The recent Time magazine cover showing a young, facially mutilated Afghan woman named Aisha, accompanied by the tagline “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan,” has been accused by many commentators in the press and the blogosphere of manipulating emotion, guilt-tripping readers and viewers, and foreclosing discussion. But in fact the photo, taken by South African photographer Jodi Bieber, did the opposite and is, in a sense, a model of how photography can be used. The cover—though not, interestingly, the accompanying article by Aryn Baker, which has been largely ignored—has stirred up a vociferous debate about U.S. policies in Afghanistan, the definition of human rights, and the relation (if any) between them. Bieber’s photograph of Aisha—whose nose and ears were chopped off by her husband, a Taliban fighter to whom, along with her sister, she was “given” at age ten, and whom she had disobeyed—is disgusting. I am very glad that Time ran it.
Much of the criticism of the photo-cum-headline has come from the antiwar Left and from feminists. With a couple of notable exceptions, it reveals a dispiriting lack of appropriately complex thinking, or, one might say, a distressingly reductive reading of events and of what feminism, and leftism, might mean. Many commentators, for instance, have noted that the attacks on Aisha occurred while NATO forces were in the country—which presumably “disproves,” as a commentator named Fatemeh on Muslimah Media Watch put it, that the NATO presence has in any sense helped women. This odd lapse in logic has been repeated again and again.
Others have argued—without engaging the terror expressed by many Afghan women quoted in the Time article—that the NATO presence is actually worsening the position of women in the country. In the Huffington Post, Derrick Crowe of the (terribly named) Brave New Foundation wrote, “The U.S.’s massive troop presence and the escalating instability is strengthening the hand of the political forces that want to roll back women’s political equality, so the longer we stay, the worse off women will be as they attempt to navigate the eventual political settlement of the conflict.”
In a more prominent piece that ran in the Guardian, Priyamvada Gopal, a University of Cambridge professor, confidently argued, “The real effects of the NATO occupation” include “the worsening of many women’s lives under the lethally violent combination of old patriarchal feudalism and new corporate militarism.” It’s conceivable that this is true, but it’s impossible to know how Crowe and Gopal have come to their arguments, since they offer no supporting evidence and do not bother to interview anyone in Afghanistan. And they simply ignore those quoted in the Time piece—such as a woman named Robina Muqimyar Jalalai, identified as one of Afghanistan’s first two female Olympic athletes, who recalls how the Taliban “used to play football with women’s heads.” Indeed, Gopal went on to charge that the West can offer only a “bankrupt version of modernity” full of “bikini waxes and Oprah-imitators”—something that would, I think, come as a surprise to Jalalai and many other Afghan women. But then Gopal, anti-imperialist that she is, must know better.
Some feminists found the story ludicrous; the Feminist Peace Network, for instance, ran a sarcastic piece arguing that the Time article was simply one more to “use the women excuse to continue to fund the military industrial complex.” In fact, women have been unethically used at times to justify the Afghan invasion (and am I the only one to find it strange that George W. and Laura Bush talked about Afghan women far more than Barack and Michelle Obama do?). But the FPN piece revealed, again, a kind of dangerously simplistic thinking: if the women of Afghanistan remain among the most immiserated and oppressed in the world—and they do—it must mean that the ousting of the Taliban was inconsequential, or that a commitment to women’s rights is only a form of hypocrisy.
Aisha’s photograph also inspired some very tired “anti-colonialist” photography criticism. On the Muslimah Media Watch roundtable, a woman named Krista argued that “the photo objectifies its subject in a specifically racist way, in that the body of a woman of color is used to make a statement in a way that white bodies rarely are.” (Note to Krista: Afghans don’t necessarily consider themselves “nonwhite,” nor is it likely that, given the utter destruction of their country, this is of major concern to them.) On Feministing, a woman named Samhita decried the photo as “objectifying” and argued, bizarrely, that it reinforces “our fixation . . . on what they [women] look like” and on “how barbaric the act itself was. As though the worst harm to be done to a woman is [to] alter her physical appearance.” (Note to Samhita: Having your nose and ears chopped off is a very radical “alteration” of “physical appearance.”)
There were, however, some thoughtful responses to the Time photo and the larger issues it raises. And in this case, thoughtful means uncertain. (Contrary to what readers of this piece might think thus far, I am not an advocate of “staying in Afghanistan.” In fact, I am thoroughly confused about what the “right” thing to do is; the only thing I’m certain of is that there are no good choices—and certainly no unambiguously good choices—on offer.) For some, the agonizing question is how to respond to conflicting demands. On Ink Spots, for instance, the blogger Gulliver wondered, “Should the plight of women (or people in general) under hard-line theocratic rule be driving our policy choices? What about after 1,000 dead Americans? What about after 10,000 dead Americans? . . . How many human rights are enough? How much suffering is too much?”
On the American Prospect website, the always-valuable Michelle Goldberg quoted a range of Afghan women representing various organizations, including Women for Afghan Women and the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, some of whom advocate NATO withdrawal, others of whom fear it. “From the United States, it’s difficult to figure out who speaks for Afghan women, or even Afghan feminists,” Goldberg admits. Even some American groups, such as the strenuously antiwar women’s group Code Pink, have been forced to rethink their anti-interventionism, Goldberg reports, after visiting Afghanistan and speaking with women there.
Others have taken issue with the—to me, quite startling—insistence that the liberation of Afghan women can come only from within the country. (Maybe so, in some utopian sense; but aren’t there cases where people could use a little help? African-American slaves didn’t free themselves—and couldn’t have, no matter how many times we retell the story of Nat Turner; nor, for that matter, could inmates of the Nazi camps, or the Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge, or the Ugandans under Idi Amin. Women in the Congo can’t stop the mass rapes there, any more than women in Saudi Arabia can cause the theocracy to fall. This kind of “do-it-yourself” triumphalism presents itself as a form of respect for the oppressed, but it actually insults them by creating a fantasy-world that evades the extent of the victims’ suffering and, yes, of their powerlessness.) In a wonderful piece originally posted on the Ms. website and then reposted by Guernica, Rafia Zakaria, a Pakistani-born lawyer, wrote, “I find the sudden elevation of Afghan women’s agency at this juncture to be both self-serving and instrumental in denying just how badly the world has failed them. Saying that women ravaged by war for over three decades, whose capacity for resistance has been depleted by incessant meddling of foreign forces, can now independently empower themselves in the wreckage of the abandoned programs we leave behind is an argument meant only to pacify the travails of our own conscience.”
And it is conscience, I think—or, rather, conflicting claims on our conscience—that is at the heart of this debate. One can argue that it is right to leave Afghanistan, and wrong to ask more Americans to die there. One can argue that the civilian casualties rates of the NATO troops are indefensible, or that the war in Afghanistan is simply too costly for our downwardly-mobile country to pay for. (On the Nation’s Media Fix blog, Greg Mitchell proposed showing photographs of “workers streaming into a newly re-opened factory,” “a returning soldier embraced by his wife and two kids,” and “solar panels being erected on a huge office building” to illustrate “What Happens If We LEAVE Afghanistan.”) But it is bad faith of the worst sort to argue that withdrawal would somehow help the women of Afghanistan; or would rescue them from lives of almost unimaginable pariahdom, misery, poverty, physical pain, poor health, ignorance, and degradation; or would not take away even the minimal gains that have been made. Equally bad, I think, is the pretense that a “deal” with the Taliban won’t somehow come at women’s (and children’s) expense. Let’s at least call barbarism by its right name—which is just what the Time photograph did.
Note: additional photographs of women in Afghanistan taken by Jodi Bieber can be found here.
Susie Linfield directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University. Her upcoming book, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, will be published by the University of Chicago Press this November.
Correction: The original version of this article, published Tuesday, August 17, linked to the incorrect Derrick Crowe article on Huffington Post. The link has been corrected.