The Afghan Girl 2.0
This is my 690th or so post on iconic photos, and as you might notice, most of my posts are about photos taken before the last two decades. Living in an increasingly desensitized society under a 24/7 news circle, we see a lot of images, and clips. Yet, when I saw this week’s Time magazine cover, I literally stopped walking and quipped, “Wow! This is iconic.” Personally speaking I haven’t seen a photo this shocking and powerful, so enticing yet so hard to look, in past few years.
It is a portrait of Aisha, an 18-year-old Afghani girl, taken by Jodi Bieber. Aisha was sentenced by a Taliban commander to have her nose and ears cut off for fleeing her abusive in-laws. In an editorial, Time’s managing editor Richard Stengel defends his use of the haunting image as the magazine’s cover:
I thought long and hard about whether to put this image on the cover of TIME. First, I wanted to make sure of Aisha’s safety and that she understood what it would mean to be on the cover. She knows that she will become a symbol of the price Afghan women have had to pay for the repressive ideology of the Taliban…. bad things do happen to people, and it is part of our job to confront and explain them. In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening — and what can happen — in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban’s treatment of women than ignore it. 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…. 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.
It is highly reminiscent of the National Geographic’s cover “The Afghan Girl” 25 years ago. That Steve McCurry image brought home the Afghan conflict and the international refugee crisis. Aisha will also bring home a message probably more powerful than any number of leaked Army documents. However, unlike the National Geographic cover (which was accompanied by pretty-much neutral title, Along Afghanistan’s Border), Time’s cover has the title “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.” I think this subtext ruins the mood of the photo, since it implied that the tragedies like Aisha’s will ensue/multiply if the U.S. leave Afghanistan. In fact, that is precisely the crux of the article inside: that the rights of Afghan women would be destroyed by a potential settlement between the U.S. and the Taliban.
However, the article largely ignores that the fact that the treatment of Afghan women has not improved a lot despite increasing number of women in the legislature and rhetoric promising increased rights. Fundamentalist judiciary and radicalization of a war-torn population was palpable and in 2009 President Hamid Karzai signed a bill that was seen as legalization of rape against women.