We, The Bloodthirsty

Read this now. It’s a brilliant, powerful, shocking piece by Italian freelance journalist Francesca Borri under the somewhat misleading title, “Woman’s Work.” She briefly addresses her gender head-on, but it’s the media establishment at large that is truly damned.

See, it’s not just Aleppo that’s “all gunpowder and testosterone.” It’s the newsrooms.

Earlier this year, I strongly considered going into journalism. I already spent a year in Afghanistan and speak one local language fluently, the other enough to break the ice. I thought perhaps I could use that to build connections and bring their stories to the world. When I started pitching story ideas to traditional outlets, I realized that my background was more interesting only if I were willing to throw my former employer under the bus or use my skills to uncover some sort of scandal. Apparently, where people put themselves at risk to do good, there’s no “story.”

I admire those who put their lives at risk, as Borri does, regularly, for almost no pay. But for every much-lauded story of a journalist (male, almost always) who grows a beard and embeds with an Afghan National Army unit or dresses up like the Taliban or rides a motorcycle across the desert, there are dozens of positive stories that are intentionally overlooked by newsrooms consumed by bloodlust, like the editor who asked Borri to live-Tweet her captivity. We need to make space for thoughtful young Afghan men and women telling their own stories. We need to make space for other truths.

My Afghan friends are frustrated by the stories foreign journalists empower. Those stories feed back into the local media and influence the way people think. If the Taliban are just going to win anyway, why should any Afghan stick around? If the only stories you read are of terror and failure, then it is hard to picture any other reality. In describing only suffering, we in fact perpetuate it.

That is not to knock what Borri and others do. Millions of people are huddled there, in that “dark, rancid corner,” begging the world to do something. Here’s one thing we can do: Instead of empowering only narratives of death and destruction, we can hold hands with a Syrian refugee, buy soccer balls from a Pakistani child, choose to read stories about people making a difference.

We can dare to live and love and speak our truth, even in a world that is “no place for a woman.”

Hard Truths about Hard Work

We all tread on thin ground when discussing the lives of others, especially lives that have been as politicized as that of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. He was a good friend to some of my good friends. I cannot lay claim to knowing him, though as a former diplomat, I allow myself to feel that I understand some things about his sacrifice.

SOFREP today published excerpts of the late Ambassador’s diary. The portrait it paints is of a committed public servant who willingly faces high stress and threats to his own security. I think it’s important to know that many of the diplomats who are serving now in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and other places feel the same way–just substitute “Kandahar” for “Benghazi” and you’ve got a line from my own diary of fourteen months ago.

Diplomacy is a career in which the whole concept of “work/life balance” can feel absurd. It’s hard to keep anything stable when you’re moving every year or so. I think of the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who died of a heart failure on December 13, 2010, and Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN diplomat who was killed on August 19, 2003 in Iraq, among others. Their struggles were different, but there is no question that their family lives suffered from their commitment to global service.

While many things are still much harder for women–a love life like de Mello’s would have been the entire story had he been a she–everyone who answers the call of duty makes enormous personal sacrifices. My former colleagues in the Foreign Service do their best to stay grounded within an increasingly chaotic lifestyle. I know that I could not have survived without spontaneous, supportive communities at post and the unyielding support of my family in the States. We all need a place to come home to.

I was hesitant to link to Ambassador Stevens’ story, only because I know that some will feel this publication is a posthumous invasion of his privacy. But if I had been him, I would want the world to know what it really meant to lead a diplomatic mission to a dangerous place. Sometimes, living your call means giving up everything. Not one of us can have it all.

Moral Crimes, Afghan Justice, and a Small Town in Ohio

I am sure that they will try to kill her again. If her brother did this and they did not put him in jail, why would he have changed? And maybe he will even feel more strongly.
– Hassina Nekzad of Women for Afghan Women

In December, I wrote about Gul Meena, an Afghan girl who ran away from home with a man who was not her husband and survived an attempted honor killing – thanks in large part to the support of villagers and medical personnel in conservative eastern Afghanistan. Finally, we have an update on her story – complete with an incredible photo of her head and face, scarred by ax blows but still held together. Her survival is inspiring. But her story is also a challenge to those of us who believe in putting public pressure on the justice system to do the right thing.

Gul Meena’s story broke at around the same time that the Steubenville, Ohio rape case hit the national media and the whole world learned the horrifying story of a rape in New Delhi. I had just written about a teenage girl who took to Twitter for revenge after the courts let off two boys who sexually assaulted her. In all three cases, thousands of people like me are concerned that the courts will not do their jobs. We contend that these cases are about more than just the individuals at stake; their outcomes will determine whether sexual assault is taken seriously by the courts and therefore by our society. We worry that not punishing these criminals does more than just let dangerous men go free – it endorses a culture that blames victims, not perpetrators, for assault. In other words, our worries are strikingly similar to those of the Pashtun villagers mentioned in the Times’ original article.

While Gul Meena has survived for now, she remains in danger of what an American would call vigilante justice and what many Afghans would call reality. Tribal law and the court of public opinion could yet decide that her “moral crime” merits the punishment her brother tried to inflict, and if she goes home, the justice system can do little to protect her. Her best hope would be a trial of both her and her brother for their separate crimes. While the entire category of “moral crimes” is about as acceptable to women’s rights advocates as blaming a female rape victim for getting drunk, it’s the reality of Afghan law and the reason I was furious over criticism of western Afghanistan’s chief prosecutor, Maria Bashir that was published in the Times last month.

After all, Bashir’s effectiveness as a woman is directly tied to her performance as prosecutor. A respected advocate for Afghan women and winner of the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage award, Bashir has been a powerful force for fighting corruption and establishing rule of law in Herat Province. In a country where the formal justice system is often trumped by commonly held ideas about sharia and tribal law, Bashir’s prosecution record – including for adultery, which is a crime under Afghan law – is outstanding. In the article, she is quoted as saying, “I want to be an enforcer of the law rather than human rights.”

While it may pain Bashir to prosecute these women, she’s taking the long view. It’s the wise one. A functioning justice system that entitles any citizen to a fair trial under existing law is humanity’s best solution to the vexing problem of crime. While some Americans still yearn for the Wild West, I am willing to bet that most women recognize they are safer inside a justice system than outside of it.

That’s why today’s news out of Steubenville is actually heartening. One of the lawyers for the two small-town football players accused of rape has requested a delay, a change of venue, and a closed trial. When I think about this case, a moral crime if ever there was one, I feel angry. I worry that the courts will find some absurd reason to let these boys go, silencing present and future victims of sexual assault who may lose their faith in justice as a result. But the only way to ensure justice in the long run is to give the accused a fair trial.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can do as so many Afghans have done for Gul Meena: support victims, even when that means risking our reputations on their behalf; advocate for necessary changes in our laws and our cultures; and hold the justice system accountable – not to our personal consciences, but to the law.