Mark S. Weiner

“She does not know what is going to happen”

In Afghanistan, Cross-cultural encounters & comparisons, Gender, Pakistan on April 1, 2013 at 11:12 am

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He also is dejected by the demand of his child’s future mother-in-law that Naghma be withdrawn from school because having a son’s future wife receive an education is “dishonoring” to the family.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.

  1. I went to the NY Times article looking for any opportunity to donate to help buy this girl back, only to find a note at the bottom dated today by the NYT editors that apparently an anonymous donor has already done so. But the larger issue remains.

    I’d be interested in your take on the idea of western liberals stepping in with cash like this – is it cooperating with and respecting their social system by acknowledging the validity of their “price”, or undermining it?

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  2. Hi mbelvadi2, I’m sorry to take so long to respond to your comment. Wasn’t that NYT article curious? I ended it with more questions than I had when I began. It seems really odd that the father didn’t acknowledge to the reporter that the debt had been paid. Still, what happened doesn’t take away from the underlying issues posed by forced marriage. As for liberals stepping in, my gut reaction is that it while it may in some sense validate the “price” in the _individual_ instance, in this case it also rescued a girl from something close to slavery and in that respect surely is commendable. At the same time, as you suggest, it doesn’t do anything in a systematic, structural sense, and one could imagine ways in which such private acts could diminish the possibilities of more global reform (though I don’t have any reason to think that’s what happened here, especially given the widespread media attention to the initial incident) and even encourage or be implicated in corruption (though, again, I have no reason to think that’s what happened here). I suppose I’d feel best if the donor not only helped this individual girl but also made some donation to a group working on behalf of women’s rights. But you raise a larger question about the various ways in which westerns can be implicated in human rights abuses abroad–and there, I think we need to be extraordinarily careful. A start to preventing that is to approach such issues with a deep respect for other cultures (I certainly have that for the culture of the Pashtun) and with a lively sense of our own limitations and ways we fall short, which I think is the attitude necessary to establish real relationships across boarders with people who share common, liberal values. What do you think?

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    • I like the idea of combining a donation to save the individual with a companion donation towards an NGO to fight the systemic issue, but even then, one would have to choose the NGO carefully. I think most Westerners, like myself, just don’t know enough nor have time enough in our lives (you make your living studying these, but the rest of us make ours in other ways) to fully research the situation and culture in each case. And I’m enough of a westerner to believe that “justice delayed is justice denied” and think about all the well-meaning white liberals who urged Martin Luther King, Jr. to go more slowly in his movement’s demands for change. I certainly can’t have “respect” for a culture that treats women as the Pashtuns do, but, not to be a hypocrite, I also don’t have much respect for a culture like the US and Canada that allows teenage girls to get raped and then publicly shamed to the point where they commit suicide either. Such thinking leads me to question whether it is even fruitful to talk at all about “respecting” a culture as opposed to just understanding how it works and in purely pragmatic terms how it best can be changed, via incremental nudges or faster reform, so that it treats all of its members according to our own standards of morality. That of course leads into the much larger philosophical issue of cultural relativism, which can quickly end up sliding into a bigger discussion about the basis of any claim to any definition of universal rights or ethics. But while academics struggle with such problems, young girls continue to be raped and otherwise abused everywhere on the planet. So I’ll leap sometimes before looking thoroughly, to donate to organizations and causes that I hope will help individuals now, and cross my fingers that my contributions are a net positive for the human condition. And look to scholars like you for advice about those contributions.

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