Is Aisha the new Sharbat Gula?

Above are two covers from two US magazines. One is from 2010, and the other is from 1985. Both depict an Afghanistani girl as a victim.

The one from the National Geographic magazine depicts Sharbat Gula, her fiercely green eyes staring out from the cover. The piercing gaze puts the onlooker in a primitive state - we are left to fumble around and try to tear away our gaze, as her eyes peer in and search us. With her powerful eyes alone, Gula captured the world's attention and highlighted the plight of the Afghans under the Soviet invasion.

The recent cover from Time magazine depicts Aisha, an eighteen year old girl who ran away from her in-laws, but was captured and sentenced to having her nose and ears cut off by the Taliban. In contrast to Gula, her facial expression is soft and her eyes are set in and calm. But it is the gaping hole, where her nose should be, which makes this photograph so unsettling and controversial.

Both of these covers create strange echoes in history. They resonate off from the West's strange relationship with Afghanistan.

On one hand, Gula is used as a face to define all which was wrong with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Her eyes are used as a means to convey to us an anti-war rhetoric: the Soviet invasion has rendered Afghanistan "war-torn" and innocent Afghan women like Gula are victims of such an invasion.

Aisha, on the other hand, is used this time to promote a different perspective. This time the glaring words on the cover declare that this is how Afghan women will be treated (brutally abused, like Aisha) if US troops leave Afghanistan. This time, military invasion is portrayed in a positive light. The Afghan woman (Aisha) is not a victim of war, but rather a survivor of a previous repressive regime, and if the US backs out of Afghanistan, then women like Aisha will be left defenseless and vulnerable.

What I find most interesting about these two covers is the sharp shift in the message promoted: from anti-war to pro-war.

Now, of course, 'pro-war' and 'anti-war' are strong phrases to be used, but it cannot be denied that the clear underlying message under both of these articles is among those lines. And this is not necessarily done from a humanitarian point of view, but rather on which country is leading the invasion.

The cover of Gula was used to portray the cruelty of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and how women like her were caught between this clash of ideologies. It depicted how the Soviet Union's constant charge to spread it's ideology had left Afghanistan war-torn and women like Gula as refugees. In fact, the Cold War rhetoric at that time was so paranoid that Gula and the story of Afghanistan went on to define the Soviet Union itself as an evil ideology which had violated the lives of so many innocent people in it's pursuit of power.

Now here we have Aisha. After nine years of a futile, failing war and thousands of civilian deaths (either from direct military action, or as an indirect result of the displacement of the population and little availability of resources), the message that Time is presenting to us is that the US invasion has freed women in Afghanistan.

It is interesting to see how the media mutates itself to define the US's ideology during a certain time period. In the Cold War era, the Soviet Union was defined as an oppressive regime by the US media. Hence the Soviet invasion was portrayed as repressive and wrong. Today, it is the US which has invaded Afghanistan, hence the representation is that the invasion has helped the population of Afghanistan, and it is righteous.

Both invasions (the Soviet and US) have left thousands of civilians dead. Both invasions have created many more refugees and torn the country apart. Yet, the depiction in the media mutates to represent each in a different light.

What is worrisome is how pictures like that of Gula and Aisha take away from the complexity and the cruelty of any war. The suffering of the population is beyond the scope of anything an image can represent.

That is not to say that journalists should simply not cover war, or should take very graphic images from ground-zero of a war. The point is that the simple portraits of Gula and Aisha turn everything about the wars into a black-and-white representation.

It is too simplistic, made all the more simpler by the words imposed on their pictures. At the end of the day, Gula and Aisha are simply left as empty easels for the benefit of the accompanying article and the opinion of the journalist/magazine/country to exploit. Their faces are used to launch a thousand opinions on how a war is either wrong or right. The incredible suffering which they have gone through in their lives; the collective experience of a country's population under a war is not represented. In the end, photographs such as these shock us, and incite debate, yet in the end they are used simply as portrayals of ideologies. We do feel sorry for such victims, and vie to look for some solutions, yet the audience of such photographs is detached from the true horrors of their lives. While we are expressing our opinions, we cannot even begin to comprehend the experiences such victims have been through. We are simply manipulated to get emotional over things the journalist/magazine wants us to get emotional about.

As for what the headline on the cover of Time is implying: it is not right to say - in such simplistic terms - that military intervention brings freedom to women. War is war. The US invasion has led to thousands of civilian deaths, many of them innocent women and children. War tears a country apart, and it is very hard to heal from it. Since the US invasion, Afghanistan has slipped into chaos and societal structures have collapsed, making it hard to access many basic amenities.

It cannot be denied that repressive regimes such as the Taliban have aimed much cruelty at women in Afghanistan. I am not arguing that the Taliban should remain, or that their hold on Afghanistan is too strong to overcome (even though many Western leaders involved in the war are comprehending this), but thinking that diminishing the Taliban's hold in Afghanistan via military force will result in a freed society is both simplistic and ignorant.

What is at work in Afghanistan is deep cultural practices and societal structures which are very hard to break, and these result in such tragic cases such as Aisha's. Yes it is true that a local member of the Taliban issued the orders for Aisha to be punished and made an example of, but who executed this punishment? Her own husband and her brother-in-law. Who had cruelly beaten Aisha and treated her like a slave, before she had run away? Her in-laws. And none of her in-laws were members of the Taliban.

Thinking that military intervention can somehow uproot such practices is incorrect. What is more, violence against woman manifests its ugly head in all societies, not just Afghanistan. What about DR Congo? How many women there are brutally gang raped and killed? What about India? Little girls in rural areas are also sold away as slaves and treated terribly by their in-laws. Even the Western world has its share of domestic violence. Should we deploy military forces in all these countries, since women all over are treated badly?

If Time had to use Aisha on their cover, what would have been an intelligent thing to do would be to increase awareness of violence against women, and indeed the plight of the Afghan people in a war-torn country. Rather than using this as a means to justify a failing war, they should have highlighted the dire humanitarian need in the country. 

Humanitarian aid and proper investigation into the root causes of these problems is needed. Then only we have hope to overcome such issues.

For the time being, stop using Afghan women as mascots to perpetuate your own ideologies. Or worse: to sell more magazine copies.

Relevant links:

  • Story of Sharbat Gula from National Geographic Magazine, when the photographer Steve McCurry went back to Afghanistan and found her (April 2002). [link]
  • Time magazine's article discussing the photograph of Aisha and the possible impact on the audience (July 29 2010). [link]
  • Afghan Women Fear Their Fate Amid Taliban Negotiations, cover article by Richard Stengel from Time magazine (July 29 2010). [link]
  • Entry by Adam Curtis discussing The Helmand Project - a failed attempt to create an idealist modern American suburb in Afghanistan. (October 13 2009) [link]
  • Beautiful Women Used to Obscure the Horrors of War, article in Alternet, discussing how Aisha's picture depicts the war as something exotic, rather than depicting the horrors of war. (August 8 2010) [link]
  • Honoring Women, article in Illume, highlighting to need for Muslims to address the issue of violence against women from the root cause. (August 11 2010) [link]


  1. I definitely like your blog and your works.

    Maxime Bessac

  2. Well written and made me think! :)

  3. Well written, well said! As an Iraqi woman, i know very well what war means. War tears families apart, turns a brother against a brother, allows extremism to grow because then it will be easier to distract the people from what is really happening in politics or with the country's resources, innocents get killed, girls kidnapped and rapped...
    War is not a charity... you don't send thousands of troops because you are keen on the country's freedom! You send them and you risk your soldiers live because there is a bigger “political/economic profit”.

    I would like to know what Americans got after Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Soldiers were killed, and then? The country has more oil reserve, and then? of course Vietnam now lays in poverty and let us not talk about Afghanistan because it’s hopeless, and Iraq is drowned in complete chaos!

    we have no value (women or men), but money does, and this why we are at war!

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful input. I agree, war brings so much chaos and poverty to the country which is being invaded. There is nothing charitable about it. And it's disgusting to portray it as so.

  4. Exceptionally well written and very thought provoking. I'm glad to have clicked on this link.