I have been stewing over the implications of TIME’s decision to run the face of a mutilated Afghani woman on the cover of the magazine to raise awareness about women’s rights in Afghanistan. Many have applauded TIME’s decision to do this calling it courageous and effective, all while recognizing this is also a cheap plea for magazine sales. I am taking issue specifically with the use of the image on the cover, not the article itself which was not available online in its entirety (but trust I will steal my dad’s copy of TIME asap). My inquiry is two fold: first, the assumption that military presence in Afghanistan has made women’s rights better is a complicated one that shouldn’t be taken for granted and the second is, using the faces and bodies of women to make a generalization is objectifying. It is rare that women’s bodies have been used to understand their voices, especially when discussing the “other.” Instead they are often used to create mystique and reify colonial fantasy.
Women’s bodies have consistently been used to justify military aggression in Afghanistan. Back in October of 2009 I quoted Just Advocacy, by Wendy Hesford and Wendy Kozol discussing the political impetus for the US using women’s bodies to justify military aggression.
Both the events of 9/11 and the subsequest use of women’s rights violations to sell the Bush administration’s war on terrorism in the weeks following 9/11 (Smith) renewed interest in the anonymous Afghan girl depicted on the 1985 cover. In her radio address to the nation on November 17, 2001, Laura Bush claimed that, “the brutal oppression of the women is a central goals of the terrorists….Civilized people throughout the world are speaking out in horror–not only because our hearts break for the women and children of Afghanistan, but also because in Afghanistan, we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us…I hope Americans will join our family in working to insure that dignity and opportunity will be secure for all the women and children of Afghanistan.
In the same post I talk about Michele Goldberg’s stance that there is a feminist potential for military presence in Afghanistan. I am not a war or military expert, but I am a transnational feminist and ardently believe that militarism in its essence is antithetical to feminism. It is very difficult to have one with the other, since militarism is predicated on the belief that masculinity and violence are effective solutions and bring peace. It is a fine line to walk between a theoretical belief system and solutions that work, but who sets the agenda is at the core of all social change and in this case, it should and must be Afghani women. While that is almost impossible to imagine, our efforts should push us in that direction. And what the women of Afghanistan themselves want is fractured, diverse and multifaceted. Recognizing that, it is hard for me to really see TIME’s motive to be raising awareness about the necessity to keep troops in Afghanistan. The US military was in Afghanistan when this atrocity occurred, along with so many other atrocities against women.
And why a woman’s body or a face? When we talk about “women of the world,” and the impact they experience with sexism and other forms of oppression, there is an explicit focus on what they look like, as opposed to what they are saying, what they are organizing around or what their demands might be. Their oppression is always reduced to a physical harm done to them, out of context, our fixation being on what they look like or how barbaric the act itself was. As though the worst harm to be done to a woman is alter her physical appearance. This is in no way to minimize the brutal impact of patriarchy felt on the bodies of women in Afghanistan, but to put it in context with the other oppressions they face such as access to education, medicine, religious gatherings, marriage laws, child marriage, divorce laws, domestic violence and the list goes on. Using one image to generalize an experience and therefore a solution doesn’t end up being as effective as we want it to be. If anything it furthers the idea that Afghani women are “others,” living in a prehistoric time where people do barbaric things to them.
Abuse of women, physical and psychological is a global fact. I don’t write this saying I have a solution since atrocities against Afghani women are deplorable and it has yet to be seen if we can support the women of Afghanistan the way we would want to or would be the most effective. But I do take issue with the consistent practice in Western media to use women’s bodies to prove a point, because it creates a fantasy about what our motives are, obscuring the politics that are at play. This is a hard position to hold, because at the same time, I agree with Williams at Salon that pictures and video are a fundamental part of investigative journalism and are needed to uncover atrocities, to bring the awareness of the world and frankly, we are just moving to being more of a visual culture. But there is a specific history of using women’s bodies in the service of a “feminist” vision rooted in colonialism, fantasy and objectification and we would be remiss to ignore this detail.
It is not by highlighting how different we are that we will begin to understand and deal with the oppressive ways the Taliban is abusing women’s rights. It is through recognizing the similarity in our experiences and not looking at them as though they are in the “wild”, only to be on the cover of our magazines, never at the table negotiating their own destinies.