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Images of suffering can be self-serving

BibiAishaWhen Time magazine spotted Bibi Aisha, a young Afghan girl mutilated by her husband during the Taliban regime, it decided to put her picture on its cover and after creating international publicity, flew her into America for plastic surgery to ‘repair’ her. But what might have appeared to be a philanthropic act likely had more self-serving motives and we need to be conscious of this when viewing images of suffering, writes Asiya Islam.

13 March 2011

There is only a very thin line between the sensitive portrayal of suffering and selfish and opportunistic use of suffering to further one's own agenda.

How many times have you seen a sorry picture of a mal-nourished child scraping a trash liner for food? Or an image of a sad puppy with big eyes wandering on its own looking for a home? Or of a woman violently beaten/burnt/abused by her husband's family?

Undoubtedly, such photographs move us and expose us to the reality we'd rather not see. They rightly sadden most of us, but what purpose does this serve? 

Do you overcome your sadness, and perhaps revulsion after a while and then sit back with your feet up on the table, sipping a warm cup of tea and watch something 'lighter' (read dumb) on the television?

Maybe if you are a little more sensitive, you dial up the appealing charity/shelter/organisation and arrange for a donation of £5 a month so that a child in the third world can go to school (“Wow! £5 means so much in the third world”, you think to yourself).

It’s not that I'm particularly miserly, but I have always been sceptical of philanthropy and charity. I have my doubts about whether sympathy or donations make any real or long term difference in the lives of those we are trying to help.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it is much easier to sympathise with suffering than with thought. We think we are sensitive if we see a grotesque image of suffering and feel sad. However, this does not even scrape the surface of sensitivity that we are capable of. Real sensitivity lies in sympathy with thoughts and ideas.

And similarly, ‘real difference’ is made only through ideologies – it’s the same as ‘Give a person some vegetables and you feed them for a day, teach that person to grow vegetables and you feed them for a lifetime’.

A while back, Time magazine ran a cover with a photograph of a mutilated Afghani girl. Bibi Aisha became known internationally through this cover after having suffered at the hands of her husband and the Taliban.

Aisha was mutilated by her husband during the Taliban regime; to be precise, her husband had cut off her nose and ears which is why many newspapers went ahead to call her the ‘disfigured’ Afghan teenager.

It is interesting to note the discourse the image was firmly situated in. The photograph ran with the tormenting headline 'What Happens if we Leave Afghanistan?'.

All that the image did was create global ’horror’ at the conditions, especially women’s suffering, in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, and sympathy for America’s ‘war on terror’.

Soon after this scene was set, Bibi Aisha was flown from Afghanistan into America and offered free plastic surgery to repair her nose and ears. It was indeed a very obvious juxtaposition of America as the 'saviour' and Afghanistan as the diabolical 'victim' and 'site of violence and terrorism'.

Many people who had sympathised with Aisha and felt ‘shock’ at the situation of women in Afghanistan must have thought this to be a noble offer, a thoughtful initiative. But it’s just as easy to consider this a noble action as it is to be immediately affected by descriptions of violence and forget about them in the next instance.

Which is why instead of instantly judging this action to be kindness of heart, we need to question some of the underlying and wider issues and think about their implications in the long term.

After Bibi Aisha had been 'repaired', a second image of hers started doing the rounds in the media. This second image was more disturbing because a single look at the photographs shows how she is being used a poster image by America to further its propaganda and agenda of violence that it legitimises in the name of curbing Taliban’s violence.

The plastic poster status accorded to her is as thick and obvious as the layers of foundation and blusher and lip gloss so clearly visible on her face. In other snapshots, she was shown travelling in the subway, looking like a ‘normal’ American girl. A very artificial smile is plastered on her lips in each of these images.

And this is precisely what makes me sceptical of the intentions of images of suffering. And why I think others should be sceptical too.

There are millions of women in Afghanistan, who have suffered not only under the Taliban regime but continue to suffer because of the war on terror.

We need to recognise the specificities of the violence women have been facing in Afghanistan. But we also need to commend their efforts to fight back and to organise themselves into a movement for their rights.

In short, we need to start reading between the lines and take a more sophisticated approach to women, equality and violence in Afghanistan (and elsewhere, for that matter).

Paying for one woman's flight and plastic surgery can't make up for the suffering caused by the Taliban and its superficial denouncement by America as an excuse for further violence in the region.

Asiya Islam works in Equality and Diversity at the London School of Economics. She holds a Masters degree in Gender, Media and Culture. She maintains her own blog ‘Why am I a Feminist’ and is also involved with the online magazine ‘The Vibe’ and a feminist news portal ‘Women’s Views on News’.


0 #4 Asiya 2011-04-04 09:26
Hi Sarah,

Thank you for taking the time to read through my article. I do agree with you when you say you 'want more'. The article is open ended in the sense that my motive in writing this was not to 'suggest' but to 'provoke' which I hope I did. But I also hope that this provocation in me, and in others, actually leads to something.

0 #3 Sarah Wilson 2011-03-25 03:01
A good, thought-provoki ng article. But I want more. It is like the conversation I had with a young Bahraini Shia man and woman the other night. I was walking past their vigil in London, where they were highlighting what was happening to their friends and relatives in Bahrain and the supine posture being taken by our government. "That's terrible," I said, "But what do you want me to do?" They told me, and I will pester all the politicians I can. It did occur to me to ask whether they really wanted support from me, a trans woman, but that would have been a useless gesture. More importantly (and returning to the topic, what should be done in Afghanistan, and what can I do?
0 #2 Asiya 2011-03-16 10:24
Thanks, Sue!
0 #1 Sue 2011-03-16 00:25
Very good article. I also questioned the motives straight away when I first saw that Time cover. I did not realise that Bibi Aisha was provided with plastic surgery shortly afterwards. I also agree that the cover and Time's focus on Bibi Aisha positioned America as the saviour to further vindicate the "war on terror". Thanks for a thought-provoki ng read.

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