Afghanistan and the war of pictures: the case of ‘ethical’ suffering?


When I checked the news today, the horrific picture– selected by Time as a front-cover–of Aisha’s face, an 18-year-old Afghan woman whom was sentenced by the Taliban to have her nose and ears cut off for fleeing her abusive in-laws greeted me. International newspapers reported the news and the picture is now one of those icons of Afghanistan, which, interestingly enough, are often released in an apparent attempt to provide an ethical dimension to a war (particularly after Wikileaks leaked the massive documentation on the Afghan war) which is increasingly difficult to justify. Indeed, I am sure that many will remember the National Geographic split cover image that contained two photos of Sharbat Gula, the first having been taken at the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the second at the end of the Taliban regime. While in the first picture she is a beautiful young girl with intense green eyes and her hair gently covered by a burgundy scarf, in the second she lifts the oppressive burqa to reveal a hardship-worn face that has been marked, as the article explains, by life under the Taliban.The message, during the war, could not have been clearer: the war will save the beautiful girls of Afghanistan from the barbaric conditions of living under the Taliban’s ‘Islamic” regime. That is, of course, provided that they survive the bombs which the civilizing liberators drop on their homes, relatives, children, and livestock.

A picture, they say, is worth of thousand words; in the case of Aisha’s photograph, it may be worth ninety thousand embarrassing and incriminating leaked documents.

Today we have the dramatic story of Aisha and the grotesque punishment she was subjected to. I have started to read blogs and forums which immediately accuse the ever-evil Islamic Shari’a for such mutilations. Little do these self-appointed commentators know but for the great majority of the the non-Pashtun Muslims, Aisha’s mutilated face is not the mark of law but of intolerable violence and a certain punishable crime. Indeed, the disfigurement of Aisha is the result of a radical implementation and even distortion of the Pashtunwali tribal law.

It is interesting to observe that this kind of disfigurement of women, such as the cutting off of nose and ears, is not limited to the Pashtun and can also be found in other regions of the world, often among nomadic tribes – for instance, some Apache tribes used  to cut off the noses of unfaithful married women. Beyond a comparative interest in the human behavior of indulging in such horrific cultural acts, the suffering and disfigurement of Aisha should be strongly condemned as immoral and unethical. The good news is that Aisha may have a chance to have her face reconstructed by the best surgeons in the US.

Yet I wish to discuss another, less visible, aspect of the shocking Time cover. Does the cover (and by extension the mass media), indirectly, by censoring the pictures of hundreds of thousands of civilian victims of the western war machine in favor of images of the Taliban’s brutality, argue for the existence of an ‘ethical’ suffering? Aisha’s injuries are surely horrific, but what about the children and innocent victims of Western military technology? What about their faces, limbs, skin, eyes, mouths, and mutilated bodies? What about Farzana, 8 months, or Guljuma, 10 years old, who now sit, unknown to the western public, in a mud hut inside a crowded refugee camp?

Indeed, the suffering Afghans appear to be ‘newsworthy’ and politically useful only when they bear the marks of their own ‘barbaric culture’, but their plight is carefully censored when the barbarism is the result of the civilizers and their violent salvation through war.

In the West, anthropologically, suffering from acts of war or terrorism (terms which, in today’s Afghanistan, are often used to include national resistance, secular insurgency and territorial disputes) seems to be classified into two distinct categories. On the one hand, the western-induced suffering is perceived as ‘ethnical’ and ‘lawful’, superior and enlightened, an act of ‘love’, a bitter medicine for the salvation of the ‘ignorant’ (understood as ‘not knowing’), the ‘sinner’ through the redemption of blood, and as death with a view to societal resurrection and rebirth. On the other hand, however, there is a perception of a need for punishment of the barbaric actions of the ignorant, of the infliction of evil for the evil committed by people who are somehow disgusting for rejecting the ‘Truth’.

That is, violence and suffering are not condemned for the effect they have on human beings, but are condemned and rejected only if they are not the ‘right’ violence, ‘salvific’ in nature and ‘just’ in cause – in other words, a Transubstantiational violence. Hence, destruction and suffering, in this case, is a part of redemption, while the Taliban’s violence is merely destructive.

I am sure that many readers have noticed the religious terminology in the paragraph above that refers mainly to Christian eschatology. Yet, as Talal Asad has rightly observed:

“When I refer here to religious reasons, I have in mind the complex genealogy that connects contemporary sensibilities about organized collective killings and the value of humanity with the Christian culture of death and love, a genealogy  that I think needs to be properly explored. For what needs to be identified here is not simply the willingness to die or kill but what one makes of death–one’s own and that of others.”  (Talal Asad, 2007: 95)

It is within this ‘genealogy’ of the, particularly American, discourse of war which we can find such a dichotomy between inducing ‘ethical’ suffering and fighting unethical ‘barbarism’. Suffering is not understood in human terms, but rather in cultural, symbolic dimensions. It is for this reason, if I have to provide my anthropological analysis, that Aisha’s face and ordeal matter more than Farzana’s hand or Guljuma’s butchered body, or the plight of hundreds of thousands of other Afghan civilians, many of whom will never receive specialized medical assistance in luxurious private American clinics and must instead make do with emergency war-camps.

© Gabriele Marranci

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14 thoughts on “Afghanistan and the war of pictures: the case of ‘ethical’ suffering?

  1. Hi Gabriele, your article reminds me of a British intelligence report that expressed shock over the Fu-Manchu types of torture used by the Japanese against the more industrialised pain inflicted by the Germans.

    Pre-modern oriental acts of violence are seen in the west to be deeply more shocking than modernised and rationalised forms of violence. The medieval knife of the turbaned taliban is definitely seen as more graphic than the postmodern unmanned Predator Drone, which according to the Pentagon, is seen to be more humane as it can target you with pinpoint accuracy while leaving your family unharmed. Again, we can see the gender dimension in the portrayals of the Afghan situation. The enlightened Allies target only nasty bearded men (images are carefully shot to show nice American women military personnel visiting the huts of native families and talking to women), while the Taliban bullies their own women.

    Any Afghan woman killed by NATO bombs and bullets is purely accidental, like oops…

  2. The United States was attacked by a terrorist organization.

    The Taliban government refused to turn them over to us, and allied themselves with al-qaeda.

    Those elements who are still fighting pose a threat to this country.

    Civilian casualties are tragic, but a DIRECT RESULT of the actions, stategies, and tactics of al-qaeda and the Taliban fighters still engaged in combat. They do not wear uniforms and intentionally put themselves among civilians as a strategy to prevent US actions.

    If the Afghan people will stand up and destroy these people themselves, we would leave…

    • Dear Keith,
      thank you for your comment.
      The US, as many other countries, was attacked by individuals whom adhere to a certain violent political interpretation of Islam and (some) take as point of reference Osama Bin-Laden’s world views.
      I doubt that few Taliban with WWII weaponry, no aviation, no long range missiles can pose any threat to the US. If you refer here to possible terrorist actions, well, the very unsuccessful war in Afghanistan increases the possibility of terrorist actions.
      I have to notice, about this, that it took the US and other allies six years to win against Germany and Japan, but after nine years of war, the US has shown only that it has been able to eat resources and deliver practically nothing, even as far as security is concerned. I have to admit that this is historically a very similar situation to that which the former USSR found itself in the 1980s in Afghanistan.
      An interesting point that I have also to notice is that your logic about the casualties is very similar to the way of thinking of those ‘terrorists’ whom you condemn. Their argument is that the civilian and innocent casualties of terrorism, the majority of whom, maybe you have forgotten, are actually Muslim, is the result of the actions of the US in the regions and the support for corrupt and violent regimes, such as Egypt and Israel. See for instance the letter of Osama bin-Laden to the Americans.
      Finally, with all the legs that USSR and US mines and bombs have mutilated, I do not think that many Afghans can ‘stand up’, and so I suppose that the US will have to stay for a long time, digging more and more graves, building more memorials and leaving families in both Afghanistan and the US crying for the loss of loved ones. In this, really, I do not see any difference between war and terrorism, other than as a matter of ‘ideological ethos’.
      Gabriele

  3. gabriele, thank you for this forward response. we said the same thing in iraq yet we destroyed the lives of the women. the pictures censored by bush et al and their compliant media, the censorship of coffins coming home, of mass casualties from errant drones, of direct attacks on journalists, and the multitude of lies about connections to al qaida. yet, let this one photo through to justify the u.s. war in afghanistan, by all means! one photo says it all? are women’s faces not mutilated in the u.s. by jealous husbands? (btw, for years much of the world preferred to avoid the women’s issues in afghanistan, instead focusing on dynamited buddhas…)

    anyone with a wit of empathy would feel great compassion for this young woman. but look at the recent books and statements coming from the iraqis after the surge of war in their country. the u.s. presence did not make them safer and they are not today celebrating newfound liberty. almost nothing has improved, not water nor electricity; july’s casualty figures were over 500. (the us more than halved that figure… iraq is so much better! and we’ve pulled out our combat troops… right, as more for-profit security forces move in…)

    this is the face of perpetual war, and one woman’s mutilated face cannot justify it.

  4. Gabriele, Whilst I tend to agree with your analysis of the situation in Afghanistan. Keith did make a good point that you ignored, namely that the US and others entered Afghanistan after having been attacked by Al Qaeda. Now of course the question is how should they have reacted to that? You have not addressed that issue (admittedly it was never part of this debate) or what should they do they know? What would be your Afghan policy?

    Mine would be to maintain a minimum military presence and utilising that along with suitable warlords kill all Al Qaeda in the country. But what about democracy etc? Well forget it Afghanistan is not even a society so how can it have one? The presence of a large NATO force merely guarantees a violent jihad amongst many Afghans towards it. So keep the western presence to a minimum. I’m cynical but Afghanistan will always be screwed up. It is quite different from Iraq which is a modern society and Iraq may just work. I’ve spent years in the latter. If some supra-national body like the UN (which is a sick corrupt joke) wants to install a democracy, let them put thousands of troops in there with cash for generations. However the country defies any solution based on western concepts of equality, liberty or democracy as I see it.

  5. This is very reminiscent of Judith Butler’s discussion of New York Time covers in 2004 (Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso. pp 128). Again, we have to ask ourselves what the narrative function of these images are, what “scenes of pain and grief these images cover over and derealize. They are the spoils of war or they are the targets of war. And in this sense, we might say that the face is, in every instance, defaced, and that this is one of the representational and philosophical consequences of war itself.” (143)

    Whereas in 2004 Butler discussed how images of women without burkas were trying to legitimising a war belatedly by narrativising it as being fought for (a dubious form of) feminism, they are replaced now by mutilated faces to sell this never-ending war. Of cause it is a face that women in Afghanistan suffer. But using their suppression and mutilation to legitimise the occupation of Afghanistan and neo-colonial warfare will not help women in any part of the world.

  6. Unfortunatly your understanding about real Islam is so less, and even the other argument which is about the 11, september is completly a political issue of U.S and as the now adays many research shows that 11, september atack was an inside job matter and….

    • Dear David,
      thanks for your comment. I cannot comment on the 9/11 situation. I agree that there is out there lots of debate, theories, but also cray imagination too. I hope that a serious investigation will be provided and agreed in future, at least as an act of respect for the victims.

      Normally, when one criticize another person on a particular topic, it’s logical to say why. Hence, I would be curious to know why, according to you my “understanding about real Islam is so less” and in case ‘less’ than what?
      In any case, I have a problem, as an anthropologist, to believe that a ‘real’ Islam might exist beyond, for whom may believe, God’s mind.
      I have written more about this in this post and in my book The anthropology of Islam.
      Best wishes
      Gabriele

  7. how should the us have responded? let me try: by finding and arresting osama bin-laden. there have been so many whisteblowers that have revealed that we had him in tora bora and that we let him go. this should have been a police action… how many would be alive today and how many less suffering. but deals get cut between friends… oily friends. ~lt

  8. Laura, you’re obviously an authority on ‘police actions’. Could you explain how the ‘Police’ would arrest Bin Laden at Tora Bora? I mean a patrol car from Manhattan just aint going to reach there. The US and allies did have forces there and the initial respone was I feel appropriate.

  9. nice bit of sarcasm. félicitations. if you think i meant a police car from manhattan, then why bother to answer you? instead, i’ll refer everyone to an excellent documentary and its follow up: “9/11 Press for Truth” and “In Their Own Words”. both are from the research of the Jersey girls and 9/11 families and Mark Ellis’ excellent open-source research, the 911 Timeline. ~laura, the authority on police actions (whew!)

  10. Laura, you still have not commented on how the US should have responded post 9/11 and the fact that US and UK forces were at Tora Bora? Please provide links if you can but if we are venturing into ‘9/11 truth’ type territory I feel rational debate may have ended.

  11. What happens if we leave ?Im not in Afganistian u.s. soldiers are president obama did not keep his promise yes this is a horrible picture of a woman brutilize by man .But here in our country it happens all the time to woman get brutilize thats just time maganize dictateing to you what you should think .use your own mind brother it is costing tax payers more and more money to police the world we work for the goverment kind of like communism did get to America .IT is the genuis at time magazine pushing your buttons .

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