There is an old Pashtun proverb- also to be heard in Pakistan- which claims that men fight over three things , Zan, Zamin, Zar, women, land and gold. Bringing these three factors together in this way implies proprietorial rights on behalf of those fighting, who place these elements on an equal footing within the patriarchal Weltanschaung, which after all continues to rule the classic world order .

Here I will consider the Zan part of the proverb : to what extent are women causes to preserve, in that they might be considered as property, personifications of a national or tribal ideal, or mere excuses to start a fight between men.

Throughout history, from the ‘Face that launched a thousand ships’[1] onwards, lesser women than Helen of Troy have been an pretext to go to war. In a more prosaic manner, it is not the Spartan princess but indeed the wife of Menelaus who is the true culprit. Let’s examine the situation from a typically Pashtun point of view, that is to say the dominant tribal group in Afghanistan to which the Taliban belong. This group continues to be ruled by customary pre-Islamic law, known as Pashtunwali. The conjecture is not totally absurd in that it well possible that this particular group emigrated from the middle East some two and a half thousand years ago. In brief any way you interpret the situation, Helen is at fault . Presuming that she chose to follow handsome Paris, as her husband’s property, she was not allowed any autonomous action- least of all in the sexual domain. Even if the reckless young man actually abducted her against her will, she remains at fault as she has sullied her husband’s honour. In both cases, stoning would be in order, or any other form of capital punishment would be an mandatory according to Pashtunwali. The conservatives spearheaded by the Taliban have knitted in the demands of this violent code with their very personal interpretations of the Q’uran, thereby extending their popularity, especially as the repression of women is at the centre of their action. This explains the ongoing spate of executions by the Taliban of so called ‘adulterous” women. However, Afghan law is generally applied according to these criteria as well. ‘Adultery’ means any kind of sex outside the prescribed bond of marriage, and that includes rape, for which women (rather than the rapists) are imprisoned, or killed by the offended family. Menelaus (as would any self-respecting Pashtun husband) was given the option of a respectable “honour” killing when he pulled out his sword to punish his wayward wife. That he fell for her looks and relented is another matter- I doubt the Pashtun husband- or a lesser Greek would have been as sentimental, he would have had to save his reputation in front of his peers. But there again Menelaus was the king, and therefore had nothing prove. Benevolence is truly a royal privilege in such tightly structured societies.

Having said this, it would be possible to conjecture that Helen was just an sham excuse for a war between the Greeks and the Trojans which was on the cards anyway : perhaps she was presented as a deliberate provocation in order to justify a supposedly dignified reaction to an imagined attack.

Yet, it is important to return to the personal situation. Had Menelaus been stopped from asserting his full authority on his consort by Priam harping on Helen’s rights as a person, another indeed far bloodier war would have ensued. Such an attempt would have been seen as an invasion of the hallowed domain of private space and an unforgivable threat to the preservation of individual and collective male honour. Neither Menelaus nor even a single Spartan (or Trojan) would have stood for this. Helen would have been instantly executed and all the other women quashed into the most servile obedience, as matter of show to the enemy. Transpose this situation onto Afghanistan and things become clearer. The present day insistence by Western powers and especially American occupation forces on Western-style women’s rights has contributed to turn an occupation into a fully-fledged war against powerful reactionary deeply tribal forces led by the Taliban, today an umbrella-term which describes all kinds of ultra-conservative opposition to the Karzai government and its Western allies. This is not to say that they were wrong to intervene to help women out of indeed a dreadful situation, but that the humanitarian tactics used were and remain blunt, clumsy and supremely inefficient. Whether or not this insensitivity is partially deliberate is quite another debate into which I shall not enter right now…


[1] Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus (1589 or 1593). The drama’s eponymous hero refers to Helen of Troy with these words.

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