"...women’s rights in particular—have become pervasive and inextricable elements of international political life."
In the cover story of its July 29, 2010 issue, Time magazine featured a photo of an 18-year old Afghan woman, Aisha, whose nose and ears had been sliced off as punishment for trying to escape her abusive household. The sentence was ordered by a Taliban commander and carried out by Aisha’s husband and brother-in-law. The cover starkly symbolized how human rights concerns—women’s rights in particular—have become pervasive and inextricable elements of international political life. The accompanying article also argues that behind these rights violations, powerful religious actors, ideas, and interpretations are at work.
This story of Afghan women is but one illustration of a far-ranging, complex array of issues converging in international affairs around the nexus of human rights, religion, and gender. It is this convergence of concerns that ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict has set out to explore under the auspices of this two-year Henry R. Luce Foundation initiative. For while there is near universal revulsion expressed over Aisha’s brutal treatment (and the plight of other Afghan women more generally), the publicity surrounding the Time story also invited critical questions about how human rights violations are portrayed, perceived, or used for different purposes—for example, to protest the government of Afghanistan’s efforts to reconcile with the Taliban, to legitimate American interventions in Afghanistan, or, as in France, to justify laws that ban the veil or the burqua. Beyond that, too, one wonders how carefully the many facets of religion are considered and conveyed in popular media. Traditional paradigms and assumptions that have guided modern thought about religion, gender, and rights are now in flux. Advocates for gender equality have drawn heavily from secularist human rights discourses, while those seeking to preserve “traditional” gender roles have grounded their positions in religious discourses and scriptural appeals. This presumption that rights and religion are antithetical has been part of a larger narrative about modernity that casts secularism as a liberalizing and liberating force for escaping unenlightened pasts dominated by religion. Assumptions such as these are entrenched in modern scholarship and widely inform the lives and institutions of individuals, governments, and civil societies.