By Lene Auestad

Presented at the event Om Afghanske kvinner – Stemmen i stillhet, Deichman Bjørvika, Nov. 24th 2023.

Tomorrow is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, November 25th, and I am honoured to have been invited to take part in this event to mark the day with a particular emphasis on Afghan women’s situation. This is a neglected topic, and I find that it is a theme one would often shy away from addressing because it is so intensely painful.

Globally 1 in 3 women experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime, mostly by an intimate partner. These are very shocking figures, and it is a stark reminder of the scale of gender inequality and discrimination against women.

On August 9th 2010 the cover of Time featured Aisha, who at the age of 18 was punished by the Taliban for running away from her husband’s house. They pounded on the door in the middle of the night, and dragged her to a mountain clearing, where her brother-in-law held her down while her husband cut off her ears and her nose with a knife. The local Taliban commander was indifferent to her pleas that she had run away to save her life since her in-laws were beating her and treating her like a slave. He said that she was to be made an example of. Left to die on the cold mountain, Aisha managed to survive and get to a women’s shelter in Kabul. When the article was written, she was in a secret location protected by armed guards and sponsored by the NGO Women for Afghan Women. She would head to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery sponsored by the Grossman Burn Foundation, though at the time, one year after the incident, she was still to traumatized to undergo surgery. “The Taliban are not good people,” she stated. “If they come back, the situation will be worse for everyone.” “You have to be realistic,” said a senior Western diplomat in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We are not going to be sending troops and spending money forever. There will have to be a compromise, and sacrifices will have to be made.” Though whose sacrifice?

The United Nations defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

 It affects women worldwide, though some much more severely. This year, in 2023, Afghanistan was ranked as both the most violent country in the world and as the worst country in the world for women’s’ rights. This verdict emerges from extensive research conducted by the George Washington Institute and the Oslo Peace Research Institute, as reported by Khaama Press on October 26, 2023. “Afghan women begin each day without jobs, education, and freedom,” said Torunn L. Tryggestad, the head of the Oslo Peace Research Centre. And Yojna Patel, India’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, emphasises that “Women are agents of social change and social cohesion” – the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women are crucial to maintaining international peace and security.

There are several forms of violence. Physical violence are acts that violate and do harm to one’s bodily integrity. Psychic violence are acts or speech that aim to frighten, humiliate, denigrate, or belittle someone, violating their subjectivity and human dignity. Structural violence are  forms where some social structure or social institution harms people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs, as exemplified by institutionalized racism, sexism, and classism. And finally, epistemic violence are forms of understanding which force what is to be understood into a too narrow conceptual frame, thus hiding, or symbolically eliminating parts of reality. This happens when women’s voices are silenced.

These various forms of violence are highly interdependent – they reinforce and underpin one another. They are closely linked to social injustice insofar as they affect people differently in different social situations.

The UN reports that most of the violence committed towards women worldwide is intimate partner violence. Risk factors for both intimate partner and sexual violence include:

And factors specifically associated with sexual violence perpetration include:

Gender inequality and norms on the acceptability of violence against women are a root cause of violence perpetrated against women.


The history of silence is central to women’s history. Violence against women is often against our voices and our stories, wrote Rebecca Solnit. It is a refusal of our voices, and of what a voice means: the right to self-determination, to participation, to consent or dissent; to live and participate, to interpret and narrate. The quiet of the listener makes room for the speech of others, like the quiet of the reader taking in words on the page, like the white of the paper taking ink. “We are volcanoes,” Ursula Le Guin once remarked. “When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.”

The use of the figure of Medusa reveals the patriarchal desire to portray powerful women as monstrous. Medusa, a beautiful young maiden, was worshiping in the temple of Athena when the god Poseidon raped her. Athena punished her for desecrating the temple, thus punishing the victim rather than the perpetrator. Medusa was turned into a monster; her head a mess of phallic snakes, whose gaze turns men to stone. Later, Athena gave her shield to Perseus to help him kill Medusa; he used it as a mirror, deflecting Medusa’s curse, and beheaded her in her sleep.

Medusa may have been an earlier snake goddess, though in this story she is transformed through the rape by Poseidon and Athena’s judgment, echoing how few rape cases come to trial and of those that do fewer still result in prosecution. The woman often takes the blame for “provoking” the man either by her dress, her words, or her attitude. Once “provoked,” the man is relieved of all moral responsibility. Thus the monstrous aspect of the myth of Medea is how she’s formulated according to an oppressive system of patriarchal values, and she is silenced when her head is cut off.

The name Medusa derives from the Greek Metis, meaning ‘wisdom’ and ‘intelligence.’ To Freud, Medusa’s decapitated head signals castration anxiety. Her gaping mouth and long, curly hair symbolized the female genitals, thought to generate castration anxiety. The British anthropologist Edmund Leach has pointed to the long, flowing hair as signifying unrestrained sexuality, thus shifting the emphasis from male to female desire, and to desire more generally. Hélène Cixous, on the other hand, has suggested that the fear of decapitation can be seen as the female equivalent of castration anxiety. Women can only keep their heads “on the condition that they lose them, lose them, that is, to complete silence, turned into automatons”. Women are denied the privilege of speech, and when they do speak, what they say is not heard, or dismissed as insignificant. These readings are not mutually exclusive, In Cixous’ interpretation, female decapitation is a result of castration anxiety rather than just a symbol for it. It is a symptom of the real dangers women face in a culture that is anxious about the powers of masculinity.

Interestingly, an alternative, use of the symbol of Medusa appears in the logo of the fashion design house Versace as a symbol of power, strength, and beauty. Medusa signifies what the designer aimed to do with his work: be able to stop people in their tracks with stunning work. Here, the other side of being stifled with terror is being stunned with admiration – desire in its threatening and in its positive form.


The Time cover of Aisha’s mutilated face is also stifling, bringing the violence out in the open for all to see. I remember it well many years afterwards. And yet, is the world too willing to side with the oppressors? The philosopher Kate Manne coined the word ‘himpathy’ in relation to a rape case in the US to denote “the excessive sympathy shown toward male perpetrators of sexual violence” – and it could be used in a wider sense to describe men’s selective empathy towards, and siding with, other men. Though women too can be affected in empathising with the aggressor, aligning with harsh power structures in our societies.

The UN’s RESPECT programme outlines steps for a public health and human rights approach to prevent violence against women. Successful prevention requires political commitment and leadership; implementing laws and policies that promote gender equality; investing in women’s organizations; and allocating resources to prevention. It also requires addressing the multiple forms of discrimination women face.

Since the Taliban took power in 2021, a cabinet has been appointed that has no women. The Ministry for Women’s Affairs has been abolished. In some provinces, women are being told not to come to work or not to leave their homes without a male relative. Women protection centres are being attacked, and the people that work in them harassed. The situation for women and girls in the country is bleak, but women continue to fight for their rights and demand equality. Women’s full participation and leadership in public and political life is critical for Afghanistan’s future and long-term development, for sustaining peace, and for creating a vibrant economy that can bounce back from a crisis.


Image: Free public domain CC0 photo by RawPixel.