I have resisted being pulled into the discussion of the TIME magazine cover featuring an Afghan woman who has been mutilated with the shocking headline “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan” but some recent “progressive” email list discussions really hit a nerve for me. TIME, along with many “humanitarian hawks,” as one person has described them, used this image to argue that American military action in Afghanistan is the only right course to protect Afghan women. “After all, look at that poor woman – how could we ever think of leaving?” is the response this cover is designed to generate.

But what’s the real story?

First, it’s worthwhile noting that contrary to what TIME’s editor claimed, the New York Times reports that the woman in the photo, Bibi Aisha, “had never heard of Time magazine until a visitor brought her a copy of this week’s issue, the one with the cover picture of her face, the face with no nose.”

Her response when told of the uproar her photo has generated:

“I don’t know if it will help other women or not,” she said, her hand going instinctively to cover the hole in the middle of her face, as it does whenever strangers look directly at her. “I just want to get my nose back.”

TIME’s editorial piece attempted to also undercut the value of the Wikileaks release, saying of their cover:

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.

An interesting argument given that France 24 reports that:

A less publicised leak by the same website in March 2010 exposed a confidential CIA document urging the use of abused Afghan women to shore up support for the war.

“Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanising the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] role in combating the Taliban because of women’s ability to speak personally and credibly about their experiences under the Taliban, their aspirations for the future, and their fears for a Taliban victory,” read the memo.  . . .

The Wikileaks release of that CIA file is available here.

We also have to ask if TIME really did consider the consequences? Not only do I wonder whether Aisha really wanted her face exposed in this way, but an aid worker accompanying Aisha to the US for reconstructive surgery noted:

“Her 10-year-old sister is still there and we have no idea how she is,” she said. “They’re probably taking all of their anger out on her now, or even demanding another girl from her family to replace Aisha.”

The cover and resulting controversy has again led to claims that US military action in Afghanistan is somehow motivated by a concern for Afghan women’s rights yet the same people – on the left as much as on the right – who make this claim, rarely if ever bother to look at the impact of US military actions on Afghan women or to consider the concerns of genuine Afghan women’s rights activists themselves. While a small number of privileged women in Kabul have perhaps gained some freedoms since the invasion (and are favored interviewees of American media), the majority of Afghan women face the same conditions as in the past but with the added threats of US and NATO air strikes and night raids.

As one writer noted in an email today, given that Bibi Aisha’s maiming occurred while US troops were in Afghanistan and the Taliban are not running the country, how does her situation argue that our war and occupation make her safer?

And if these same concerned folks looked to the women of RAWA, women who have been fighting and dying for women’s rights in Afghanistan from before this new “humanitarian hawkishness,” they would learn that the American occupation has not only added danger but has solidified the power of anti-woman warlords through our alliances with these criminals. As RAWA said on International Woman’s Day this year:

Though we don’t expect anything different from the most corrupt and dirty puppet regime of the world, the pain of Afghan women turns chronic when the world believes that the US and NATO has donated liberation, democracy and human and women rights for Afghanistan; whereas, after eight years of the US and allies’ aggression under the banner of “war on terror”, they empowered the most brutal terrorists of the Northern Alliance and the former Russian puppets – the Khalqis and Parchamis – and by relying on them, the US imposed a puppet government on Afghan people. And instead of uprooting its Taliban and Al-Qaeda creations, the US and NATO continues to kill our innocent and poor civilians, mostly women and children, in their vicious air raids…

Or this from Malalai Joya:

In an interview with FRANCE 24, she criticised TIME’s cover as another “false slogan” to justify the war and argued that brutal crimes against women have actually been on the rise during the nine years of US occupation.

“During the Taliban’s regime such atrocities weren’t as rife as it is now and the graph is hiking each day. Eighteen-year-old Aisha is just an example and cutting ears, noses and toes, torturing and even slaughtering is a norm in Afghanistan,” Joya said…

Malalai Joya said she would be “very happy” to see foreign troops leave. “Currently, Afghan people especially women are squashed between three enemies: Taliban, fundamentalist warlords and troops. If the foreign enemy leaves the Afghan grounds my people would face two internal enemies.

“The US used the plight of Afghan women as an excuse to occupy Afghanistan in 2001 by filling television screens, Internet pages and newspapers with pictures of women being shot down or beaten up in public. Once again, it is moulding the oppression on women into a propaganda tool to gain support and staining their hands with ever-deepening treason against Afghan women,” Joya added.

Of course, just as in Iraq and so many other places, we westerners know so much better than these authentic womens’ leaders do — and by god, we plan to liberate them even if it kills them.



Siun is a proud Old Town resident who shares her home with two cats and a Great Pyrenees. She’s worked in media relations and on the net since before the www, led the development of a corporate responsibility news service, and knows what a mult box is thanks to Nico. When not swimming in the Lake, she leads a team working on sustainability tools.

Email: media dot firedoglake at gmail dot com