The Gendered Nose and its Lack: ‘Medieval’ Nose-Cutting and its Modern Manifestations
By Patricia Skinner
Journal of Women’s History, Vol.26:1 (2014)
Abstract: Time magazine’s cover photograph in August 2010 of a noseless Afghan woman beside the emotive strap line, “What happens if we leave Afghanistan,” fuelled debate about the “medieval” practices of the Taliban, whose local commander had instructed her husband to take her nose and ears. Press reports attributed the violence to the Pashtun tradition that a dishonored husband “lost his nose.” This equation of nose-cutting with tradition begs questions not only about the Orientalist lens of the western press when viewing Afghanistan, but also about the assumption that the word “medieval” can function as a label for such practices. A study of medieval nose-cutting suggests that its identification as an “eastern” practice should be challenged. Rather clearer is its connection with patriarchal values of authority and honor: the victims of such punishment have not always been women, but this is nevertheless a gendered punishment of the powerless by the powerful.
Excerpt: As a medieval historian, I was already familiar with the phenomenon of nose-cutting, but the manipulative use of Aisha’ s photograph profoundly disturbed me, bringing to mind the feminist theorist Madeline Caviness’s piercing analysis of medieval images of mutilated women as sado-pornographic. Despite reassurances from her media handlers that she was a strong woman who wanted her story told, it was hard not to feel some sense that Aisha, a victim of extreme domestic violence, was being doubly objectified by the intrusive lens, as had been the undoubted beauty of her compatriots who earlier formed the basis for a photo report on the country itself and its need for protection (by the West). As some commentators pointed out long before Aisha’s case came to prominence, the safeguarding of women from violence in Afghanistan had barely registered on the consciousness of the West prior to the U.S. invasion of 2001, after which it became a central plank in justifying the war.