The much talked about August 9 Time magazine cover, unabashed in its aim to shore up support for the war effort in Afghanistan, has left many still shaking their heads in disbelief at such brazen exploitation of a woman’s suffering. It’s not the first time the plight of Afghan women has been used to manipulate public opinion. It’s a narrative we have become so accustomed to since the 2001 invasion, that many of my most intelligent female friends did not recognize it for the subversive emotional blackmail that it is. More important, they said, was the attention it brought to women’s issues. Well, let us talk about those issues in earnest, then.
The picture, by South African photographer Jodi Bieber, shows an 18-year old woman by the name of Bibi Aisha. Her story is tragic, and all too common in places like Afghanistan. Married off at a young age, she was beaten regularly by her in-laws and forced to sleep in the stable among the animals. Aisha decided to flee, but women wandering around on their own don’t go unnoticed in Afghanistan, and before long, she ended up in a prison in Kandahar. While not officially a crime, running away is often treated as such and can receive hefty sentences, but her father-in-law found her and took her home. Her punishment for disgracing the family was decreed: her husband, A Taliban according to some accounts, should cut off her nose and ears. She was left for dead in the mountains of Oruzgan. As a testament to her fighter spirit, she managed to drag herself to her father’s house, who took her to a US Army hospital where she was cared for until they turned her over to a shelter in Kabul. This was 2009. *
After an article about her ordeal appeared in the Daily Beast in December of last year, the Grossman Burn Foundation in California pledged this past spring to perform reconstructive surgery on her, long before her face appeared on Time’s cover. She arrived in the US to begin treatment last week, just as her portrait appeared on newsstands amid the media frenzy surrounding the recent release of some 76,900 classified Afghan war documents. Perfect timing.
Aisha’s story will have a happy ending. America will have done right by her. She will get her nose back and hopefully go on to live a perfectly normal life far away from her abusers. It’s a heart-warming story. But what about the remaining 15 million Afghan women, nearly 90% of whom it is estimated suffer from some form of domestic abuse, and moreover, what does this have to do with America’s war?
Most people will never read the accompanying article in Time magazine. They will only see the disturbing gaze of a mutilated woman and the message scrawled beneath it “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan,” question mark excluded. Most will never examine the mechanisms within them that bring about the deep emotional response. Subliminal advertisers know all too well that a powerful image can make a target audience ignore the caption, all the while absorbing it subconsciously, reducing them to zombie-like consumers ready to do whatever the ad tells them to: buy this car, try this diet, sell your house, dye your hair, get a new phone, support our war. Using emotional triggers like scantily clad women in ads that sell anything from watches to hair-loss treatment, have proven effective time and time again. A strong image can be a thousand times more powerful than the words that accompany it, but words can manipulate the message of an image in far more virulent ways. The photograph alone is subject to interpretation. But in this case, the two combined, we are being sent a clear message that tells us this is what will happen if we leave Afghanistan. Who among us wants this to happen to another Afghan woman? Guilt is the precise emotional response that makes us suddenly feel that being against the war is somehow a travesty.
Setting aside the obvious (that this is what is happening now, today, on our watch) how can Time editor Rick Stengel be so sure of the future? “I think we answer questions. I don’t think we ask them,” Mr. Stengel said in an interview with Katie Couric when she pointed out the missing question mark at the end of the headline. It’s one thing to draw conclusions about questions that can actually be answered, like is there undeniable evidence that Bernie Madoff cheated lots of people out of money? It is another to predict the future of a foreign country at war, something analysts, historians and military advisors have been unable to do since time immemorial.
Mr. Stengel explained his editorial choice in the first pages of the magazine as follows: “What you see in these pictures and our story is something that you cannot find in those 91,000 documents,” he said, referring to the recent release of leaked classified papers titled The Afghan War Diaries by whistleblower website Wikileaks. The White House has been struggling desperately to convince the public that we can’t leave Afghanistan amid the fallout following the leak, a trove of documents that reveal the true horrors of the war campaign on the ground, and it seems Mr. Stengel decided to play steward to the Pentagon and help sway public opinion.
In his chosen message, two points of absurdity emerge: when in the history of mankind has a war ever been fought in the name of women’s rights, and how can one justify the murder and mutilation of thousands of innocents in the name of eradicating domestic abuse, never mind the fact that the Pentagon has no vested interest in the said cause. Countries don’t spend billions of dollars to mobilize troops to liberate women from the chains of institutionalized misogyny.
Why then, should we believe that saving the Aishas of Afghanistan is a just cause for war? It’s a narrative we have heard periodically for nine years, though never when it stood to benefit the women in question. In the lead up to the war, we were shown images of Afghan women being beaten and executed by the Taliban at Kabul’s infamous soccer stadium. Stories in the press abounded about the terrible living conditions of women under the Taliban, pulling on the heart strings of the typically more pacifist female demographic, and yet, nary a member of congress brought the matter to the floor prior to 2001. If it was really a just cause for mounting a full-scale invasion, it begs the most conspicuous question: why have we not done so in other parts of the world where our sisters are suffering too?
It’s the same ludicrous line we’ve been fed about wars in the name of democracy and freedom. We went in to Iraq to liberate the people from a terrible dictator. What we ended up doing is “liberating” well over 4 million people of life, limb, or home, ripping the country asunder, ushering in extremist factions that made some of the once secular nation’s women dress in the code of Hijab or wear a Burqa for the first time in their lives.
So why have we heard this line about the women every time proponents of the war seem to be dwindling? Because it works. Look no further for evidence than a recently leaked CIA document in March of this year, drawn up after the Dutch decided to pull out of the war. Amid fears that Germany and France, who supply the third and fourth largest contingents to Afghanistan, might follow suit, it suggests pushing stories about abused Afghan women to drum up support for the war:
Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanizing the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] role in combating the Taliban because of women’s ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears of a Taliban victory. Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German, and other European women could help to overcome pervasive scepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission.
But women in Afghanistan suffer abuse at the hands of Talibs and non-Talibs alike. It’s a social problem, not a Taliban problem. Of course, ousting the Taliban did women a favour in many regards. They regained suffrage, for one. Yes, today women nearly fill the 25% quota for parliamentary seats, and education is no longer officially forbidden. But how many women really benefit from the new constitution? What is written on paper is rarely applied in practice for the vast majority of women, particularly those living in rural areas, which represent about 77% of the population.
According to a recent survey by the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), “more than 87 percent of all women suffer from domestic abuse, making the country one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman.” That is today. Are we to believe that 100% of women were being abused under the Taliban, or will be if they return to power? Is that meagre 13% of violence-free women really the result of the ISAF mission?
In 2007 I did a story on Afghan women who self-immolate. They are so desperate that, one day, something compels them to douse themselves with petrol and strike a match. I listened to their stories with unease. They were beaten, raped, used as prostitutes, molested and enslaved; all by husbands, fathers, cousins, uncles, brothers, or in-laws. Not one of them was from Taliban territory. Though it’s impossible to get a real sense of the numbers, most agree that the phenomenon is on the rise, and yet, we are meant to believe that the war effort is making progress on the front of women’s rights.
Oppression and brutality against women are not endemic to the Taliban alone in Afghanistan. Last year, President Karzai, in a bid to gain votes from the country’s Shia minority (roughly 19%) passed a controversial new law curtailing women’s rights. The Shiite Personal Status Law (SPSL), allows a man to deny his wife food if she does not submit to his sexual will, gives custody of children to fathers and grandfathers, and requires a woman to get permission from her family to work or to travel outside the home without a male escort. “It also, in effect, enables a rapist to avoid prosecution by paying ‘blood money’,” says Human Rights Watch.
It’s worth noting that the Taliban are Sunni, not Shia, and that the US-backed president has enacted a law for the non-Taliban sector of society, rolling back rights for women that were written into the constitution. Before the elections, the Times Online reported that “the United States and Britain [were] opposed to any strong public protest [against the law] because they fear[ed] that speaking out could disrupt [the] election.” The bill was pushed through parliament in February of 2009 and came into effect in July of last year. Afghan women fumed, while US and UK leaders stood by, and where was Time’s cover advocating for women’s rights then? Here are the covers they ran in February 2009.
Central to the debate about the message the Time cover sends, is the question are we really making progress for women – and if so, why should we believe that a good reason to continue fighting? While many people were moved by the cover, some things just don’t add up. After nine years of war, the public has grown wary of these kinds of media stunts. We are not so dumb anymore. The Bush years are over. Challenging our leaders is no longer tantamount to a capital offence. Not “supporting the troops” is no longer suggestive of treason, since so many of them are returning home to join the growing anti-war movement. Support for the war has plunged to an all-time low (36%). Too many US soldiers have committed suicide or come home suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). People are starting to feel uncomfortable about the number of Afghan civilian casualties, which sadly should have been an issue long ago, but what the Wikileaks documents show us is that the army has been cooking the numbers. All those deaths of “enemy combatants” were in reality far too often civilians. Such facts Americans are not happy to learn. The truth is coming out, though the editors of Time, like the Pentagon, obviously want to deflect our attention from it by shoving our faces in another gruesome reality that somehow makes even the staunchest pacifist wonder if maybe we should soldier on.
In my discussions with friends about the cover, I was amazed how many educated, sharp women couldn’t see how they were being manipulated. Many felt it was much more important to shed light on the plight of women, and missed the absurdity of the message attached to it. Some of them were Iranian expats, for whom the subject of women’s rights is all too close to home. But then I asked, what if Time magazine were to run a cover like this one?
The reaction was horror, yet the message is the same. It uses the misery of one woman’s life to justify the killing and maiming of thousands of others. Violence against an entire population vs. our sense of responsibility to women; it’s a hard choice to make, and one that should not be on the table.
There are those who argue that where you stand on the issue of the Time cover is indicative of your political affiliation. If you’re for it, you are a right-wing warmonger; if you’re against it, you’re an anti-war liberal. But the general malaise seems rather more indicative of historical amnesia than partisanship. America played a part, after all, in the 30 years of war that have been the bane of Afghanistan’s existence.
It’s not so long ago that Afghanistan was a relatively stable and burgeoning democracy in its own right. It started to unravel shortly before the Soviet invasion in 1979, as the country became engulfed in a proxy war with the US who backed the Mujahedeein in an attempt to weaken its cold war enemy. America has been meddling in Afghan affairs for decades, with no positive results to date, and it is well documented that plans for a full-scale attack had been drawn up long before those two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. As one of the primary donors of Pakistan’s ISI, the U.S. has indirectly funded the Taliban efforts for years. It’s nothing we didn’t already know, but we now have proof of it in the Afghan War Diaries.
It is high time we dispel the myth we have cultivated of a barbaric, Stone Age Afghanistan, needing the West to democratize and liberate its women. Freedom was once theirs and it will be theirs again, though not because America handed it to them. Nation building in the Middle East, history does teach us, has backfired terribly. To set the record straight, we did not go to war with Afghanistan to set the women free, and we are not there now making sure their constitutional rights are enforced. So why should we continue to massacre its population for a compelling and haunting face? Should we give credence to the notion that because America has served Aisha well, one woman among 15 million, we are also doing the same for all of Afghanistan’s women? The fact that women regained the right to vote is a poor smoke screen for the thousands of missiles that have rained down on that country for 9 years now, and arguably, we have contributed to women’s misery rather than redressed it.
The general narrative we have been fed since 2001 points to a disturbing misconception about Afghan women, the one that depicts them always as victims, inept at fending for their rights, needing us to emancipate them, and achieving their shared goals of autonomy only as a result of the NATO mission. While the reality of their world today is an unimaginable nightmare to women of the west, the story we never hear is that Afghan women were fighting for their rights long before the west pretended to care about them. Americans somehow have this idea that we waltzed into Afghanistan in 2001 and for the first time in the history of that country, women picked up a ballot to vote for their candidate. Afghan women gained the right to vote in 1965, six years before their Swiss counterparts did. 1960’s Afghanistan had more women in parliament than you could find in office on Capitol Hill. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), a women’s rights group founded in 1977 by Meena Keshwar Kamal, bravely continued to operate during the five years of Taliban rule, despite their activities being banned by both the Taliban and Massoud’s Northern Alliance.
While Kabul in the 1960’s was dotted with women in miniskirts, most of its rural population continued to live according to conservative traditions, and it is foolish to imagine that the whole of a modest society can suddenly be catapulted into a modern western lifestyle. But if real progress is to be made, it will be because Afghans do it for themselves. Let us not abandon Afghan women, but let us not be deluded in believing that the war is their ticket to self-determination.
Despite initial support for the NATO invasion, RAWA has for years been issuing public statements of outrage against the policies of western countries – for using the women’s issue to make the case for war. For the vast majority of their women, life has not improved. Some even charge that abuses have increased. 30 years of war have surely contributed to the violence against women we see so prevalent in present day Afghanistan. Societies take generations to recover from the psychological effects of conflict. War feeds itself. Violence begets violence and spreads from the battlefield to the home and back. It is no surprise that trends seem to indicate, if not an increase in domestic violence, then, at best, a stasis since the Taliban days.
The relationship between domestic violence and war is one that has been studied extensively in the West. Exact statistics are hard to come by because the army has long tried to camouflage the problem, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that men coming home from battle suffering from PTSD are more likely to express their emotions through violence than those who have never been exposed to combat. Cases of soldiers returning home from the war and murdering their wives are not unheard of. In 2003, there were five incidents in the U.S. within just 43 days. Spousal abuse is significantly higher in the military than among the civilian population, and “veterans with PTSD are two-to-three times more likely to commit intimate partner violence than veterans without the disorder,” according to the Veterans Administration, though some say the rate is higher. A 2009 study in the UK discovered that the number of veterans in prison had doubled in six years. More veterans were within the criminal justice system than there were troops serving in Afghanistan. The most common offense was assault against a partner. It’s another dirty little secret about war that is seldom addressed publicly.
“In the past five years, hundreds, if not thousands, of women have been beaten, assaulted, or terrorized when their husbands, fiancés, or boyfriends got back from Iraq. Dozens of military wives have been strangled, shot, decapitated, dismembered, or otherwise murdered when their husbands brought the war on terror home,” Women’s News reported last year. “These women are as much casualties of war as are the thousands of troops who killed themselves after combat” these last nine long years.
If this is the case after a mere tour of duty for soldiers returning home to Western countries where access to mental health services is readily available, imagine what that looks like for an entire population terrorized by bombings for nearly a decade, with no infrastructure in place to even address the issue of PTSD.
Arguing that we should continue to fight in Afghanistan to save the women is preposterous. It’s an equation that simply does not compute. Wars are not fought on the frontlines alone. They touch every aspect of society, and sadly women and children often pay the highest price. If we really care about the rights of Afghan women, why not funnel the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on weaponry, and sponsor organizations that build a better future for them instead?
To quote Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to the United States House of Representatives, “you can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.”
By Anne Holmes
* Note: The details surrounding Bibi Aisha’s story have been reported by a number of publications that had direct access to her with such discrepancies, that it is impossible to know the truth today. Some report that the Taliban did not figure into her story at all. Minor edits have been made to reflect inconsistencies in the report issued by Time and others, and syntactical adjustments have been made to aid the flow of reading.