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TIME’s Epic Distortion of the Plight of Women in Afghanistan
Posted by Derrick Crowe on July 31st, 2010

Tomorrow, TIME Magazine will treat newsstand customers everywhere to one of the most rank propaganda plays of the Afghanistan War. The cover features a woman, Aisha, whose face was mutilated by the Taliban, next to the headline, “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.” Far more people will see this image and have their emotions manipulated by it than will read the article within (which itself seems to be a journalistic travesty, if the web version is any indication), so TIME should be absolutely ashamed of themselves for such a dishonest snow job on their customers. Readers deserve better.

Let’s clarify something right off the top when it comes to this cover: Aisha, the poor woman depicted in the photograph, was attacked last year, with tens of thousands of U.S. troops tramping all over the country at the time. This isn’t the picture of some as-yet-unrealized nighmarish future for Afghan women. It’s the picture of the present.

Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) recently published report on this issue, The “Ten-Dollar Talib” and Women’s Rights, provides key context for the struggle for women’s political equality in Afghanistan:

Afghan women assert their rights in what is already a deeply hostile political environment. Any assessment of women’s rights, and indeed the prospects for long-term peace and reconciliation needs to be made in the context of the very traditional and often misogynistic male leadership that dominates Afghan politics. The Afghan government, often with the tacit approval of key foreign governments and inter-governmental bodies, has empowered current and former warlords, providing official positions to some and effective immunity from prosecution for serious crimes to the rest. Backroom deals with abusive commanders have created powerful factions in the government and Parliament that are opposed to many of the rights and freedoms that women now enjoy. As one activist told us, “We women don’t have guns and poppies and we are not warlords, therefore we are not in the decision-making processes.”

This is something that folks who put together TIME’s cover better understand right now: the fox is already in the hen-house. There is a very powerful set of anti-women’s-equality caucuses already nested within the Afghan government that the U.S. supports. These individuals and groups are working to reassert the official misogyny of the Taliban days already, independent of the reconciliation and reintegration process. Given the opportunity, these individuals and groups in the U.S.-backed government will manipulate the reconciliation and reintegration process and leverage armed-opposition-group participation in the process to push through policies they’d prefer already as compromises with their “opponents.” This is why the propaganda of TIME’s cover is so pernicious: the women of Afghanistan are caught in a vice already, stuck between their opponents in the insurgency and in the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. If one is concerned about the rights of women in Afghanistan, the question is, how do we give women the most leverage possible in this situation?

Further, TIME’s incendiary headline, “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan,” is a total misrepresentation of the issue discussed in the article. Here’s Aisha in her own words:

“They [the Taliban] are the people that did this to me,” she says, touching her damaged face. “How can we reconcile with them?”

Here’s another quote from another woman that gets at the issue much better than TIME’s headline:

“Women’s rights must not be the sacrifice by which peace is achieved,” says parliamentarian Fawzia Koofi.

And another quote:

“When we talk about women’s rights,” Jamalzadah says, “we are talking about things that are important to men as well — men who want to see Afghanistan move forward. If you sacrifice women to make peace, you are also sacrificing the men who support them and abandoning the country to the fundamentalists that caused all the problems in the first place.”

If we are to believe the setup on the cover and in the article, the women of Afghanistan see two options: the U.S. can “stay” and ensure the rights of women, or we can “leave” by route of selling them out. But that’s neither what the women’s quotes say nor what Human Rights Watch found when they interviewed 90 “working women and women in public life living in areas that the insurgents effectively controlled or where they have a significant presence to illustrate the current nature of the insurgency.” While they found an intense anxiety over the consequences of the Taliban regaining a share of national power, they also found that:

“All of the women interviewed for this report supported a negotiated end to the conflict.”

The quotes of the women in TIME’s article express anxiety about the Kabul government negotiated away women’s rights to warlord war criminals, not us “staying” or “leaving.” See what TIME did there? They’ve taken these quotes from Afghan women and manipulated them to portray a false dilemma.

TIME Magazine throws out this useless bromide: “For Afghanistan’s women, an early withdrawal of international forces could be disastrous.” Early compared to what? How can a pull-out almost a decade into a conflict be remotely described as “early?” Even if we build a shining utopia for women while U.S. troops were there in large numbers, women’s rights would evaporate the day after we departed if U.S. troops were the force holding them in place. That’s what Afghan Women’s Network’s Orzala Ashraf meant when she told Rethink Afghanistan that,

“I don’t believe and I don’t expect any outside power to come and liberate me. If I cannot liberate myself, no one from outside can liberate me.”

The struggle is the liberation as Afghan women discover and use their power. Grassroots involvement in social struggle is what creates societies rooted in democratic values, not men with guns from other countries.

Although you wouldn’t know it from TIME’s editorializing within the article or from the horrendously misleading cover, the issue is not even remotely “if” we leave Afghanistan. We will. The questions are “When?” and “How?”

When

U.S. forces could stay for another twenty years in Afghanistan (would that still be “early?”), and even if they pound Kandahar into dust, no development in the war so far even remotely suggests the possibility of military force eliminating the Taliban as a significant political and armed force. Therefore, the war’s end would still involve some sort of political settlement that involves Taliban (unless, of course, the U.S. wants to guarantee the most ferocious civil conflict possible upon their exit by totally excluding them). At the end of that twenty years, we’d be faced with the same problems regarding the rights of women in Afghanistan, plus the effects of those years of war on the U.S. force and the Afghan population.

TIME’s depiction of the women’s rights issue is based on a faulty premise: that “staying” rather than “leaving” is having the effect of weakening an insurgency hostile to women’s rights. In fact, if we are to believe the official reports from the Pentagon to Congress, the opposite is true. As the first several months of President Obama’s escalation strategy played out, the military reports claim the insurgency gained in strategic and political power in the key areas of Afghanistan. As those trends continue, the political difficulties for women in the eventual reconciliation and reintegration processes increase. Prolonging the massive U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan makes it more likely that the regressive elements in the Kabul government will achieve their agenda through “compromise” with powerful insurgent elements during the reconciliation/reintegration processes.

Some sort of reconciliation process is going to take place. When it comes to securing the rights of women in Afghanistan, all other things being equal, sooner is better.

How?

American policymakers, if they are truly interested in the rights of women beyond their use in sloganeering, are going to have to start playing a higher-level game than they are at present. When President Obama took 35 minutes to explain his rationales for his escalation strategy, he didn’t mention women’s political equality once. If they hope to assist the women of Afghanistan struggling for political equality, they need to understand the game and to start playing catch-up ball, pronto.

The most important work is to prepare the field before the negotiations begin. That means two things: getting women in, and keeping the worst of the worst out.

Two bodies will undertake the lion’s share of work on the peace process in Afghanistan: the High Level Peace Council and the Joint Secretariat for Peace, Reconciliation and Reintegration Programs. According to HRW’s report, key assurances have not been given that women would have a meaningful seat at the table in decision-making capacities. At the time of the report’s publication, the High Level Peace Council had not been appointed, but the Joint Secretariat was effectively functioning and no women were included. The extent to which Afghan women can succeed at inserting themselves into the various levels of this process will be a major determinant in the amount of leverage they’ll have to help them defend their rights as the new Afghanistan takes shape. Afghan women’s advocates have shown some adeptness at this sort of agitation: during the Consultative Peace Jirga, women were promised only 10 percent representation. Through intense agitation, they obtained 20 percent. U.S. policymakers who want to help women in Afghanistan have to figure out how best to support the effort of women to get into these decision-making bodies and exert real influence. The U.S. is a prime funder of the Afghan government. It’s time to figure out how to use that leverage for this purpose. That’s why Human Rights Watch makes this key recommendation:

Make women’s meaningful participation in relevant decision-making bodies a precondition for funding reintegration programs, and ensure that reintegration funds benefit families and communities, including women, rather than individual ex-combatants.

That brings us to the touchy subject of keeping the worst of the worst out. This is a touchy subject because the obstacles to getting this done have come into being due to the active and tacit support of the United States.

Let’s talk about just a couple of these obstacles: Hajji Mohammed Mohaqiq and his Amnesty Law.

Mohaqiq was one of the leaders of the notorious Hezb-e Wahdat, which in late 2001-early 2002 targeted Pashtun civilians for violence because of their ethnic ties to the Taliban. According to Human Rights Watch, Hezb-e Wahdat was:

implicated in systematic and widespread looting and violence in almost every province under their…control, almost all of it directed at Pashtun villagers. …[T]here were several reports of rapes of girls and women. In Chimtal district near Mazar-e Sharif, and in Balkh province generally, both Hizb-i Wahdat [alternative English rendering of Hezb-e Wahdat] and Jamiat forces were particularly violent: in one village, Bargah-e Afghani, Hizb-i Wahdat troops killed thirty-seven civilians.

Mohaqiq’s militia also became widely feared and loathed for their practice of kidnapping young girls, “forcibly marrying” them (what a useless euphemism for rape), and ransoming them back to their parents. They seemed to especially enjoy snatching girls who were on their way to school, leading many parents to keep their girls home rather than risk their abduction and rape.

Following the overthrow of the Taliban, Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq managed to get himself appointed as a vice chair of the interim government and as Minister of Planning. During the 2002 loya jirga that set the basic shape of the new government, Hezb-e Wahdat was named by Human Rights Watch as one of the groups that used threats and intimidation against other delegates. Through their use of these thuggish tactics, Mohaqiq’s militia helped corrupt a process which many hoped would lead to greater civilian control relative to the warlords, but which led instead to the warlords’ solidifying their power. Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, of course, retained his positions of power.

But here’s the real kicker: once legitimized, Mohaqiq was one of the masterminds of the widely condemned 2007 legislation that granted warlords amnesty for their war crimes during the civil war. The UN sharply condemned the amnesty law, declaring “No one has the right to forgive those responsible for human rights violations other than the victims themselves.” Thanks to outcry from the United Nations and human rights advocates (but pointedly, not from the U.S., UK, or the EU, who did not speak out against the law), the law was tabled.

But then came the absolutely corrupted 2009 election: Karzai promised to carve out a new province for Mohaqiq in exchange for his support in the election. Karzai “won,” and President Obama declared the government “legitimate.” Then, in January 2010, Karzai quietly slipped the Amnesty Law into effect, immunizing Mohaqiq for his crimes against women. Mohaqiq has since publicly decried Karzai’s moves toward negotiations with the Taliban, but even though he doesn’t support it, his handiwork is a malignant shaper of the process with regards to the rights of women.

Here’s HRW’s summary of the law:

The Amnesty Law states that all those who were engaged in armed conflict before the formation of Afghanistan’s Interim Administration in December 2001 shall “enjoy all their legal rights and shall not be prosecuted.” It also says that those engaged in current hostilities will be granted immunity if they agree to reconciliation with the government, effectively providing amnesty for future crimes. The law thus provides immunity from prosecution for members of the Taliban and other insurgent groups, as well as pro-government warlords, who have committed war crimes.

All through this process, the U.S. was either silent or supportive of these developments, and now the Amnesty Law stands as one of the threats most identified by Afghan women’s advocates to the progress of their political agenda during the reconciliation process. Those most dangerous to the women of Afghanistan–powerful fundamentalist warlords with a history of serious war crimes against women and girls–may find their way into influential negotiating positions where they can link up with their anti-women brethren already inside the Kabul government. The solution posited by Human Rights Watch and by women parliamentarians is to repeal the Amnesty Law and institute strong vetting processes that exclude the worst war criminals from the ballot or from political appointment while still allowing participation of their home tribes or groups. This solution goes hand in hand with that discovered last year by UK’s DFID to be preferred by those in insurgency-prone areas: a new “black list” standard for what crimes disqualify one from election or appointment, applied to everyone, including Taliban, other insurgents, or pro-Kabul-government figures.

As the reader can tell, the issue is far more complex than the farcical “stay or leave” choice framed up on TIME’s shameful propaganda cover art. The U.S.’s massive troop presence and the escalating instability is strengthening the hand of the political forces that want to roll back women’s political equality, so the longer we stay, the worse off women will be as they attempt to navigate the eventual political settlement of the conflict. Yet, U.S. inattention to (or outright malignant influence on) the factors shaping the field for that political struggle are affirmatively hurting the struggle for women’s political equality. We will leave the combat field, and we have to do it soon, and while we leave, we have to do our best to help shape a political field supportive of the Afghan women’s struggle to liberate themselves.

Pulling this off will require a deft hand, and it’s not clear whether the Kabul government or our own government, given the atrophied nature of the State Department, is up to the task. Given the vested interests who have a stake in the existence of the Amnesty Law, repealing it will be enormously difficult in Afghanistan’s political arena (and no one should let the U.S. off the hook for helping to shape this political environment through support for known warlords and war criminals). But what is clear is that using the rights of women as a justification for extending our massive U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan is a recipe for failure on this issue and for the betrayal and heartbreak of those who care about the fate of Afghan women.

Shorter version: TIME Magazine’ cover art is rank propaganda, and the current U.S. policy is failing women, badly.

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to “TIME’s Epic Distortion of the Plight of Women in Afghanistan”

  1. Masisje says:

    Thank you for this highly lucid, differentiated and enlightening article.

  2. [...] a comment August 5, 2010 Over on Ms. Magazine‘s blog, Rafia Zakaria takes issue with my response to TIME Magazine’s pro-war, propaganda cover art. Zakaria and I agree on the critical importance of getting women into real decision-making [...]

  3. [...] on Ms. Magazine’s blog, Rafia Zakaria takes issue with my response to TIME Magazine’s pro-war, propaganda cover art. Zakaria and I agree on the critical importance of getting women into real decision-making [...]

  4. [...] on Ms. Magazine’s blog, Rafia Zakaria takes issue with my response to TIME Magazine’s pro-war, propaganda cover art. Zakaria and I agree on the critical importance of getting women into real decision-making [...]

  5. [...] on Ms. Magazine‘s blog, Rafia Zakaria takes issue with my response to TIME Magazine’s pro-war, propaganda cover art. Zakaria and I agree on the critical importance of getting women into real decision-making [...]

  6. [...] controversial is the contentious cover, which, as Derrick Crowe argues over at Rethink Afghanistan, obscures the fact many Afghan women – including Aisha – continue [...]

  7. [...] article on women in Afghanistan (one of many good refutations of that article can be found on Rethink Afghanistan). But what is really interesting to me is that the Afghan Taliban apparently issued a press release [...]

  8. [...] When he brought up the outrageous TIME Magazine cover showing a woman’s mutilated face, Gregory failed to mention the attack happened last year and that TIME Magazine’s cover grossly distorts the choices before the United States. When [...]

  9. [...] When he brought up the outrageous TIME Magazine cover showing a woman’s mutilated face, Gregory failed to mention the attack happened last year and that TIME Magazine’s cover grossly distorts the choices before the United States. When [...]

  10. [...] When he brought up the outrageous TIME Magazine cover showing a woman’s mutilated face, Gregory failed to mention the attack happened last year and that TIME Magazine’s cover grossly distorts the choices before the United States. When [...]

  11. [...] months. When he brought up the outrageous TIME Magazine cover showing a woman's mutilated face, Gregory failed to mention the attack happened last year and that TIME Magazine's cover grossly distorts the choices before the United States. When [...]

  12. [...] months. When he brought up the outrageous TIME Magazine cover showing a woman's mutilated face, Gregory failed to mention the attack happened last year and that TIME Magazine's cover grossly distorts the choices before the United States. When Petraeus [...]

  13. [...] When he brought up the outrageous TIME Magazine cover showing a woman’s mutilated face, Gregory failed to mention the attack happened last year and that TIME Magazine’s cover grossly distorts the choices before the United States. When [...]

  14. [...] When he brought up the outrageous TIME Magazine cover showing a woman’s mutilated face, Gregory failed to mention the attack happened last year and that TIME Magazine’s cover grossly distorts the choices before the United States. When [...]

  15. [...] When he brought up the outrageous TIME Magazine cover showing a woman’s mutilated face, Gregory failed to mention the attack happened last year and that TIME Magazine’s cover grossly distorts the choices before the United States. When [...]

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