Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Priya Gopal and the nature of cynicism

This is how Time magazine's cover story begins:

The Taliban pounded on the door just before midnight, demanding that Aisha, 18, be punished for running away from her husband's house. Her in-laws treated her like a slave, Aisha pleaded. They beat her. If she hadn't run away, she would have died. Her judge, a local Taliban commander, was unmoved. Aisha's brother-in-law held her down while her husband pulled out a knife. First he sliced off her ears. Then he started on her nose.

I'm not going to reproduce, here, the photograph of the mutilated victim of this horrifying attack, which Time magazine used to adorn its cover to deliberately emotive effect. You may have seen it. You can see it if you follow the link to the story. I can barely bring myself to look at it. It ought to have the same effect on the world as the image of nine-year-old Kim Phuc Phan fleeing from an American napalm attack on her village in 1972, or as those of starving, pot-bellied Ethiopian orphans in 1984. It is an image that, try as you might, you can never banish from your mind, that you wish you had never seen but know, nevertheless, that it should be seen by everyone. It fills me with rage and despair. It makes me want to do back to those men what they did to her.

Suffice it to say that this is one woman who has a good reason to wear a burka.

Not everyone is equally affected, though, I now discover. Priyamvada Gopal, an English lecturer at Cambridge University and specialist in post-colonial literature, is as unmoved as the Taliban commander. Or rather, she is moved to anger and indignation, but not by the barbarous treatment meted out to a young girl at the hands of those who ought to have protected and cherished her, but at the temerity of Time magazine in using it to draw attention to the condition of women in Afghanistan - and thus, implicitly, in support of continued Western intervention.

Gopal accuses the magazine of "condensing Afghan reality into simplistic morality tales", and then links the story of Aisha's mutilation to the world of humdrum, unthinking (but non-violent) misogyny depicted in Asne Seirstad's The Bookseller of Kabul as an example of how the Afghans have been "silenced and further disempowered by being reduced to objects of western chastisement". She ends with a bizarre rant about the state of western democracies, where "modernity is now about dismantling welfare systems, increasing inequality (disproportionately disenfranchising women in the process), and subsidising corporate profits" and which "has little to offer Afghans other than bikini waxes and Oprah-imitators".

In short, while she concedes that "misogynist violence is unacceptable", it is clearly rather less unacceptable than the desire of well-meaning westerners to do something about it. For this self-professed feminist, what really matters is exposing the double-standards of the west and the "formulaic narratives" of those who dare to suggest that women might just have more life-opportunities in countries where they do not face being killed or disfigured for disobeying the orders of men who believe that they own them.

"The mutilated Afghan woman" she writes, "ultimately fills a symbolic void where there should be ideas for real change." But there is nothing symbolic about Aisha's devastated face, or the barbarous "honour" system that destroyed it, and the only void is the one at the heart of the Gopal's moral universe. For her (and she is regrettably not unique among liberal academics, even supposed feminists) even the matchless barbarity captured in Time's cover image is no more than a convenient pretext for lambasting the West. She is right, perhaps, to draw attention to Time's unfortunate caption - What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan - for Aisha suffered despite the presence of Nato forces. It is certainly possible to draw different conclusions from the photograph - about the futility of the Western intervention, about how, despite the expressed (and not entirely unsuccessful) aim of improving the condition of women in Afghanistan, any difference that can be made is necessarily small-scale and not worth the price in lives and money. But that does not make the photograph itself, or the decision to publish it, merely a piece of cynical manipulation. For it is primarily the record of an unspeakable crime, one that has gone, and will go, entirely unpunished, a crime to which Gopal remains studiedly indifferent.

"Misogynist violence is unacceptable, but.." she writes.

But what? But if a woman misbehaves she has it coming to her? But it's preferable to American and European do-gooders condescending towards other cultures? But it can provide a good jumping-off point for a controversial and thought-provoking piece of analysis for the Guardian's website? But if you're clever, middle-class and have a lectureship at the University of Cambridge it's something you can be ironic and post-modern about? I wonder if Priya Gopal would view the subject with quite such equanimity if someone she knew had been the victim of such horrendous abuse. I rather doubt it.

Gopal calls herself a feminist, but she'd rather defend the fake-medieval social system of a tribal backwater than admit that the United States can ever be right about anything. She calls herself a feminist but displays almost total lack of empathy with other women - not just Aisha, but millions of others whose lives are circumscribed by rigid religious and cultural norms that demand they submit in everything to men. She calls herself a feminist but can write things like this:

Based on her stay in the eponymous protagonist's home, Seierstad's memoir uses offensive commercial language to describe ordinary marital negotiations and refers to female characters as "the burka".

Buy "ordinary marital negotiations" - though you'd hardly realise it - Gopal is referring to the custom of buying and selling women (willing or otherwise) as though they were cattle. By "offensive commercial language" she means calling money money, rather than adopting some politically-correct euphemism to disguise what is really going on. Yes, of course trading in women (and often little girls) is "ordinary" throughout much of Afghanistan, but since when did a cultural practice have to be rare in order to justify opposition?

Stung apparently by criticism by some commenters, Gopal came back to clarify her position without, I think, managing to banish the impression of moral lop-sidedness. She denies being culturally relativist (don't they all?) and declares - belatedly - that "what happened to Aisha was indefensible and violence of this sort, whether from the Taliban or drunken husbands, must be condemned and resisted at every turn." (The culturally relativising remark about "drunken husbands" would make more sense, of course, if drunken husbands who mutilated their wives went unpunished by the law.) But she can still write:

What I question in my article is whether there is real solidarity for Aisha and her sisters as opposed to reducing them, like the Taliban also do, to objects for position-taking and grandstanding. (Yes, Time is paying for reconstructive surgery, by the way, and are careful to say they obtained consent to show her picture. How free this consent is when money is attached, is a different matter.)

She really doesn't get it if she thinks that Time magazine - using Aisha's fate to draw attention to the routine ill-treatment of Afghan women as well as helping to give Aisha herself a new face - is treating her in the same way as the Taliban did, "reducing" her to an object. I mean, she really doesn't get it. So let me spell it out for her benefit. Aisha is both an individual who has suffered a heartbreaking brutalisation, and a symbol of a culture in profound moral breakdown. By drawing attention to her plight in the most visceral way possible - by printing the photograph - the journalists can both tell her story (thus giving her the humanity and dignity denied her by her own community) and, through her, illustrate the dilemma currently facing Western policy-makers.

Something else. I cannot come away from Time's report without concluding that Aisha is a remarkable person, possessed of the strength of will not merely to defy, initially, the men around her by trying to escape and then to survive and overcome the horrifying attack that was the result of her disobedience, but later to reflect upon its wider implications. "How can we reconcile with them, the people who did this to me?" she asks Time's reporter - meaning, of course, the Taliban. For Gopal, however, she can only ever be a passive victim, the object of (as she concedes, "unacceptable") violence and the subject of others' cynical manipulation, a "symbolic void". Gopal - "like the Taliban", indeed - would prefer Aisha to be neither seen nor heard.

Of course the photograph is emotive, intended to arouse anger in whoever sees it. Anger is no substitute for rational analysis, but without the anger, rationality can lead only to a cynical, or at best self-interested, conclusion. Anger is the best, indeed the only, response to such an image. Bringing such evils to the world's attention is in the finest traditions of journalism - indeed, in an age of where most of what passes for news coverage consists of fake celebrity spin and recycled press releases, Time's feature shows that traditonal reporting still, thankfully, has a place.