Look. Then think
Bibi Aisha was on the cover of Time magazine last month, a young Afghan woman with no ears or nose; it is claimed that she was deliberately mutilated because of the Taliban (1). In Iran, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani has been flogged, and sentenced to death by stoning, for adultery. Forces opposed to the Tehran regime rally in response to a much-printed photograph of her face. These images provoke thought, but about what? Not the ferocity of Afghan Islamists: the Soviets had already experienced that before the western powers armed the fundamentalists (with the blessing of the media). And nothing about the nature of President Ahmadinejad’s regime that we did not already know – electoral rigging by his supporters and punishments, including death, for his opponents.
These images may not make us think. They may actually prevent us from thinking, by – intentionally or not – using a powerful symbol (a mutilation to be avenged, an execution to be averted) to promote dangerous strategic plans (continuing the war in Afghanistan, imposing sanctions on Iran). The more powerful the symbol, the less people will question the plan: the heart demands what the head might reject. Time claims that Bibi Aisha’s ordeal shows “what happens if we leave Afghanistan”. Yet it is clear from the 77,000 documents published by Wikileaks that the war waged by the western powers is a moral, political and military fiasco. It takes time to sift through thousands of pages of evidence; a sensational image has an immediate impact. But it is a photograph that fails to enlighten.
Advocates of the death penalty long justified their position by citing certain murder cases, preferably involving a child. CCTV cameras, routine drug tests, lengthy prison sentences, chemical castration for sex offenders: many measures that attack public freedoms – including that of freedom of movement without being monitored or recorded – have been adopted as a result of a sensational picture of a crime that the measure might have prevented. Of course, a “symbol” can also serve to support a just cause – think of Guernica or Abu Ghraib. But there is an inexhaustible supply of victims, and any impulse inspired exclusively by a symbolic image of this kind will inevitably give way to a surge of emotion in the opposite direction.
Will there be more mutilations “if we leave Afghanistan”? Well, “our” presence has not prevented the people of Afghanistan from being mutilated. The Taliban have plenty of pictures of civilians who have lost limbs or been killed by western missiles. Perhaps Time will publish one. Will it make the front cover? And what caption will it carry?
Translated by Barbara Wilson
(1) As an American journalist who knows Bibi Aisha explained, it was actually her father-in-law who disfigured her in revenge for an affront to his “honour”; the village elders approved later. See Ann Jones, “Afghan Women Have Already Been Abandoned”, Thenation.com, 12 August 2010.