02/20/2012 12:29 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2012

What's Good for Solomon Is Baad for the Afghans

When rulers marry off their daughters to forge alliances between kingdoms and to prevent war, it's called realpolitik. When Afghans do the same, it's called "women's oppression."

Recently, the New York Times and CBC have featured pieces on the erosion of women's rights in Afghanistan. In particular, the issue of baad has received increasing attention. Baad is the compromise that's reached between two families in cases of murder and sexual transgression (i.e. adultery). One mishap can launch generations of punitive warfare or blood feuds between the two families. In baad, however, a female from the wrongdoer's family is promised for marriage to a male from the victim's family as a 'truce.' Baad, in other words, is an alliance that is forged as a way of rectifying a wrong and ensuring shared interests and cooperation over generations. The cost of this alliance involves the promise of marriage of a young girl who herself is innocent of all crime. Thus, baad is illegal in Afghanistan, but women are often unable or reluctant to press charges against their own relatives.

When we read between the lines of baad, however, it is a very familiar theme in world history. The Spanish, French and English royal families practiced their own form of baad for centuries -- even today, we are not surprised to learn that Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip are cousins. Moreover, long before the royal family came into being, the rulers within biblical literature were marrying for familial connections. Why else did King Solomon -- lust aside -- acquire so many wives? And Muhammad? Marriage was, and in many parts of the world still is, the best chance for peace. And often, women (and frequently men) had little say in the matter.

Nevertheless, whenever Afghan women are brought up, politicians and journalists are unable to think in complex terms about the history and position of women within Afghan society. Instead, we hear the classic Monty Python refrain:

Dennis: Come and see the violence inherent in the system. Help! Help! I'm being repressed!

King Arthur: Bloody peasant!

Dennis: Oh, what a giveaway! Did you hear that? Did you hear that, eh? That's what I'm on about! Did you see him repressing me? You saw him, Didn't you?

Unfortunately, the New York Times isn't much better in their analysis than this skit.

"Baad," NYT journalist Alissa Rubin writes, "involves giving away a young woman, often a child, into slavery and forced marriage." She then goes on to describe horrific instances of abuse that support the position that these poor young women are beaten and suffer greatly under this situation. To be clear, I, too, am appalled at the circumstances confronting some of these young girls.

Nevertheless, the violence that occurs in these situations must be distinguished from the arrangement itself. Nowhere does baad legitimize brutalizing a young girl within an inch of her life. Furthermore, being forced into marriage isn't unique to baad. Most Afghans, men and women, have their marriages arranged. And, frankly speaking, abuse is not unheard of in these marriages, nor are there realistic options for divorce. In other words, the outcome of arranged marriages and baad aren't radically different.

When talk of "abandoning" so-called baad victims to their fate becomes a way to legitimize NATO's further involvement in Afghanistan, we should be conscious of the way "saving Afghan women" can become yet another trope for imperialism (if you are a realist) or humanitarian intervention (if you are a liberal). Perhaps we must also ask ourselves why we don't campaign on behalf of young, abused girls who are forced into marriage with citizens of oil-rich counties allied to the U.S. (or did I answer my own question?).

Rather than campaigning for the eradication of baad, which many Afghans see as the only reliable form of justice, journalists and human rights campaigners would be better off campaigning against domestic and child abuse. These are the more substantive issues and are more likely to change than the baad system, which predates the arrival of Islam in the region.