The Problem of Honor

by Joshua Foust on 9/24/2006 · 4 comments

News of continued honor killings in Afghanistan should give us pause: according to a UN group set up to monitor the situation, most cases of honor killings go unreported to authorities, leading to a situation in which a wave of murder receives no official response. The victims, of course, are girls—fed up with being beaten and abused at home, even those who escape are sometimes hunted down and executed by vindictive family members.

It is a problem of honor. In Afghan society, everything is bound to one’s honor—from community standing, to position within a peer group, to one’s faith in Allah. Remember the plight of Abdul Rahman? Fifteen years ago he left Islam and converted to Christianity. Upon his return to Afghanistan in 2002, he told his family of his new faith, and was promptly sentenced to death. The problem here was not necessarily a vindictive family (though they were the ones who reported him to the authorities), but rather Afghani law: written into the constitution is the penalty of death for apostasy.

While Rahman was eventually granted clemency and allowed to emigrate to Italy, that case was but the tip of the iceberg. Demonstrating a surprising degree of political acumen, the Afghan Supreme Court declared Rahman insane (because you’d have to be insane to leave Islam) and therefore inelgible for execution under the apostasy laws. They didn’t address the deeper problem within Afghani society—the enforcement of Islamic values through the threat of physical violence.

This is, in part, because Islam as practiced around much of Afghanistan has been twisted into a hyper-violent system of laws, thanks to the Taliban. While in the States, a family member converting to Christianity faces simple disowning and ostracism (not unlike other conservative religious sects, including some denominations of Christianity), even in some Middle Eastern countries apostasy is not punishable by death. Though sheer speculation, I would guess this is because more men tend to commit apostasy, since they are often allowed a greater degree of freedom in travel and thought than women.

Women and girls, however, are the unquestioned victims of such horrendous crimes. In Pakistan, honor killings are routine, as are mutilations and maimings. Tossing acid in the face of a divorced woman is almost expected, and if a woman is accused of being raped she can face physical reprisals from her family and village for tempting the men. In Afghanistan, it is worse: in The Bookseller of Kabul (an amazing book all should read), Åsne Seierstad relates the story of a young girl who was essentially sold to an older man living in Canada. When he traveled to Afghanistan to arrange a visa, he found out she had been caught spending time with another boy her age—adultery, in other words, as he had seen her face. The girl’s mother and mother-in-law both agree that she must die, and her brothers are sent to murder her.

This was related to Seierstad in a very matter-of-fact manner, as if it were so common, the family was proud of how pious it was. This, along with countless stories of exploitation and derision—all in the name of Islam, of course—left me utterly depressed about Afghanistan’s prospects for becomming what we’d consider a “normal” country. The concepts of honor and “Islam, punishable by death” are far too widespread, far too engrained into the very fabric of society to expect change on the order of anything less than decades. Before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan was a comparatively liberal place with a bright future. The Soviets, and the mujahideen who fought them, and the Taliban and Northern Alliance who then fought each other, have ruined the country, not just economically and physically, but socially. Stitching the pieces back together, even to where women don’t face death and beatings for stepping out of line, is a long ways off.

That nasty Taliban problem NATO is still barely responding to doesn’t help things, either. Now that U.S. spy agencies have determined Iraq is actively contributing to the cause of global jihadism and the latest and greatest terrorist threat, I would not be surprised to see even the modest improvements in attention to Afghanistan reversed. Far from being a distraction in the war on terrorism, Iraq is now officially its front line. And, like in other decades, I fear Afghanistan will fade into the background until it explodes. Again.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 4 comments }

squid123 September 24, 2006 at 10:46 am

Good, compelling argument. I agree that punishing apostasy is a queston of legislation and can be changed. There are two problems with the other argument, however.
First, you cite “Islamic values” as the root of these inhumane practices, when it would be more accurate, as you do elsewhere, to say “Afghan society.” Many societies that never modernized or urbanized, Islamic or not, still continue practices we consier barbaric (e.g. female genital mutilation in Africa), and religion is only used to legitimize the act.
Second, in no way was Afghanistan a “comparatively liberal place” before the Soviet invasion. Sure, there were attempts to modernize in the 60s and 70s, and women could wear jeans in Kabul, but by no means did the VAST MAJORITY of Afghans suddenly become modern. Tribal social structures were never broken, and the predominantly rural populace continued to enforce local, traditional norms as they had throughout the previous millenia. The difference, in insurgency and civil wars of the late 80s through the 90s, was that many traditonal practices became enshrined in law (or de facto enforced by religious zealots) as people coped with the threat to their social structures, and later, the Taliban did import a few foreign practices from Wahhabism as practiced in the Gulf states.
The point is, as despicable as we consider honor killings, we shouldn’t overestimate the ability of top-down decrees or enlightened governance to eliminate it. Instead, it would take a gradual and multigenerational process that eradicates traditional social structures to “liberalize” society.
To the extent we try to write a code of western women’s rights into the constitutions of Iraq of Afghanistan, we’re inviting people to ignore the constitution.

jonathan p September 24, 2006 at 11:39 am

I, too, was disappointed with this statement:
“Before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan was a comparatively liberal place with a bright future.”

If this were true, as squid rightly pointed out, the authorities could easily tell people to return to their old ways. The sad fact is that the people involved in these practice are, in fact, practicing their old ways.

Squid pretty much says everything else that crossed my mind.

Joshua Foust September 24, 2006 at 12:05 pm

The operative word here should be “comparatively.” Compared to other countries with similar income levels and demographics, Afghanistan was a liberal, and more importantly liberalizing, place before the ’79 invasion. Kandahar was once known as the gay capital of South Asia, for example. In numerous places in current Taliban strongholds, like Herat and Helmand province, there were fairly open, westernized, prosperous cities and communities. The country’s development was not by any means even, and there was still drastic poverty in the countryside—like most Central and South Asian countries today. That doesn’t somehow make Afghanistan a less liberal place 40 years ago, however.

And I wasn’t broad enough in my description of apostasy laws. To the best of my knowledge, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Oman, Iran, and Pakistan have harsh apostasy laws, up to and including execution (esp. Saudi Arabia). There is a widespread belief in Islamic nations that to insult Islam and Mohammed – by converting – is to warrant your own death. Squid, you’re right in that it’s not necessarily endemic to Islam, but honor killings are a serious problem in Europe, too, not just Afghanistan—and that’s without any kind of blasphemy laws in place.

So the problem is broader than just “Afghani society,” but I’ll accept the argument that it isn’t all of Islam. Let’s call it a hyper-conservative streak within Islam.

Brian September 24, 2006 at 1:01 pm

I agree with squid123 in that these laws and attitudes are not in essence the cause of Afghanistan being a backwards society, but are the symptoms. No matter what it’s still an extremely primitive tribal society that tends to see things much differently and we do, no matter what the legislation. I’m guessing that the anger towards Abdul Rahman was not mainly because he changed his faith, but because people felt he ‘betrayed’ his people’s identity, a similar way people in America may have felt towards a communist convert during the cold war or such.

When/if Afghan society ‘matures’, becoming more affluent and better educated and becoming more identified with their nation rather than their tribe or faith then I think you’ll find attitudes will natrually eveolve. Of course this does involve legislation, but it needs to be done smartly and not confrontationally and not at a blunt instrument against the people’s will.

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