Mark S. Weiner

“In Praise of Forced Marriage”

In Afghanistan, Cross-cultural encounters & comparisons, Gender, Pakistan, Rule of the Clan on March 26, 2013 at 9:22 am

This morning the Wall Street Journal published this critical review of The Rule of the Clan by Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a professor of history the University of Notre Dame. I’m happy to receive the review (as I’ve noted here, I begin each morning with a bracing perusal of the Journal’s editorial page), and I send my greetings across the blogosphere to Fernández-Armesto and to readers who support his views—from which, I hope, all right-minded people will recoil in head-shaking disbelief.

Without writing more extensively about the review than it warrants, I’d like to use it as an opportunity to clarify my own views, because Fernández-Armesto’s remarks represent the kind of worrying trend in American political culture and intellectual life I criticize in the book: the rejection of the modernist values of the liberal Enlightenment.

Fernández-Armesto frames his review by recounting a story I tell in Chapter Three involving a civilian analyst for the U.S. Central Command. During one of his tours of Afghanistan, the analyst witnesses the proceedings of a Pashtun tribal jirga adjudicating a case of murder. In a practice known as swara, the council prevents a blood feud between the victim’s family and the perpetrator’s family by forcing the sister of the murderer to marry the brother of the murdered man.

As Fernández-Armesto notes, I indicate that “the young woman had no choice in the matter,” and I criticize the custom because it violates her autonomy.

Fernández-Armesto takes me to task for precisely this criticism, suggesting that I “can’t appreciate” that the “Afghan newlyweds may feel fulfilled as peacemakers.” He accuses me of endorsing “one-size [fits all] individualism.”

If condemning swara and defending the autonomy of young women is an exercise in cultural imperialism, then I hasten to plead guilty. But it’s worth noting that swara has been the subject of profound self-examination and criticism within Afghanistan and Pakistan (including in the television drama whose revealing promo I include above). For readers interested in a few recent headline-grabbing cases, consider these articles:

Jirga’s verdict: another teenage girl may fall victim to swara” (The Express Tribune, Karachi)

Local jirga gives away 12 year old girl in ‘swara’ in the very presence of the police in Manglawar” (Zama Swat)

Another swara case: Two arrested for ordering six-year-old girl’s marriage” (The Express Tribune, Karachi)

Swara girl decreed by jirga rejected” (Daily Times, Lahore/Islamabad/Karachi)

Court tells swara girl to stay at crisis center” (Dawn, Lahore/Islamabad/Karachi)

Apparently these young women and girls—“newlyweds” by Fernández-Armesto’s heartwarming appellation—were not excited enough by the prospect of a fulfilling role as a peacemaker to choose it freely.

Reasonable people can disagree about the scope and range of universal values, debating which ones are justified by reason and human dignity and which ones are not. But I should hope that a condemnation of forced marriage falls well within the circle of universally accepted liberal norms.

Just the other week I was corresponding with a friend who lives in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He’s a liberal Pakistani school teacher and devout Muslim—the kind of “elite” Fernández-Armesto chides me for supporting against what I call “the rule of the clan.” My friend was moved by the incident of swara that I recount, and he earnestly explained to me his hope that one day the practice would end. I proudly stand with him.

Indeed, I feel a deep kinship with my friend, because we are part of a common effort to advance the same underlying ideals—and I believe that those ideals are under threat in the United States, too, as Fernández-Armesto’s review suggests.

That a reviewer for the Wall Street Journal would put my criticism of forced marriage front-and-center of his engagement with my work illustrates a deeply troubling trend in American political life: a retreat from the values of the liberal Enlightenment and the wavering of support for the robust state institutions capable of vindicating liberal civic ideals.

What are the reasons for this retreat, which one can witness in various manifestations across the political spectrum?

One reason is suggested by Fernández-Armesto’s own work. Tellingly, writing about contemporary culture in the United States and Britain, the Oxford-educated professor has suggested that “the entire project of creating universal, compulsory, free education was misguided.” It seems Fernández-Armesto believes that, like education, women’s rights and the principles of individual freedom are really only for people like himself.

Liberals of all political stripes cannot afford to be confused about the importance of all people being able to construct their lives according to their own free choices—of which the decision whom to love is the most basic and emblematic.

Nor should we be confused about the institutional precondition—effective government—that makes such free choice a possibility for everyone.


N.b.: This is the second time I’ve appeared in the Wall Street Journal. The first time was in a letter written with a colleague at the University of Akureyri, Iceland, in which we noted that “the lesson drawn by the international community” from the disaster of the Titanic “was not to abandon maritime regulation and set the market free to do its work,” as implied by an op-ed writer. Instead, we noted, “it was to create a better legal and regulatory structure to ensure public safety: the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, which is now widely regarded as one of the most successful examples of government regulation anywhere.”


3/26/13, 10:45 a.m.: For readers interested in a previous post that considers the relation between individual liberty and government institutions—in the context of a discussion of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, the travels of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, global climate change, and Alfred Hitchcock—see “Distraction from the Storm.”


Update: On April 1, shortly after I wrote this response, the New York Times published a story about a forced marriage in Afghanistan. My discussion of the story is here.

  1. I think it’s fairly obvious that the push-back against liberal values is because of regulatory overreach by liberals. Lately liberals (or those who call themselves such, at any rate) have embraced political views that make the breeding grounds of the barn swallow more important than developing an irrigation system and agricultural area that could feed millions of people. Or the opposition to nuclear power, the safest of all power sources. Or set up miles of regulatory red tape to shut down new development in fashionable neighborhoods. Modern liberals embrace freedom in personal lives, but oppose freedom of commerce and property.

    So conservatives have taken the view that the whole liberal project is a mistake. If liberals can’t build a factory, or continue to subsidize single-motherhood and dependency over marriages and jobs, then screw the lot of it.


    • Hi Fourmyle of Ceres, thanks for your response. You definitely have a point. While I don’t think it’s the only reason that explains the rejection of government and liberal Enlightenment values, poorly-run and overreaching state institutions have terrible long-term consequences for support of the state. I should add that, as I make clear in the book, I support the _liberal_ state, and that I believe healthy, effective government is perfectly compatible with strong federalist values of the kind you may also advocate (I think it’s important to have a strong _central_ state, but not an exclusively _centralized_ state). We probably disagree about which regulatory programs constitute overreach, but I hope we can agree that the best response to government that doesn’t work as it should isn’t to reject government or liberal modernity (that is, “screw the lot of it”!) but instead to make government better–to build our state institutions so that they can truly vindicate the public interest efficiently, effectively, and transparently. The consequences of total disengagement or rejection for the individualist values we both support would be terrible and profound.


  2. I have no answer to why Fernández-Armesto is in headlong retreat from liberal values, but it certainly is worrying because he is one of the most prominent of current world historians.
    Anyway, I am currently reading and greatly enjoying The Rule of the Clan.
    If only our leaders had had a better understanding of clan societies before getting involved in places like Afghanistan and Iraq!


    • Thanks, Breviosity. I enjoyed your blog and I’m looking forward to following it! Here’s the address for those who are reading our exchange: I found Fernández-Armesto’s ridicule of my criticism of swara breathtaking. I should add that while it’s true that I support liberal social, cultural, and legal modernization as a means to advance individualist principles around the world, I don’t do so out of a desire to “Americanize” the globe, nor from a belief that the United States has some kind of monopoly on the good. I hope I’m just as critical on my own country as I am on all others–I’m not a relativist when it comes to anywhere: I think there are standards by which one can judge societies that are justified by universal principles. Indeed, I’m actively inspired by those liberals abroad who are working to advance our common values while navigating the strong solidaristic demands of clan societies, and I think we can learn from them. And as for wanting to use American influence to advance those values, that’s something I advocate not because I think American influence is somehow intrinsically better, but because I’m an American and that’s where the book is published. May Canada (your own country, yes?) and others to so as well–provided we work to advance liberal principles in an ethical way, consistent with the dignity and self-determination of people around the world, and with respect and understanding of the clan or clannish societies whose indigenous liberal reformers we should be assisting.


      • Well said. Also, often influence is about being a beacon, not a bully.
        But I won’t say more until I’ve finished reading the book!


  3. […] are plenty of negatives. Ernest Gellner once called it the “tyranny of cousins.” Here’s just one example: […]


  4. When I read the story of the decision the Pashtun tribal elders came to, I recognized that Steve was the stereotypical modern liberal, but I assumed the point you were making was that the clan society often comes to decisions that we moderns would not come to. Often, they are terrible decisions in our eyes, but then we could also infer that we moderns often make decisions that are just as terrible in the eyes of clan members.


    • Hi Val, thanks for your comment! I really appreciate your bringing your perspective as a scholar of comparative education to the table. I wouldn’t say that “Steve” is a stereotypical liberal: he’s someone who speaks multiple South Asian languages and deeply immerses himself in world cultures. But he does hold individualist values that are in conflict with the group orientation of Pashtun customary law. In my book, I try to explain those customary principles from the inside–a perspective from which, naturally, the institutions of swara is fully justified. I even go out of my way to praise the wisdom of Pashtun tribal elders, describing them as “like our own judges, very good at what they do.” But that the institution of swara is not simply terrible in our eyes but must be deemed terrible from the perspective of liberal values that are justified not by a particular cultural tradition but instead by the exercise of universal reason, with an eye toward individual human dignity–that I believe, too. And that’s why liberals in the United States ought to help those liberal reformers abroad working to transform their societies. Indeed, I believe it’s possible that you may know the Pakistani schoolteacher I mention in my response to Fernández-Armesto’s review. But that the decisions of _liberal_ societies also are often not simply terrible in the eyes of clan members but also terrible from the perspective of universal human needs, and that liberals in the United States ought not simply to find inspiration and common cause with liberals from abroad but also look to clan societies to understand how to make liberal societies better–that I also believe. But as Martin of Breviosity indicates on his blog, the solidaristic institutions of civil society I support are fully voluntary and afford easy individual exit.


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