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; in this case three years. But her father found her, and took her back to her in-laws. 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 offered to perform reconstructive surgery on her this past spring, 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 titledThe 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?