Cutting the Nose to Save Face

This past weekend, Vice reporter Isobel Yeung made headlines with a documentary, chronicling the abuse of women in Afghanistan, punctuated by a disturbing exchange with Afghan theologian and lawmaker Qazi Hanafi, telling his guests with a smile, "To ra ba dast-e yak javaan-e Afghan bedem ke az beeneet beroon kona."

Vice translated the statement as: "Maybe I should give you to a man to take your nose off."

But native Farsi speakers, like me, know what the cleric really said.

He said: "Let's give you to a young Afghan man to take it out of your nose."

It referred to a penis. To all native speakers it was clear that the theologian was talking about something like face rape.

In Farsi, To ra ba dast-e yak javaan-e Afghan bedem means "let's give you to a young Afghan man." Ke az beeneet beroon kona means "so he takes out of your nose."

Many Afghans watching wondered: Why the mistranslation? They speculated that the translator might have been embarrassed or feared Hanafi's reaction.

Later, the reporter said on Twitter that she is "sad at how quickly religion is used as a scapegoat."

The exchange, along with the resulting conversation by the reporter, reveals how so much gets lost in translation in the West--just like in Muslim communities--when we try to critically engage with questions related to Islam. In both parts of the world, the subject has become a powerful taboo. This was evidenced in the recent Women in the World Summit debate with author Ayaan Hirsi Ali week when the moderator asked her very oddly why Ali was "picking on Islam."

In the case of the Vice video, in the sequence with the Muslim theologian, Yeung asks Hanafi about his views on marital rape. Hanafi first feigns ignorance, "What is rape?"

Next, he draws on the philosophy of cultural relatively, pointing out that, "You have your rape. We have this other thing in Islam."

Then, visibly irritated, he asks Yeung to "stop it."

As if denial, followed by justification based on cultural relativism and then, plain censorship were not bad enough, Hanafi then resorted to the comment threatening the reporter with sexual violence.

The plight of Afghan women was summed up in that brief instance when religious authority was revealed as a key source of violent misogyny. After all, Qazi Hanafi's religious credentials are plain in his title, "qazi," which means a scholar of sharia, or Islamic law. In addition, Hanafi is a former jihadi who fought alongside the Afghan warlord Ismael Khan.

It was the warlord's patronage that enabled Hanafi to become a parliamentarian. With Hanafi we see that in the struggle of Afghan women for humane treatment, women are up against the twin branches of religion and the jihadi warrior culture, which gives men the legitimacy to rule and the theology that further cements their power. In the words of one commentator, "The funny thing about him answering anything was he knew he would get away with it and there was nothing people could do about it. The true face of terror."

Yeung's response, both in a debrief video and on Twitter, saying she was "sad" that religion had become a "scapegoat" and that it was not responsible for abuse of women was disappointing. Religion is not a "scapegoat." Islam is a source of authority that is used to sanction violence against women. We are best served confronting the problem with honesty and demanding Islamic interpretations that embody human rights, not denying it and most certainly not protecting it.

While Yeung was protecting the so-called honor of Islam, Afghan conspiracy theories declaring her an agent with a hate agenda appeared on Facebook. Comments appeared on social media, suggesting the video was fake. "If you pay close attention, you see there's one screenshot where he speaks to her and there's a separate shot where he speaks to religious scholars." Someone else wrote, "What if this girl came to spread hatred among us Muslims?"

When approached by Radio Liberty's Afghan service, Hanafi joined the conspiracy contingent by denying any such interview had ever taken place.

He said the video was fake. If Yeung's intention was to not offend believers, she failed to impress them. They are thanking her by smearing her reputation. The common trait in all these reactions was denial in the face of hard facts.

While Afghans, more interested in saving face than confronting tough realities, quite literally to cut off the nose of a woman to save face, there many others who saw the video for what it is, evidence that theology gives men power to abuse women and get away with it. Given Yeung's denial of this connection, Westerner liberals unfortunately side with those who betray Afghan women by seeking to protect theology rather than scrutinize it.

Yeung's interview was a rare moment of insight into the connection between religion and misogyny. While, in their struggle for humane treatment, Afghan women are up against the twin power of jihad and theology, men in positions of power deny the truth of violence against women. They use the postmodern theory of cultural relativity to justify violence. They censor and they threaten with rape.

Here was a valuable lesson based on undeniable evidence. But instead of using this piece of proof as a starting point for an honest and serious debate, the opposite happened. Yeung launched a defense of religion. Hanafi thanked her by denying he had ever met her while other commentators accused Yeung of being an agent of hatred.

These reactions were insightful. They revealed that something strange has happened to us all. They showed that even in the face of hard evidence, we go out of our way to protect religion against the women theology oppresses. They showed that Muslims and their liberal friends resort to the same psychological mechanisms of denial and disbelief when faced with hard evidence.

Meanwhile the theologically sanctioned abuse of Afghan women continues without challenge. After all, as liberals, we have chosen to protect the image of Islam as our priority. A priority that, ironically, we share with Islamist fundamentalists.