What Can Happen in a War

By Andrea Woo for The Vancouver Sun

She looks back from the cover with an inscrutable gaze, her dark eyes intensified by the black hair that spirals out in thick curls from under her patterned purple head scarf. Her top is red and sequined; her mouth expressionless and slightly agape.

Where 18-year-old Aisha’s nose should be, however, is a hole: After attempting to flee abusive family members in Afghanistan, a Taliban commander sentenced Aisha to have her nose and ears cut off.

The powerful portrait is the front cover of the Aug. 9 Time magazine, accompanied by a story titled, “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan.” In it, author Aryn Baker argues that the withdrawal of the U.S. military and its allies could result in a revival of the Taliban at a devastating cost to the nation’s women.

Christopher Schneider, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of B.C. whose research includes media studies, said the image is an obvious — and effective — attempt to garner attention.

“Things like sex and violence, our culture is so saturated with these kinds of images and symbols that people have become somewhat accustomed to them,” Schneider said.

“Something like this would probably tend to capture people’s perspectives or views in a way that, say, scantily clad woman on the cover of Time magazine might.” Photographer Jodi Bieber said in a video posted on the magazine’s website that Aisha’s beauty struck her.

“I said to her, ‘You know, you are really such a beautiful woman, and I could never understand or know how you’re feeling by having your nose and ears cut off,'” Bieber said.

“‘But what I can do is show you as beautiful in this photograph.’ I could have made a photograph with her looking or being portrayed more as the victim, and I thought, ‘No. This woman is beautiful.'”

In an accompanying editorial, managing editor Richard Stengel defended the image selection, saying he thought “long and hard” about whether to use it for the cover. “Bad things do happen to people, and it is part of our job to confront and explain them,” he wrote.

“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.”

Donald Gutstein, an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University’s school of communications, whose research includes media analysis, said the image is unquestionably powerful, but its message misleading.

“It says that if Canada and the U.S. leave Afghanistan, this [mutilation] will be happening all over the place,” Gutstein said. “However, it happened while the U.S. and Canada were there, so what does that really tell us?”

Aisha is now in a secret women’s shelter in Kabul and is protected by armed guards, Stengel noted in his editorial. She will soon head to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery sponsored by the Grossman Burn Foundation.

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    • saleena thakuri
    • December 2nd, 2010

    i’m really glad about the worl you have done Jodi beiber maam hats off to you and i sincerly respect you for the work you do and leading aisha in the front cover magazine is like awesome she is simply beautiful no doubt about it but people can be reallly harsh at times and i personally feel really sad seeing at the habits of few people in their countries why are women’s so dominated and why are we only the one to suffer? but i’m really glad i appreciate you alot maam your my idol and ii learn thing from you.
    love salina

    • Carlos Torres
    • May 11th, 2011

    Wow. That’s intense.

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