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The Face That Launched a Thousand Drones?

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.


8 Responses to “The Face That Launched a Thousand Drones?”

  1. AMC says:

    Hi Anne, excellent deconstruction of Time’s association of Aisha’s picture and the case for war. I really enjoyed it.

  2. admin says:

    Thank you for your comments Lee. You’ve been studying Afghanistan much longer than I have, and always have a perspective that gives pause for thought.

    Edit: It’s also interesting to look at the history of the burkha. It was actually the Afghan women who asked to wear the garment many ages ago. Since their conservative society would not allow them to be seen by men not of their family, they came up with the idea of a garment that would hide them completely, which, ironically, liberated them from their domestic slavery.

  3. admin says:

    Sanam, having lived in the United States for many years, I feel pretty confident in saying that most people fall into the first category. The spin on Fox news will never address any of the issues discussed herein, and sadly, most people go to Fox to get their news. The American propaganda machine is so well oiled and the public is not particularly adept at critical thinking.

    Just to be clear, any reference I made to our discussions in this article point to a demographic that believes that bringing attention to women’s suffering is more important than the slogan, and I agree totally. Unfortunately, I don’t have much faith that the majority of the American public will read it in this way. Even if the public will pay more attention to women’s issues as a result, it sadly reinforces the negative image people in the west have cultivated of Islam, and the barbarism of Afghan society as if it were something inherent, as if only the west can correct it.

    You make an excellent point that putting an image on a Time cover changes its nature, and that publicity about such cases as Sakineh Ashtiani in Iran should be published and republished because they do put pressure on foreign governments to change their ways. We shouldn’t do that, however, only when it’s conveniently in tune with foreign policies that or advocate for war. Why has Time not run a cover with Sakineh’s picture on it now? They know they have the power to affect such change, why not use it wisely? That is really the question isn’t it – using one’s power wisely to affect positive change.

    My hope is that this is the beginning of a huge outpouring of public donations to foundations like Women for Afghan Women that help people like Aisha to get away from their abusers. Some of you may remember the famous photograph by Kevin Carter in the 1980’s of a small starving African child with a vulture towering over it. This image saw millions and millions of dollars suddenly pour into food aid. At the same time, there was a huge debate about exploitation, with the public accusing the photographer of having just taken the photograph and left the child behind. Of course it’s very different here, because most people, including me, are not accusing the photographer of any wrong-doing. It’s the editors of Time that chose to attach a message advocating for the war that is at the heart of the uproar. I don’t think the photographer intended to exploit anyone, and the photograph on its own is something that I feel ABSOLUTELY NEEDS TO BE SEEN. It’s the context that is such a travesty.

    Had Time chosen to write a statement like “How the War has Failed Afghan Women,” the debate would have a very different tone to it. If they had chosen to put a question mark at the end of their slogan, it would also be very different. But this debate we all refer to has taken place almost exclusively within intellectual circles, something that is largely lost on the general public. They don’t have time to think about these things. They have mouths to feed and work to look for. They may, however, be less likely to oppose the war because this image and its subversive slogan has been burned into their subconscience. They will not deconstruct it as we have. Those emotional triggers will have worked wonders on them. That is the reality and power of propaganda.

  4. Lee Yu Kyung says:

    Thank you for brilliant article, Anne.

    ‘Men and women in uniform’ are not out there on feminist mission, I firmly believe. They kicked out fascist fundamentalists Taliban to replace it with war-criminals-lords fundamentalists. Accoring to my interviewees, who grew up in Afghan refugee camp at the Pak-Afghan border, women in the camp were already forced to wear burqa by those warlords, who runned the camp with probable funds from CIA and ISI. It was 80s. According to my another interviewee in Kabul, women rather prefered to wear burqa to avoid being raped by ‘commanders’ under the various warlords. It was early 90s. (Well, I believe they’re not happy with wearing tent-like cloth, of course. And I also believe it’s more like oppressing custom for women, not solely Taliban problem) As a matter of fact, Taliban was born as a reaction to those gang-raping commanders & warlords in kandahar and the south. Thus, it’s terribly bad excuse to pick up the words ‘liberating women’ ‘for women’ or whatever…’womennnn’ for this war.

  5. Sanam says:

    Anne this is a great article. I particularly liked the conclusion and linking it to violence by soldiers back home due to PTSD.

    I need to insist though, or clarify my previous position, that the photo is a good ‘make aware’ but anyone with a… critical mind should detach it from the conclusion that this justifies the war in Afghanistan. So I guess those Iranian women in your circle as far as I know that youa are referring to (me included), were not manipulated at all and didn’t miss the absurdity of the message but detached one from another. So I guess you need to differentiate between three types of people who look at this cover: 1) those that look at the photo and read the sentence on the cover and think the war is hence justified, 2) those that don’t even look at the sentence or don’t care about it because they are absorbed by the photo (something you also referred to in your article) and 3) those who look at both and value the photo and dismiss the sentence.

    The photo of the Iranian woman being hanged because of adultery shouldn’t make anyone think that a war on Iran is justified, that would be too absurd, but believe me, putting it on the cover of Time magazine has an effect. Just look back at all those death penalties and stonning that were postponed or prevented in Iran due to international outcry. It has worked but this doesn’t mean the war is justified of course and this is the main point of your article which I fully share. So I guess the main concern is to force people to DETACH one observation from another. And as I said previously, if you look at the publication of this cover positively, it created an excellent debate to reveal all these details which are extremely important and as you rightly mentioned, send the message that we’re no dumb anymore.

  6. admin says:

    Jenny wrote: “perfected propaganda as fine art”

    Did anyone say Leni Riefenstahl? Watch “The Triumph of the Will” if you haven’t already.

    In my opinion propaganda is too soft a word. It’s blackmail, and smacks of cruelty. It reminds me of the 1980’s film “Sophie’s Choice” about a woman who is forced to choose which one of her children will be spared from the Nazi gas chambers. (Who do we want to spare more: the entire population of Afghanistan or the Aishas of that country?)

    Time Magazine doesn’t just appear in America. It’s global. Millions of people walked by that image and its message on their way to work for an entire week. It can be found in any international newsstand and most train stations across France and Germany, it is even used in schools; just the target audience the CIA doc aims for. I’m not screaming conspiracy here. It’s just another example of how all too often the American press ends up acting as the mouthpiece for the Pentagon instead of executing its role as the regulatory body it was meant to be. There’s a good article on that subject here:

    There are legitimate cases to make for the war, like the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear power, and twice nearly pushed the button in escalations with neighboring India. Letting the Taliban take over could spell disaster. But the powers that be know the general public can’t digest such complex foreign policy concepts, and that it’s irrelevant to the reality many of them are faced with today, ie. trying to find a job, a house and some food for their families. Better to go with a simple message that strikes an elemental chord within all of us. Very smart.

  7. jenny lynn walker says:

    Thanks a million for taking the time to prepare this article Anne. As you know, I have been speaking out about this cover from the moment it appeared – not because of the subject matter, but because it is propaganda plain and simple.

    I have been very disturbed to find that many people do not consider it to ‘propaganda’ or feel that propaganda is too strong a word. And this has led me to wonder whether people no longer realise what propaganda is or whether they have forgotten how to call a spade a spade or even know how to identify one now?

    This Time cover fits perfectly many of the various definitions of propaganda. I like this one: ‘loaded messages to produce an ’emotional’ rather than rational response to information presented where the desired result is a change of the attitude toward the subject in the target audience to further a political agenda.’

    And given the fact that so many people appear unable to identify it as propaganda, I am now considering the possibility whether there could potentially be millions of people who are so used to seeing ‘advertising’ that they have no idea what propaganda is and how effectively it has been used to brain-wash nations in the past.

    Propaganda was one of the most effective weapons in the lead up to the second world war: Hitler’s minister of Propaganda, Goebbels was a master at it. And I would argue that Time as a magazine, with this particular cover, has totally nailed it – perfected propaganda as fine art.

    Unfortunately, propaganda denies the right to ‘free thought’ and ‘freedom of choice’ which are the very foundations of democratic society. And if people cannot see this, it brings a very important question to the fore: whether what we have are ‘lands of the free’ or ‘democracy’ at all.

  8. Given me much to think about.

    Thank You Anne.

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