The picture tears into you. Her eyes are haunting and courageous, her face brutally butchered. This is the face of an Afghan girl named Aisha who was attacked by her family that was supported by the local Taliban commander, according to the August 8th TIME magazine.
I wish that I could say such pictures are shocking or unfamiliar, that I have never seen such violence inflicted on a human being. As someone who has spent 14 years leading a grant-making foundation that advances women's rights, however, I cannot say that.
I have met with women with faces like Aisha's in Bangladesh, where lovers or jealous husbands have thrown acid on their faces to scar them for life. I have spoken with women missing limbs because pimps mutilated them in Cambodia. I have heard from Bosnian women whose vaginas have been shredded by soldiers who inserted pointed objects and guns into them. I know women in India whose faces and bodies are a mass of burned flesh because they did not bring enough dowry. And, you don't have to leave the United States to see such brutality. Last November I met a woman from Tennessee whose ex-husband beat her with an iron rod within an inch of her life -- her jaw is shattered, her nose is broken, her left eye does not see.
I have seen their suffering and am inspired by their resilience. I am awed by their determined use of non-violent strategies as they struggle to ensure a different future for us all. I hope someday to see their smiling faces and their triumphs on a TIME cover...
The TIME article suggests that the United States must maintain its military forces in Afghanistan to protect Afghan women from the Taliban. I am painfully aware of the conditions facing Afghans who live on less than $2 per day in midst of violence, yet I am unable to stomach this flimsy justification for more war, occupation, and militarization. Guns, soldiers and military presence do not increase security. To the contrary, they lead to less personal and bodily freedom for women and girls.
This is clear to the parents of the 12-year-old Okinawan girl who was raped by a navy seaman and two U.S. marines in 1995. It is clear to women survivors of rape by UN "peacekeepers." Closer to home, it is clear to the families of the three female soldiers who were murdered by their military husbands or boyfriends in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The North Carolina Observer editorial put it squarely: "It's an old argument. We train men, and now women, to wage war, then we are baffled when they do that to each other."
Aisha's suffering is not simply related to the Taliban. There are women in countries on every continent who have been beaten, sold, raped, and mutilated in the name of honor, religion, and tradition. Aisha's noseless face should not be used as a symbol of Taliban resurgence -- instead, it is the face of modern day patriarchy, which continues to dominate social and cultural systems in most parts of the world. It is deeply woven into the fabric of societies that extol violence and patriotism.
Aisha was brutally abused in 2003. U.S. soldiers were already in Afghanistan. Their presence did not prevent her abuse. Last year, the U.S. government supported an initiative that tripled the number of soldiers in the army of the Democratic Republic of Congo to 60,000. Rapes of women tripled in the areas soldiers were deployed. There is an obvious connection between violence against women and militarization.
If the intent of TIME magazine and organizations like Women for Afghan Women was to illuminate the taboo topic of violence against women with this picture -- I am all for it. If it ignites a public debate about the silent ongoing war that patriarchy wages against girls and women in their homes, at work places, on the streets, and on army bases -- bring it on. If this cover helps us advocate for a U.S. foreign policy that places the dignity and humanity of women at its core -- I will be the first to celebrate.
If this country is serious about addressing the root causes of Aisha's disfigurement -- let it make a commitment to non-violence and respect for women a key component of its domestic and foreign policy. Let it help train armies of nurses, teachers, and agricultural workers in Afghanistan. Let it invest in diplomacy and decrease its unmatched military expenditure -- currently more than the rest of the world combined. Let it say to its client states, whether Israel, Iraq, or Saudi Arabia, "we will stop providing military aid, if we do not see clear evidence that you are moving to address gender violence and discrimination in your societies." Let the Senate immediately ratify Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) -- the UN Bill of Rights for women. Let the U.S. lead by realizing women's rights at home before it invades other nations where it can moralize about "tribal" practices.
Aisha has just arrived in the US to receive medical treatment that I hope is a success. I wish there were medical interventions that could change the mindsets of those who continue to believe violence is the only answer to violence
Kavita N. Ramdas is the President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women.