From: A Reader in Afghanistan
TIME magazine’s current cover features the mutilated but still beautiful face of Aisha, an 18 year old Afghan woman whose Taliban husband, a man who literally bought her as a slave when she was just 10 years old, cut off her nose and ears as punishment for fleeing his abuse. Overlaid on Aisha’s striking picture is the headline: ‘What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan.’ Inside, journalist Aryn Baker writes about what has changed for women in Afghanistan since 2001, and what has not. The professional women she interviews, and survivors like Aisha, express alarm at the prospect of the Taliban returning.
There’s nothing untrue in the article, and, unlike so many other journalists, Baker doesn’t condescend to the Afghan women she interviews. Yet, the cover photo and the article have generated a storm of controversy in the blogosphere, with Irin Carmon of Jezebel and Derrick Crowe of Return Good for Evil leading the criticism with long arguments against the TIME’s choices.
My parsing of Irin’s Jezebel post:
Irin points out that Aisha was mutilated “last year, with U.S. troops’ presence in the country and alongside Afghan women’s significant progress on certain fronts,” and writes that “there is an elision here between these women’s oppression and what the U.S. military presence can and should do about it, which in turn simplifies the complexities of the debate and turns it into, ‘Well, do you want to help Aisha or not?’”
Aisha’s mutilation did take place with coalition forces in Afghanistan. But that’s not the point of using her picture for the cover. The point isn’t when she was mutilated, but who ordered her mutilation, and who took a knife to her face. She was mutilated by the Taliban, and that the ragged holes where her nose and ears used to be are what the Taliban deign justice in regard to women and girls. More of that brutality is one of the results we would see from an expansion of Taliban control in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch’s latest report about what women’s lives are like in Taliban-controlled areas now is a grim reminder that the Taliban are just as eager and willing to torture, terrorize and murder women as they were nine years ago.
Irin acknowledges that gains have been made, such as the 25 percent quota for women in the Afghan parliament, but argues that “hasn’t always helped protect women’s rights, as seen in the case of a bill that “authorized husbands in Shi‘ite families to withhold money and food from wives who refuse to provide sex, limited inheritance and custody of children in the case of divorce and denied women freedom of movement without permission from their families.” (That’s partly because some of the female parliamentarians are ‘proxies for conservative men who boosted them into power,’ according to one of their colleagues.)”
The Shia Personal Status Law is a travesty. Afghan human rights activists from all segments of society protested against it, and there is a possibility it could be amended or even repealed by the next parliament under pressure from civil society. The law remains a source of intense disagreement within the Shia community, which is by no means monolithic in its views toward women. The irony of the law and the uproar it caused is that Shia women actually lead less restricted lives than their Sunni sisters in many areas.
Afghanistan today may not be an open society, but it is open enough to allow public human rights activism, and it has a parliament that can be lobbied to amend laws. For example, when a highly restrictive media law was proposed two years ago, journalism associations and human rights groups successfully pushed for the bill to be substantially revised to favor greater press freedom.
At the end of her post, Irin writes that “framing our presence in Afghanistan as an either-or between military engagement or abandoning the human rights of the vulnerable is a false premise” and cites Nicholas Kristof arguing:
An unbalanced focus on weapons alone is often counterproductive, creating a nationalist backlash against foreign “invaders.” Over all, education has a rather better record than military power in neutralizing foreign extremism….
Aid groups show that it is quite possible to run schools so long as there is respectful consultation with tribal elders and buy-in from them… [Greg] Mortenson lamented to me that for the cost of just 246 soldiers posted for one year, America could pay for a higher education plan for all Afghanistan. That would help build an Afghan economy, civil society and future — all for one-quarter of 1 percent of our military spending in Afghanistan this year.
There’s a lot of truth there.
Development aid can be a great thing, and Afghanistan needs aid delivered and managed with long-term vision. (A higher education plan is something I would cheer loudly for.) But aid is important in its own right. Calling for “schools, not soldiers” is no more realistic or helpful than arguing for a permanent troop presence as the sure way to end the oppression of Afghan women and girls. Aid won’t keep the Taliban from closing schools, poisoning schoolgirls, or assassinating teachers, aid workers, women politicians and journalists.
In the comments on Irin’s post, Jezebel readers make two points repeatedly:
- The Afghan government doesn’t have a great track record on women’s rights, and includes many people with views similar to those of the Taliban, so it’s not really better than the Taliban (a few commenters imply that it’s actually worse.)
- The US didn’t go into Afghanistan to help Afghan women, so even raising women’s rights in the debate over the war is a cynical ploy to turn feminists into warmongers.
While there are many fundamentalists and war criminals in the current government, there are also progressives and moderates. The same could not be said of the former Taliban regime, which barred women, ethnic minorities, and anyone who disagreed with its racist, misogynist, anti-modern ideology from serving in official positions. The current government is weak, riddled with corruption, and often frustratingly unresponsive to the needs of the population. But it’s not as bad as the Taliban. It includes women. It is multiethnic. It allows dissent.
The rationale for invading Afghanistan in 2001 is beside the point. What we do now matters. We should be debating the ethics of our proposed draw-down next year, and how we ought to remain engaged in Afghanistan from this point on. Humanitarian concerns should be seriously considered by all policy-planners eying withdrawal, and women’s human rights should be prominent among these considerations. Can we all at least agree on that?