesting to observe that this kind of disfigurement of women, such as the cutting off of nose and ears, is not limited to the Pashtun and can also be found in other regions of the world, often among nomadic tribes – for instance, some Apache tribes used to cut off the noses of unfaithful married women. Beyond a comparative interest in the human behavior of indulging in such horrific cultural acts, the suffering and disfigurement of Aisha should be strongly condemned as immoral and unethical. The good news is that Aisha may have a chance to have her face reconstructed by the best surgeons in the US.
Yet I wish to discuss another, less visible, aspect of the shocking Time cover. Does the cover (and by extension the mass media), indirectly, by censoring the pictures of hundreds of thousands of civilian victims of the western war machine in favor of images of the Taliban’s brutality, argue for the existence of an ‘ethical’ suffering? Aisha’s injuries are surely horrific, but what about the children and innocent victims of Western military technology? What about their faces, limbs, skin, eyes, mouths, and mutilated bodies? What about Farzana, 8 months, or Guljuma, 10 years old, who now sit, unknown to the western public, in a mud hut inside a crowded refugee camp?
Indeed, the suffering Afghans appear to be ‘newsworthy’ and politically useful only when they bear the marks of their own ‘barbaric culture’, but their plight is carefully censored when the barbarism is the result of the civilizers and their violent salvation through war.
In the West, anthropologically, suffering from acts of war or terrorism (terms which, in today’s Afghanistan, are often used to include national resistance, secular insurgency and territorial disputes) seems to be classified into two distinct categories. On the one hand, the western-induced suffering is perceived as ‘ethnical’ and ‘lawful’, superior and enlightened, an act of ‘love’, a bitter medicine for the salvation of the ‘ignorant’ (understood as ‘not knowing’), the ‘sinner’ through the redemption of blood, and as death with a view to societal resurrection and rebirth. On the other hand, however, there is a perception of a need for punishment of the barbaric actions of the ignorant, of the infliction of evil for the evil committed by people who are somehow disgusting for rejecting the ‘Truth’.
That is, violence and suffering are not condemned for the effect they have on human beings, but are condemned and rejected only if they are not the ‘right’ violence, ‘salvific’ in nature and ‘just’ in cause – in other words, a Transubstantiational violence. Hence, destruction and suffering, in this case, is a part of redemption, while the Taliban’s violence is merely destructive.
I am sure that many readers have noticed the religious terminology in the paragraph above that refers mainly to Christian eschatology. Yet, as Talal Asad has rightly observed:
“When I refer here to religious reasons, I have in mind the complex genealogy that connects contemporary sensibilities about organized collective killings and the value of humanity with the Christian culture of death and love, a genealogy that I think needs to be properly explored. For what needs to be identified here is not simply the willingness to die or kill but what one makes of death–one’s own and that of others.” (Talal Asad, 2007: 95)
It is within this ‘genealogy’ of the, particularly American, discourse of war which we can find such a dichotomy between inducing ‘ethical’ suffering and fighting unethical ‘barbarism’. Suffering is not understood in human terms, but rather in cultural, symbolic dimensions. It is for this reason, if I have to provide my anthropological analysis, that Aisha’s face and ordeal matter more than Farzana’s hand or Guljuma’s butchered body, or the plight of hundreds of thousands of other Afghan civilians, many of whom will never receive specialized medical assistance in luxurious private American clinics and must instead make do with emergency war-camps.