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  • Thinking About Context
  • Susan Mosher Stuard (bio)

The Gendered Nose and its Lack” raises a disturbing question about facial mutilation over time and place, namely whether it has been a stable signifier and is irrevocably gendered. The author has chosen medieval incidents of nose-cutting over a broad swath of Eurasia to compare with the highly publicized nose and ears mutilation of a young Afghani woman, Aisha bibi, when she fled her husband’s home in 2010 in a region controlled by the Taliban. The Western press sensationalized the incident as barbaric and “medieval,” prompting the author to review incidents of nose-cutting from the Middle Ages in regard to vindication of men’s honor through permanent and visible disfigurement of women believed to have brought dishonor to them.

Applying comparisons temporally often implies evolutionary notions about more enlightened societal attitudes in regions that develop into modern societies, an assumption frequently belied by the facts. A husband’s slashing of Tracey Thurman’s face in Torrington, Connecticut in 1983 led to changes in police responses and to funding for shelters for victims of domestic violence in the United States that are as necessary today as they were in any earlier era.1 There is not much of an argument for facial disfigurement as something others do for those of us who live in contemporary America. Surely the author’s posed question: “does nose-cutting in fact still represent a meaningful, corporal punishment that modernity has not erased?” must be answered in the affirmative, at least in regard to the modernity component. This is a crime that still appeals to some perpetrators. Still the author sees a comparison to medieval times as valuable because of an “over-arching humanity [allowing] characters to learn from one another across the temporal gap.” This may be possible, but only if the context of these acts allows for apt comparisons. The author sees the medieval display of a woman’s mutilated face as sado-pornographic and interprets such slashings as retaliation for dishonor when perpetrated by a husband on a wife.

The gendered nose-cutting examples associated with men’s honor the author found begin with the Book of Ezekiel (23:23), where God threatens the prostitute Aholibah: “They will cut off your nose and your ears.” The examples continue with mutilated and disobedient nuns in the History of the Franks of Gregory of Tours and then the author speaks of Jordanes’s Getica in which the first wife of Huneric the Vandal was sent back to her father, Theoderic the Goth, with her nose and ears cut off; all are horrendous examples. The next examples are drawn from Byzantine sources and from the laws of King Canute in eleventh-century England. The Khalila [End Page 68] wa-Dimnah story of a barber and a shoemaker and their wives draws on an incident of nose disfigurement from India. This story circulated through Asia and reached Spain in the Middle Ages. Marie de France’s Bisclavret tells of a faithless wife who has her nose bitten off by her husband because she condemned him to the life of a werewolf by stealing his clothes while he shape-shifted one night into a beast. Orderic Vitalis recorded nose-slitting and it may be found in rabbinic judgements in thirteenth-century Spain. More examples follow.

“It seems that this sign transcended geographical and temporal boundaries,” the author argues, and an interpretation is offered: women who have transgressed by dishonoring men are thought to deserve a permanent and disfiguring sign on their faces. For full impact such disfigurement must be clear to viewers, which creates an interpretive dilemma. Aisha bibi might serve as example to her household but today Afghanistan favors the most impenetrable veiling in Islam, where only women’s eyes peer out through mesh when they travel outside the home. The lack of exposure of women’s faces in public differs from the examples drawn from medieval times when women’s faces were clear for all to see. Even the one example of nose-cutting from India reflects Hindu culture rather than Islam that favored veiling.

Aisha bibi appears to be a strong young woman who allowed...


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pp. 68-73
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