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Does violence against women in Afghanistan reframe the war?

A Time cover forces us to confront difficult questions

By Nemat Sadat Aug 09 2010, 01:29 AM

Credit: Time

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?

Adela 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."  

Making value 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 they punish.

But 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?

These ethical 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 honorable life.

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.

Read More: Defense And Homeland Security, Afghanistan, Diplomacy, Foreign Aid, Hot Issues


Francisco Eduardo Ordóñez
August 9, 2010 2:31 AM

Well which war. The structure of the society in Afghanistan support those acts . An ancient nation where things just went wrong at some point. =S

August 9, 2010 2:35 AM

You raise some critical questions, Mr. Sadat. How far can one step on cultural and traditional values in defense of human rights is an issue that needs tremendous debate in the Afghan context. In my view, the civil society needs to come to clear understanding on this issue. Hundreds of women commit acts of self-immolation every year because this line is not clear: how much can they really suffer before they can stand up. From my gathering,unfortunately, it seems like many women take death over dishonor or divorce.This is a sad scenario that needs to be reversed. And for that, a clear understanding, and then a broad public awareness campaign is needed.

Nemat Sadat
August 9, 2010 10:09 AM

Francisco: I guess to be precise, the heading should be "war on terror" or Operation Enduring Freedom. But I'm sure the readers will know they mean the post 9/11 war in Afghanistan. Its not so much the structure, but a lack thereof that is the problem. Mr. Mashal: Your comment is inspiring me to write my next Op-Ed piece. Thank you.

Omar Khaliqy
August 9, 2010 11:19 AM

It's so complicated... I try not to think abt it :)

Ahmad Sayed
August 9, 2010 11:43 AM

Dear Sadat I do not see any voilence against women in our country bt very miner situations can be found in those area where the ppl does not has enough Knowledge about our holy book Quran and Sunah and we need to show them the way of the sunah and not inviting the foreign NGOs, instead we are the witness that most violence occuring in America and EU countries due to their fake democracy. The most unexpected and unethical violence against women is using them and selling them in TV commercials, making and show them in porn and other examples we have around, indeed now it's our duty to try your level best to show them the right path because your living there and you have the ability. In addition we have right respects to our women the example is the Hejab which is cover the value of women. Now it's our obligation to study our religion and seek to teach and invite others. good luck bro

John Saunders
August 9, 2010 12:13 PM

Yes, right you are Mr. Sedat in regards to your clear lenses observation about making sure that the Afghanistan society itself is stable before talking about any withdrawal. We realized that in Iraq and we are still there. To help a nation stabilize is no easy feat. But our honest steps towards that goal will be recorded in history for ions to come.

John Saunders
August 9, 2010 12:13 PM

Yes, right you are Mr. Sedat in regards to your clear lenses observation about making sure that the Afghanistan society itself is stable before talking about any withdrawal. We realized that in Iraq and we are still there. To help a nation stabilize is no easy feat. But our honest steps towards that goal will be recorded in history for ions to come.

Waleed Maiwand
August 9, 2010 12:33 PM

I think the existence of such factions as the Taliban in Afghanistan will not only exacerbate violence against (zan) women but condone it. The Afghan zan deserves mutual respect and equality. It is true that the Taliban resent the values of international human rights and not tolerate any secular laws. Their fanatic religious beliefs will only perpetuate similar acts of barbarism. The photo on cover of Time magazine is disheartening.

Waleed Maiwand
August 9, 2010 12:45 PM


Lara Castroverde
August 9, 2010 1:24 PM

All wars are wars against women. And children. What Bibi Aisha tells us is that we need to exhaustively explore the roots of religious views, the political and historical development of repressive regimes like the Taliban, the US role in that history --- all, vis-a-vis the treatment of AFGHAN women. This is the same country that passed a law disallowing Shia Muslim women from saying no to their husbands on sexual intercourse, practically legalizing marital rape. At this time and age of learned connectivity, one laments how these events occur and unravel with such brute and speed.This is not just a reflection of Afghanistan but is a cruel depiction of the brutalizing forces of history, politics, and religion against our WOMEN. You are right, Nemat. Events like this one should increasingly catapult our collective responsibility to empower women and civil society against abuse and all other forms of global injustice.

Paiman Nasiri
August 9, 2010 3:51 PM

Nemat, this is a good piece, but it is not the fate of Afghans that US is concerned with. It is their own fate... or they had left long before. If you have looked through wikileaks, hundreds of incidents have occured, in which, thousands of women like AISHA become victims of air strikes of US and Alliance. Most of them not only disfigured, but left alone, helpless to death. I agree that the taliban are intolerant and unethical, but the way that the US army and alliance has approached this war is also very shameful and inhumane. In fact, one of the most obvious reasons behind increased insurgency in Afghanistan, in particular in the south, is attributed to the way the US has treated its population. Motive behind affiliation with the taliban, is in most cases Revenge, not that people in that region embrace the Talib ideology.

Nemat Sadat
August 13, 2010 12:57 PM

Paiman: You raise interesting arguments and I agree with what you say. But I think we are talking about two seperate issues here. I am questioning the ethics of individual human rights and you are talking about the conduct of humanitarian law in an armed conflict and US national security policy. When I raised the human rights question, using Bibi Aishi as a reference point I wanted to highlight the lack of fair jurisprudence and the absence of the rule of law in Afghanistan. Of course, the US and allied partners have in the process of carrying out the counter-insurgency injured or killed innocent civilians. And the western countries should be held accountable for altering their practices and offering equitable compensation where damages have been done. Only condemning US and allied partners becomes complicated especially when the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and their affiliates systematically use terrorism which intentionally kills many civilians.

Musqa Laiq-Asadyari
August 14, 2010 12:32 PM

Well, let me be the first woman to add my two cents. Nemat jan first of all great article. I enjoyed reading it. I am disappointed at the gentleman above who says he has not seen any violence against women in Afghanistan. That unfortunately is the sentiment of many in our nation including some women and this tells me just one thing that we have to accept the prejudice, abuse, and injustice against women and do not see the violence they have to encounter on a daily basis. In the name of value women are being used psychologically and physically tortured and god forbid if someone mentions anything about it, people automatically take it as an assault on Quran or Islam. And also the gentleman mentions that the high respect given to women is via Hejab which supposedly covers the values the value of women??!? I have no problem with women who choose to wear hejab but what exactly a piece of cloth that covers your body has anything to do with a person's values? My question to this gentleman is what constitutes good values for men in our society? Is it humanity that should dictate values or is it century old traditions?!?

Omar Khaliqy
August 15, 2010 2:18 PM

Wel said.. Cover urself in the name of Allah n do a million things wrng is nt in our religion.. be loyal to ur husband n kids, honesty Is very important no point in covering up n having a dirty heart, most Muslim women cover themselfs coz o...f the religion.. Most cover becoz their told to.. Others do it just to blind In with da rest of community esp in Muslim countries. Bk to the subject as long as I can remember thers been violence against women in afg.. Violence against them who cudnt stand up for themselves lack of education etc. But let's not forget there are many women in afg well educated n positive minded til today who have fought fought for their rites... Personally I disagree Dat women shud be violated n not be treated equally we r all humans n have d same rites

Gerardo P-b
August 15, 2010 5:40 PM

Playing devil's advocate I want to go into what you said about women having a choice to do porn or not. Do they really have a choice? Some do, but I'm sure that practically no one goes into prostitution for fun or as a career opportunity.

September 10, 2011 1:30 AM

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