Category Archives: orientalism

weak justification

Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanizing the ISAF role in combating the Taliban because of women’s ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of a Taliban victory. Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German, and other European women could help to overcome pervasive skepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission.

From “CIA report into shoring up Afghan war support in Western Europe, 11 Mar 2010”

A few weeks ago I had an argument with someone regarding using photos of maimed women for political purposes. My point was that using women and their personal tragedies as ways to justify political actions (including war) further denied them personal agency as they had little to no control over the delivery of their messages of pain and suffering, nor did they have control over the kinds of things that would be done in their name. During the buildup to invading Afghsnistan we read story after story on how the Afghan’s treated their women. It hearkened back to justifications during the Spanish-American war of women being “hassled”, thereby justifying the death of hundreds of thousands.

When one looks at a photo like what is on the cover of Time this week, we should first stop to consider not only the events and conditions that allowed such violence to happen, but also the motives behind such a cover. “What happens if we leave Aghanistan” hangs like a warning, as if we are forcing the illustrated situation upon more women if we leave. However, the United States has been in Aghanistan for decades. Even before our invasion in late 2001, the United States was present in Afghanistan through our CIA-client organization, the Taliban. This woman illustrated, whose name and identity is swallowed up by the political overtones of her portrayal, was maimed during American presence in Afghanistan. Indeed, according to the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan, violence against women in Afghanistan has not abated since our invasion. The warlord government set up by NATO forces has just as bad of a track record with women as the Taliban does.  Executions continue, poverty is endemic, and 103 women have set themselves on fire between 2009 and 2010.

Among their usual problems, Afghan women now must worry about being bombed by NATO forces or caught in the crossfire between fighting warlords and gangs. Their economic and educational system is still in ruins. As the recent wikileaks documents show, the way we have been counting casualities in Iraq and Afghanistan is untruthful. Thousands of civilians have died in Afghanistan and thousands more have been killed by the ensuing humanitarian crisis.

The above cover is a shameful appeal to emotion on a complex and dire issue. Like the leaked CIA documents show, as illustrated above, women who have suffered under war are being cynically exploited to justify more war and destruction. It is vital that victims of violence have a voice in speaking their experiences, but the editors of time could have just as easily used a photo of a woman maimed in a NATO attack and told a different story. Next year we will see a decade of official military presence in Afghanistan, and the situation seems to be degrading rather than improving. While Afghanistan warps into an opium plantation state, the Afghan women enjoy just as little if not less human rights than they had before our official involvement. Another note on the cover: Joe Klein’s piece on our “challenges” in Pakistan seems especially chilling given the juxtoposition with the rest of the format elements.

Either way, the woman who shares her pain so poigently on the cover will soon be forgotten, cynically pushed aside to justify further pain and suffering in Afghanistan.

wiped away

Like the lives of the activists, in one single sweep Israel’s pirate ship massacre is wiped from the front pages. Even the loss of an American citizen, the Golden Goose of victims, is seemingly unimportant.

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama said Thursday that the deadly Israeli raid on an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip was “tragic”, but he stopped short of condemning the actions of Israeli forces.

Why the obsession with our enemy’s “weak women”?

Recent recantations in the news have included an American Special Forces report of 3 women victims of an Afghan “honor killing”. As it turns out, the women were killed by US Forces who then proceeded to dig bullets out of their bodies, stab them, and stage a cover-up. Yet it had been an easy story to swallow. Aren’t we all familiar with the weak image we have in our minds when thinking of Afghan women? Honor killings – a unique cultural/religious attribute – must be a widespread phenomenon indeed.

Another story that’s been circulating since the recent tragic Moscow subway bombings has been of female suicide bombers and their possible motivations. Women have been suicide bombers since the documented creation of the tactic. Women from all cultural backgrounds have perished as suicide bombers. Considering the diversity of the subject, wouldn’t it be difficult to pin down enough common motivations to write a short Salon article about it?

Don’t worry, our friends at Salon have written a very embarrassing article all about female suicide bombers, calling them victims, abused, depressive, mentally ill, etc… everything but politically motivated. The truth is that studies show suicide bombers don’t fit the profile described in Salon at all.

Existing research reveals a marked absence of major psychopathology among “would-be” suicide attackers; that the motivation and dynamics for choosing to engage in a suicide attack differ from those in the clinical phenomenon of suicide; and that there is a rational “strategic logic” to the use of suicide attack campaigns in asymmetric conflict.    Silke (2003/91) argues that “as with other terrorists, there is no indication that suicide bombers suffer from psychological disorders or are mentally unbalanced in other ways. In contrast, their personalities are usually quite stable and unremarkable (at least within their own cultural context)” (p. 94). Israeli psychology professor Ariel Merari is one of the few people in the world to have collected systematic, empirical data on a significant sample of suicide bombers. He examined the backgrounds of every modern era (since 1983) suicide bomber in the Middle East. Although he expected to find suicidal dynamics and mental pathology, instead he found that “In the majority, you find none of the risk factors normally associated with suicide, such as mood disorders or schizophrenia, substance abuse or history of attempted suicide (92).”

– From Psychology of Terrorism by Randy Borum, p.33

In contrast, the Salon article articulates:

Berko’s study, which is previewed in today’s Haaretz, paints a disturbing tableau of the inner world of female suicide bombers, the vast majority of whom “were exploited by the terrorist organizations, by close friends or even by their own families, and were pushed into carrying out terrorist attacks.” It appears that women’s motives for such attacks are rooted less in ideology than in histories of physical, mental, and sexual abuse within their own families. Their motives rarely involve free will, but rather blackmail or the hope of redemption for sexual indiscretions through violence and self-sacrifice.

…..

In Berko’s view, female suicide bombings have as much to do with a sort of proactive “honor killing” as they do with classic (and stereotypical) “Islam vs. the West” terrorism.

Back to the honor killings, back to putting women in a box and taking away their agency. Back to portraying them as reactionary members (victims) of society. At the heart of “honor killings” is the heart of all other domestic violence we in the West are often too familiar with. We do not consider domestic violence survivors to be reactionary members of society, do we?

Of course, the truth is that these women possess much more agency than the  imperial apologist can bear to consider. Part of our continued violent presence in that area of the world requires us to “dehumanize the enemy”. Turning female suicide bombers into reactionary actors by “humanizing their suffering” (never at the hands of foreign aggressors!) is dishonest. The Salon articles and others like it never delve into the political motivations of the women. We must assume they have none. Therefore, the most tragic and disastrous act of their political resistance becomes de-politicized.

Links:

What Drives Suicide Bombers?

Psychology of Terrorism by Randy Borum

Afghan women were killed in bungled raid, Nato admits

Inquiry puts spotlight on U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan

Second Bomber in Moscow Attacks is Identified