Chivalry vs. Complicity

America's compassionate motives aren't enough to save Afghanistan's women

It was the treatment of women that angered Seierstad so, and it would be nice to know exactly when and how and why, and if her anger provoked her at all to struggle with herself. But Seierstad cuts off all possibility of introspection, be it cultural or personal, by telling the story in a novelistic omniscient third person, absent Asne altogether. Thus Sultan Khan remains a cipher, a liberal in public and a tyrant at home. Afghan men are vicious or hypocritical or both, and Afghan women merely pitiable. Seierstad's characters are for the most part not even endowed with sufficient agency to be capable of even anything as human as tragedy. (Compare Siddiq Barmak's film Osama, opening February 6 at Film Forum— about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to feed her widowed mother under the Taliban—and all of its doomed and terrified heroism.) It is not surprising that, given his guest's response, Rais is suing her for defamation. Nor that The Bookseller has been a bestseller in Europe—it feeds comfortable notions of Islamic primitiveness and requires nothing of the reader but willing condescension.

But how then do we explain the fact that the most media-worthy uproar in the recent constitutional loya jirga was caused by a woman, Malalai Joya, who was chased from the floor and placed under UN protection after she suggested that the former mujahideen who tore the country apart in the early '90s should be tried for war crimes rather than rewarded with important delegations? Or that it was another woman, Sima Samar, now head of the beleaguered Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, whose home had to be wrapped with barbed wire by Turkish peacekeeping forces after she too was threatened with death for her outspokenness at the previous loya jirga? If oppression is such a simple equation, and tradition so totalizing, from whence does such astonishing courage arise?

None of this is to suggest that the lives of many Afghan women are not unconscionably cruel. Women are still jailed for leaving brutal husbands, killed for loving the wrong men, traded like chickens, and of course, afraid to stroll outdoors without the full protective cover of the chador—the Taliban's formal censures now replaced by less official threats. Seierstad does a commendable job of illustrating how oppression runs deeper than the political systems that enforce it, how it is internalized in custom, even by the oppressed. But in her willingness to settle for showing her Afghan subject "how a Western woman really sees" him, as she put it in a CNN interview, without wondering how she in turn is seen, Seierstad plays into the hands of the clash-of-civilizations crowd. (She doesn't shy away from that phrase herself, even using it in London's Observer to characterize her legal battle with her former host.)

The burka-clad beggar women
photo: Michael Kamber
The burka-clad beggar women

Without some such introspection, some small injection of historical context, even the sincerest outrage over the lot of Afghan women—be it Seierstad's or Khadra's, Laura Bush's, yours or mine—remains a too-easy dodge of deep complicities, and the ever expanding war seems as fated as it is just, as if the West were simply about values, and not about wealth and the violence that preserves it.

Ben Ehrenreich was in Kabul last August as a reporter for LA Weekly.

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