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  • The Perception of SufferingOn Patricia Skinner’s “The Gendered Nose”
  • Lora Wildenthal (bio)

Patricia Skinner pursues multiple threads of argument in her article on “The Gendered Nose.” Can the medieval era inform us about our own era? What does it mean to say that a phenomenon taking place in the present day is a “medieval” one? What did mutilation of the nose signify in the medieval era, and has that signification persisted up to the present day? Does it carry gender-specific meaning, and to what extent have its victims been women?

Skinner’s main conclusion is that there is a connection between the nose and honor: “patriarchal values of honor and authority...have persisted across centuries and rely upon recognizable signifiers. Most visible of these, and the most permanent, is the damaged face.” Speaking of her folktale material, she notes: “women who transgressed deserved a permanent and disfiguring sign on their faces, and it seems that this sign transcended geographical and temporal boundaries.” She concludes that “It may seem that the gulf between ‘medieval,’ ‘traditional,’ and ‘modern’ is too wide to bridge, but the rhetoric of patriarchal control implied and expressed in extreme violence targeted at women’s faces, whether threatened in laws of the past or carried out in practice of the present, has an all-too-depressing continuity.”

It is interesting that the information Skinner has assembled about the history of nose mutilation in Europe and Asia indicates that it does not have a consistent linkage to women, or even sexuality, even as we do see the linkage to honor and loyalty. As she summarizes:

“What is clear is that nose-cutting did not simply travel from East to West: a common Old Testament motif may have lain at its heart, but its subsequent use took multiple directions. Across Europe and the Middle East it was a polyvalent symbol, to be read in different ways according to the time and the situational context. It was targeted at both men and women, but in different circumstances. The two thematic strands that have emerged from the evidence for nose-cutting—political betrayals, adulterous relationships—could be treated separately along gendered lines. To distinguish between them, however, would risk missing the fact that at the heart of both strands was male honor, based on both political acts and personal relationships.” [End Page 81]

What about the specific context of Muslim Asia in the present day, the point of departure for her piece? I am unsure of the actual prevalence of the mutilation of women’s or, for that matter, men’s noses in Central and South Asia. Is it rare, and does each case become the subject of media coverage? I suspect that the cases that have appeared in the global media took idiosyncratic paths from perpetration to media exposure.

Skinner comments on the “manipulative” use of Jodi Bieber’s 2010 photograph of the Afghan woman Aisha for Time. To my mind, this manipulation is located in Time’s caption to her picture: “What happens if we leave Afghanistan.” While the fact of media exposure was predictable, the caption was not. How shocking to have one’s picture used as a reason to bomb one’s country. The caption could have read, with equal logic, “What happens if we don’t leave Afghanistan,” for the Taliban established themselves with American aid, and radicalization thrives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere, in our new era of politically nihilistic drone killings. It is the Taliban’s fault, and not the United States’s fault, that the Taliban are so awful. But if people in the United States, who control the world’s greatest military firepower, are to avoid attaching delusions to that firepower, we must beware of thinking that we control the outcome of events in Afghanistan, just as we must not erase our own role in promoting the Taliban in the past. As Skinner notes, the very invocation of some act as “medieval” carries with it a powerful social evolutionary message of ever-lessening harm, of ever-greater concern for suffering. That is a misreading of the nature of the medieval era and our own. While anti-cruelty concerns are a...


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pp. 81-84
Launched on MUSE
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