Today the New York Times published an article by Alissa J. Rubin titled “Painful Payment for Afghan Debt: A Daughter, 6.” The title says it all. As a result of a legal arrangement to discharge a debt, the girl pictured on the front page of the paper wearing a red dress and purple shawl, Naghma Mohammad, will be forced to marry a lender’s 17-year-old son. Naghma “does not know what is going to happen,” says her father. Nor is she aware, in the words of the journalist, that she “will most likely be treated more like a family servant than a spouse—and at worst as a captive slave.”
Last week, I wrote about a closely related issue in a post ironically titled “‘In Praise of Forced Marriage’” (the post was a response to a critical review of my own work titled “In Praise of Kinship”). The New York Times article closely tracks what I said there.
I’d like to note three things in response to this moving story.
First, Afghan and Pakistani liberals resolutely condemn forced marriages like this one. In response to my earlier post, a devout Muslim friend of mine from the tribal areas of Pakistan wrote to proclaim that he “condemns [the practice] in all its manifestations. It’s against human rights and human dignity … I consider it a crime against humanity from its very roots.”
Liberals in developed states should be making common cause with people like my friend. We should be helping them in their modernization efforts, and we should be asking them—especially when they are critics of the United States—to help us appreciate the ways that we fall short of our own values.
Second, the article highlights the way in which people within traditional societies can feel trapped by the collective, kin-based social and legal structures that exist in the absence of effective state authority. Tellingly, the girl’s father, Taj Mohammad, muses in regret: “If, God forbid, they mistreat my daughter, then I would have to kill someone in their family”—and, indeed, he fears that “when she goes to that house, she will die soon.”
He also is dejected by the demand of his child’s future mother-in-law that Naghma be withdrawn from school because having a son’s future wife receive an education is “dishonoring” to the family. At the same time, the father seems prepared to accede to the demand—what else can he do?
Finally, a note about the Pashtun legal institution of the jirga, or counsel of elders, which sanctioned Naghma’s forced marriage. As I argue in The Rule of the Clan, I believe that social and legal modernization of the kind that advances principles of personal autonomy can only be effective if it works with and through clans and their traditional institutions rather than over and around them. Liberals need to respect customary legal practices if our efforts are to be both ethical and effective.
The jirga is one of those traditional legal institutions, and it has been as essential to Pashtun tribal life as federal courts are to the United States.
Yet if you speak with people who are familiar with the most traditional Pashtun tribal areas, they will tell you that jirgas today are changing. Traditionally, the jirga was composed of men who, like our own judges, could resist outside pressure and decide cases independently. But it is said that jirga membership standards are now in decline—that selection standards are increasingly less strict. The institution is being undermined in the same way that our own legal institutions would be weakened by a decrease in standards of bar admission.
Perhaps I’ll write about this central feature of liberal development—the maintenance of professional standards against external pressure—in a future post. It’s an issue liberals everywhere share, whether we are fighting against the social dislocations of war or against an unbridled marketplace.