I don’t usually feel comfortable commenting on global women’s issues in part because I’m not entirely confident that I know or understand the complexity of women’s experiences outside the US. Despite the fact that I studied Anthropology and had a thorough education on colonialism and colonial feminism, there’s just so much in the world we can never appreciate without experiencing it for ourselves, and any approach to global issues has to be done with an open heart and mind while still staying true to your gut feelings about justice and inequality. And all that is sometimes just too fucking heavy for me.
However, I do feel compelled to comment on Time Magazine’s current cover photo and corresponding caption. The image is of an 18-year-old girl, Aisha, who was mutilated by Taliban, and the caption boldly states “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan”. Feministing.com did a pretty good job of critiquing Western media’s tendency to focus on women’s bodies and faces rather than their voices, especially when it comes to women as “other”. Also, a number of people have pointed out that this happened to Aisha while tens of thousands of US troops were already in Afghanistan.
The cover offends me not only as a feminist and anarchist, but also as someone who sees war as an extension of patriarchal domination. Aisha agreed to let Time use her photo because she wants people to see the very real atrocities being committed against women, and other Afghanis, at the hands of the Taliban (which is a political, not religious or cultural, institution that lest we forget was once backed by the US). I applaud her courage, as well as the courage of all women who live, struggle and organize in some of the world’s most oppressive regimes.
I take absolutely no issue with her choice to pose for this photo. What I do find appalling is Time’s choice to juxtapose her photo with a politically loaded caption. By doing this Time is ostensibly saying that women must be protected by militarism, which in the case of the US and other military-industrialized countries, is inherently masculine. This kind of paternalism denies women their autonomy and assumes that they do not have the agency to fight for themselves. Although the entirety of the article is not available online, I would hazard to guess that Time doesn’t bother to investigate what kinds of grassroots organizing women in Afghanistan are doing (RAWA is great example), and have been doing for decades. From what I could read, it focuses on the virtues of American occupation.
Time is not just using women to uphold a political and ideological view that supports militarism though. They’re also using feminine beauty and the patriarchal fear and disgust of deformed women to sell an agenda. Indeed, few things are more offensive to a society that privileges the visual than seeing a beautiful woman who has been horribly disfigured. The fact that Aisha was once an attractive girl with luscious black hair and piercing eyes adds to the uncanny and disturbing nature of the cover.
Much of this goes back to early colonial “outrage” over the hijab and the West’s obsession with the most visible and superficial forms of female oppression. In The Discourse of The Veil, Leila Ahmed details the way European men in Algeria used the veil as an example of how “uncivilized” the culture, religion and people were. They could thereby justify continued colonization and exploitation of both men and women, eventually leading Algerian women to wear the hijab as a form of resistance. Even in the early days of the war in Afghanistan, discussion on the plight of women focused on the burka, and not on the fact that women were starving in the streets because the Taliban prevented them from working. We saw individual images of women covered from head to toe, but little to no images of women rallying in the streets for their right to work.
Of course it’s also important to note some other factors at play with regards to Time and its content. Since they’re a corporately owned media conglomerate, their number one goal is to sell, sell, sell. The more horrific, uncanny, and controversial their cover is, the more likely people are to pick it up in the check-out isle at the grocery store. And the timing of the article cannot be ignored. It comes on the heels of the 15,000 documents published on Wikileaks exposing potential war crimes in Afghanistan. Occupation apologists are feeling an extra push to start covering their asses at any expense.