I know Bibi Aisha, the young Afghan woman pictured on the August 9 cover of Time, and I rejoice that her mutilated nose and ears are going to be surgically repaired. But the logic of those who use Aisha’s story to convince us that the US military must stay in Afghanistan escapes me. Even Aisha has already left for America.
I realize that last remark has no logical basis, but then neither does the Time cover line "What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan" beside a shocking photo depicting what happened (to this woman) after we had already stayed for eight years. I heard Aisha’s story from her a few weeks before the image of her face was displayed all over the world. She told me that her father-in-law caught up with her after she ran away, and took a knife to her on his own; village elders later approved, but the Taliban didn’t figure at all in this account. The Time story, however, attributes Aisha’s mutilation to a husband under orders of a Talib commander, thereby transforming a personal story, similar to those of countless women in Afghanistan today, into a portent of things to come for all women if the Taliban return to power. Profoundly traumatized, Aisha might well muddle her story, but what excuses reporters who seem to inflate the role of the Taliban with every repetition of the case? Some reports have Aisha "sentenced" by a whole Taliban "jirga."
The Taliban do terrible things. Yet the problem with demonizing them is that it diverts attention away from other, equally unpleasant and threatening facts. Let’s not make the common mistake of thinking that the devil we see is the only one.
Consider the creeping Talibanization of Afghan life under the Karzai government. Restrictions on women’s freedom of movement, access to work and rights within the family have steadily tightened as the result of a confluence of factors, including the neglect of legal and judicial reform and the obligations of international human rights conventions; legislation typified by the infamous Shia Personal Status Law (SPSL), gazetted in 2009 by President Karzai himself despite women’s protests and international furor; intimidation; and violence. Women legislators told the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) last year that they have come to fear the fundamentalist warlords who control the Parliament. One said, "Most of the time women don’t dare even say a word about sensitive Islamic issues, because they are afraid of being labeled as blasphemous." (Blasphemy is a capital offense.) Women journalists also told UNAMA that they "refrain from criticizing warlords and other power brokers, or covering topics that are deemed contentious such as women’s rights." A series of assassinations of prominent women, beginning in 2005, have driven many women from work and public life. Women working in women’s organizations in Kabul regularly receive threatening letters and, recently, high-tech videos on their mobile phones showing women being raped.