Jezebel Misses the Big Picture on TIME’s Afghan Women Story

by Joshua Foust on 8/1/2010 · 9 comments

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?

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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SDProg August 1, 2010 at 4:06 pm

The moderates and progressives don’t seem to have much power and it looks like Karzai is going to form a coalition government with some elments of the Taliban in order to cement his rule once we leave/withdraw. I remember a young male writer was condemned to death by the Afghan government a few years ago precisely becaue he wrote and distributed material that was supportive of women rights. It took a broad international campaign led by the British Independent to reduce his sentence to 20 years and then finally allow him to leave the country.

As Derrick Crowe has pointed out, “Prolonging the massive U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan makes it more likely that the regressive elements in the Kabul government will achieve their agenda through “compromise” with powerful insurgent elements during the reconciliation/reintegration processes.”

Given that the we fund the Afghan government HRW suggests: “Make women’s meaningful participation in relevant decision-making bodies a precondition for funding reintegration programs, and ensure that reintegration funds benefit families and communities, including women, rather than individual ex-combatants.”

“The solution posited by Human Rights Watch and by women parliamentarians is to repeal the Amnesty Law and institute strong vetting processes that exclude the worst war criminals from the ballot or from political appointment while still allowing participation of their home tribes or groups.”-Derrick Crowe

reader August 1, 2010 at 4:26 pm


I agree with your point that the original cause (sin?) of the war, aside, we are in the here and now. In the light of this entry, could you perhaps give a brief summation on how RAWA might fit into all of this? Others might disagree, but it seems to me that they are a perfect example of an organic, grassroots organization that can survive without large amounts of ongoing foreign largess, which is what Afghanistan will need if Walmart-land decides it is “tired” of this war. I suspect that if the political winds shift, then the only cash pumping into Afghanistan in the future will go straight into Xe/Blackwater type channels.

This might sound snarky here, but as was asked of me, why do Westerners talk at length of little Afghan girls, but not little Afghan boys and their needs? I think shifting that narrative to include all of Afghanistan’s children might be a good pr move. August 1, 2010 at 6:58 pm

Josh – well said!

Reader – I stand to be corrected, but as education opportunities increase, I think the boys will be pulled into the system as well (as they already are where there’s some progress on this front).

anan August 1, 2010 at 7:18 pm

“I think shifting that narrative to include all of Afghanistan’s children might be a good pr move.” Agreed. It would be a good move in general, which is more important than PR. Afghan girls have brothers, sons and nephews that they care deeply about. Don’t think they like the exclusive focus on Afghan girls either.

Reader, my understanding is that at least some in RAWA supports Ghandian Sathya Graha. Their position seems to be that the ANA and ANP should voluntarily disarm themselves and resist the Taliban and Al Qaeda nonviolently. This includes having respect and love for the Taliban even as the Taliban organizes a genocide of the voluntarily disarmed ANA. Gandhiji strongly believed that you should pray to the person committing a genocide against you, your family, and people. Ghandiji said even the Jews should have done this while Hitler wiped them out, committing a type of joint suicide.

While some westerners laugh at the idea of praying for one’s enemies, this is an old tradition in the eastern faiths [Shintoism, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism] and was often done before fighting a battle with ones’ enemies. Jesus did something similar on the cross when he said “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Rawa is very efficient with the money they get. It is worth remembering that their money comes from international donors. In my view the Afghan education system should be fully funded by the international community for two decades, allowing the GIRoA to husband their limited revenues and loan proceeds into other spending priorities.

Josh, you might mention that one of the largest ways ISAF is empowering Afghan woman is through the ANSF. The ANA is targeting 10% of their force being woman. That is 17,200 ANA woman in the next Taksheel, and 24,000 woman when the ANA hits 240,000.

reader August 5, 2010 at 10:47 am

anan, that’s the dilemma with Ghandian tactics, you run the risk of total annihilation while you continually turn the other cheek, itself a provocative act. And Ghandi set out to provoke the British, that was his m.o.

I think that in the long run, RAWA will prove more effective than the more artificial constructs dependent on Western aid. You raise a good point on the dependence of international donors. That’s a whole other story, I could see the argument for this being a positive or negative. Renumerations from diaspora communities tend to be longer-lasting and more consistent than government monies, with a few exceptions (US aid to Israel and its neighbors), but can be politically motivated and harmful to the home country (Irish-Americans funding the IRA, Indian-American Hindu nationalists, Wahabi “charities”).

All that said, RAWA has shown that it can function amongst rural, arguably more traditional Afghans. But, being keeping Afghans alive, providing them with a basic education, and fixing their problems in the long-term are different issues. I’ve said it on here before, Afghanistan will never be fixed, in the way both realist and idealist Westerners are hoping for, as long as rural Afghanistan is allowed to remain Afghan: gerontocratic, paternalistic, communal, and misogynist. What you might end up with in the best case scenario is something like Pakistan, the Arab states, and the Southeastern US, threats to the world at large because they have never addressed their pathological social systems.

blah August 1, 2010 at 10:43 pm

No. We can’t all “agree on that.” We can barely protect the Arizona-Mexico Border. We should not expend our scarce and shrinking national security resources to eliminate evil in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

Michael Hancock August 1, 2010 at 11:32 pm

Protect the Arizona-Mexico Border, eh? Are we protecting ourselves from the Mexicans? This is a VERY DIFFERENT ISSUE, Anonymous Internet Troll. Please realize how STUPID it is to argue that we can somehow turn our military budget into Border Patrol/Immigration Budget. Even if your “we-support-you” soldiers come home, they’re still gonna get paid, they’re still gonna have that job. So why not, seriously, have them someplace where they can do some good (however limited it may be) in Afghanistan. Unless you want to militarize the border, at which point I’m sad they continue to teach bigots like you how to read and write. 14-year-old-daughter-of-coot, stop typing for this crazy person! You have nothing to lose but your chains! Rise up!

Michael Hancock August 1, 2010 at 11:27 pm

I took your argument to heart – Aid itself won’t stop the Taliban from throwing acid in girls’ faces. Some people must be re-educated more forcibly. But education is the way to the non-military-force-required future.

fakhrunissa August 5, 2010 at 9:07 am

Just wanted to remind you that to cut a woman’s nose and ears as punishment was definitely not introduced by the taliban, it cannot be described as taliban justice, it is a very old form of punishment in South Asia, including among Hindus. Dr Pennell wrote about it in his book “Among the Wild Tribes of the Afghan Frontier” published in 1912.
The fate of Afghan women was no better before the taliban. In the 1980s it was definitely not a priority for the West, it was considered as “Afghan culture” and everybody chose to ignore it.

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