Time Pictures Afghan Women, Obscures Realities of Endless War

Just plaster a disfigured female victim on the cover, and presto--instant war morale!

By Michelle Chen Aug 03, 2010

Things aren’t looking too bright for the Obama administration in Afghanistan. Media leakage has exposed holes in Washington’s military adventures in a self-destructing nation, and the U.S. public has started wising up to the dilemma of an endless and pointless war.

So perhaps Time magazine was trying to boost the morale of its war-fatigued readers with a new cover photo showing the damaged face of a beautiful girl. Her piercing stare seems to beseech the earnest Americans pouring blood and treasure into their war-torn nation, the last hope for the forsaken masses. The caption below reminds us, "What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan." Don’t dare debate the answer–the photo says it all: How could we be so savage as to turn our backs on Aisha and all the other girls destined for destruction at the hands of their backward patriarchs?

How could we turn away from this? Easy. We already have, and we’ve turned our guns on the women of Afghanistan instead. Activists have panned the cover as a reflection of imperialist arrogance. The "women’s liberation" canard masks the ongoing, intensifying crises that women are truly facing: political oppression, economic destitution, and the social death of eternal warfare, Sonali Kolhatkar of the Afghan Women’s Mission condemned the media’s use of quasi-feminist rhetoric in justifying an unjustifiable war,

This is the same type of justification that the Soviets used (among others) to explain why they should remain in Afghanistan: to save Afghan women from the ‘backward’ fundamentalists. Foreign armies have always sought to protect Afghan women from violence by fomenting violence themselves. But in the end, just like the Soviets did backroom deals with radical misogynist groups, the U.S. has been empowering non-Taliban misogynist fundamentalists since the start of this war. There are incidents happening every day in Afghanistan of women and girls being harassed, raped, flogged and killed by pro-U.S. warlords and local commanders that are not working with the Taliban — these incidents are rarely covered by the Western media. In many ways the U.S. occupation has actually made things worse for Afghan women. Afghan women activists I work with prefer to resist two threats to their security (the Taliban and the U.S.-backed central government) instead of three (the third being the U.S./NATO occupation) and have long called for U.S. forces to leave. Time magazine is playing to age-old racist stereotypes: that brown women need a foreign white army to save them from their men.

So maybe the White House can’t hide behind the banner of "freeing Afghan women" any more. In light of Obama’s botched plans to change course in Afghanistan, many pro-peace advocates for women’s rights at Feminist Peace Network are appalled but not surprised:

So there you have it, we’ll have to stay another ten or fifteen years so that women can achieve equality. Imagine instead of contributing to the violence in Afghanistan that further harms women, we were to provide humanitarian aid that improved the lives of Afghan women. Imagine if we had taken the billions of ‘reconstruction’ funds that are unaccounted for in Iraq and given that money to responsible organizations to actually rebuild and strengthen the social infrastructure of both countries. Oh wait, then we couldn’t use the women excuse to continue to fund the military industrial complex. Enough already, women are not an excuse for militarism and war.

The Nation‘s Greg Mitchell viewed the Afghan woman’s plight from another angle, framing her tragedy in the phalanx of chaos and corruption the U.S. has helped perpetuate:

I have to ask: In Time’s mission to really "illuminate what is actually happening on the ground" has it ever put on its cover close-up images of 1) a badly wounded or dead U.S. soldier 2) an Afghan killed in a NATO missile strike 3) an Afghan official, police officer or military commander accepting a bribe from a Taliban war lord?

Whatever your stance on the Afghanistan war, photos like this are undoubtedly powerful. But ask whose interests are served by the rationalization of war through perverse appeals to gendered, racialized pity. A moving image can muddle more than it clarifies when the background is underexposed. So if Aisha represents anything about what has happened between when the U.S. invaded her country and when it will leave, then we owe it to her to turn the lens back on ourselves for once.