The controversial Time magazine
cover featuring a badly disfigured 18-year-old Afghan woman, Bibi Aisha, raises
questions about using visual images to arouse emotions and shore up support for an increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan.
Despite the shock value and the odd coincidence of appearing immediately after Wikileaks exposed the Afghan war documents, I am delighted that Time
magazine is broadening the discussion from the all-too-common "surge or
withdrawal" frame to posing an expansive question with "What happens
when we leave Afghanistan?"
Now, thanks to Time magazine (and Wikileaks),
we have more wiggle room in the Afghanistan debate. So I'd like to add
to the discussion. Is Bibi Aisha a saint or sinful for her actions?
Gondek, Adjunct Professor at Columbia University, who teaches courses
on ethics, has observed, "It would be gratifying if our children,
parents, spouses, friends, and even enemies never did anything
embarrassing or shameful to us. Yet they do. Unfortunately,
people tend to think more about how things appear in the eyes of
others, than about how things really are, in their own intentions."
judgments also depends on your cultural lens and the country you are
acculturated in. In a collective society, like Afghanistan, it is
difficult to maintain one's honor given that a close relative or kin who
acts in a way that makes one "looks bad" can actually brings shame for
the entire clan. In Afghanistan, women are considered a source of pride
and one of the pillars in the core values of zan (women), zar (wealth), and zamin
(property)-all of which have the power to incite blood feuds. While
traditional Afghan customs elevate women's value and status in society,
the Taliban have convoluted tribal customs with their austere brand of
Islam-creating a culture of impunity and a violent cocktail for those
who is virtuous and who has committed vice is often difficult to judge.
Was Aisha's husband who cut off Aisha's ears and nose, upon the Taliban
commander's order, the one who acted morally by punishing his wife for
dishonor? Or was Aisha's initial escape from her abusive in-laws,
despite "violating" the Pashtunwali tribal code, acting justly by defending her universal human rights?
questions will need time for reflection. What is clear is that the
radical Taliban worldview poses a moral conundrum for the international
community that is united under shared values of freedom and equality.
The Taliban resents these values and has no tolerance for secular laws.
But for Bibi Aisha, a victim
of barbarism, there is light at the end of the tunnel. This past
weekend, thanks to the Grossman Burn Foundation, Aisha arrived in Los
Angeles to undergo reconstructive surgery. While the global conflict
between modernity, tradition, and the uncivilized continues to be waged
in Afghanistan, Aisha's will to survive, after being disfigured and
abandoned for death, has resulted in a second chance to live an
With thousands of Afghan already victims of domestic
abuse and millions vulnerable to a similar fate, we have no choice but
to empower Afghan civil society and stabilize the region before any
retreat from Afghanistan is possible.
Story updated 8/11/10 with correction to quote.