The powerful image that appeared on the cover of the recent issue of Time Magazine in one sense represents the terrible problem of global violence against women, sanctioned by a hodgepodge of tribal customs, religious misinterpretation and government-sponsored terror campaigns against citizen populations. But the image is just part of a cover story, accompanied by its own question: “What happens if we leave Afghanistan?”
Photograph by Jodi Bieber / INSTITUTE for TIME
Anticipating a reaction, managing editor Richard Stengel wrote: “Our cover image this week is powerful, shocking and disturbing. It is a portrait of Aisha, a shy 18-year-old Afghan woman who was sentenced by a Taliban commander to have her nose and ears cut off for fleeing her abusive in-laws. Aisha posed for the picture and says she wants the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan, many of whom have flourished in the past few years. Her picture is accompanied by a powerful story by our own Aryn Baker on how Afghan women have embraced the freedoms that have come from the defeat of the Taliban — and how they fear a Taliban revival.”
Stengel goes on to acknowledge the disturbing effect the image might have on children and to detail the elaborate security measures taken on behalf of Aisha, who also faces the promise of reconstructive surgery in the United States. And then he makes this statement: “I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.”
In the final paragraph, he makes reference to the Wikileaks report on the progress (or lack) of the war. Stengel insists the story is not a corrective to those reports; “We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground.”
He concludes, however, by noting that, “What you see in these pictures and our story is something that you cannot find in those 91,000 documents: a combination of emotional truth and insight into the way life is lived in that difficult land and the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead.”
Emotional truth: the phrase has the same effect on me as “the real story”; it’s often a disingenuous way of skewing the story and pulling the reader/viewer to one side. Maybe that’s what all good storytelling does; certainly it’s what an opinion piece does, but then why the disclaimer?
Most of us realize that the Taliban represents a local cultural interpretation of a religious way of life that is obscenely oppressive to women. We also know this sort of interpretation allows many cultures to subjugate its women, a fact that compels my involvement with organizations such as Women for Women. Yes, there could be dire consequences for women and for all citizens if the Taliban were to return to power.
But the picture, coupled with the question that is really a statement in disguise (“this WILL happen after we leave Afghanistan) is designed to shock and, I think, to manipulate. The implication is that we readers will have allowed these sorts of horrific mutilations to continue should the U.S. withdraw. I appreciate that the author at least addresses the difficulties in getting the government to speak out forcefully against these crimes committed against its own citizens. Afghanistan President Karzai seems to believe that negotiation with the Taliban is his only option, and that he finds himself in an either/or situation, whereby he must sacrifice the rights of girls to attend school in order to save lives. His government could do both if it had the will to shake off the corruption and commit resources to building a strong army along with a strong infrastructure. But it doesn't and we've left U.S. troops to engage in simultaneous efforts of changing local hearts and minds (and customs) while maintaining a highly visible and active military presence.
History is supposed to have taught us that trying to counter a persistant homegrown insurgency that combines tribal instincts with modern weaponry is something of a fool's errand. That doesn't mean that we don't remain fully commmitted to human rights around the world, only to recognize the limits of military intervention.
Maybe the editors of Time were sincerely trying to present another view of the conflict in Afghanistan; maybe they were trying to shock or guilt readers into considering the consequences of a hasty peace; or maybe they were engaged in a bit of sensationalism, not to mention competition with Wikileaks’ domination of the news cycle over the past week.
So no, there's nothing wrong with the image, which says everything about the horrific abuses women suffer every day in the name of custom or tradition or religion. But in assessing the cover as a whole, we might remember when presented with claims of emotional truth: there's never just one.