War in Afghanistan: Warning or blackmail?

A photograph of an 18-year-old Afghan woman, mutilated by her husband on the orders of a Taliban commander, has shocked America and sparked fierce debate over the conflict

It is an image of savage brutality; of marred beauty and of courage. Aisha, an 18-year-old Afghan woman, stared from the cover of Time magazine last week and jolted America.

Her mutilation at the hands of an abusive husband also whipped up a storm of debate. The picture was captured even as the teenager hid from her tormentor in a women's shelter in Kabul where she waited for a long-planned trip to America for reconstructive surgery

She told the magazine that she was given away as a child to settle a so-called "blood debt" – her uncle killed one of her husband's relatives – and subsequently married to a Taliban commander. She fled following years of abuse but was captured and hauled before a Taliban commander who ordered the punishment. "Aisha's brother-in-law held her down while her husband pulled out a knife," the article said. "First he sliced off her ears. Then he started on her nose."

The image is a shocking example of the abuse of women's rights and the medieval attitude to punishment in Afghanistan. It also, however, threw up a storm of controversy.

This was partly because of the headline with the picture: "What happens if we leave Afghanistan". The headline pointedly had no question mark, and opponents of the war saw it as naked "emotional blackmail" in support of a conflict that continues to claim many American, as well as British, lives. It was also criticised by bloggers as "war porn".

"That is exactly what will happen," said Manizha Naderi, an Afghan-American whose group runs the shelter where Aisha stayed. "People need to see this and know what the cost will be of abandoning this country."

Critics – of whom there were many on the internet – pointed out that the mutilation had taken place despite the presence of Nato forces and argued that women's rights were being used cynically as a justification for the war. Columnist Tom Scocca, on the Slate website, described the picture as "gut-wrenching" but added that "a correct and accurate caption would be 'What is still happening, even though we are in Afghanistan'."

Such was the row that Richard Stengel, Time's managing editor, was forced to write an article defending the image. "Aisha posed for the picture and says she wants the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan. She knows that she will become a symbol of the price Afghan women have had to pay for the repressive ideology of the Taliban."

Aisha herself – her surname has been withheld to protect her – was more circumspect. "I don't know if it will help other women. I just want to get my nose back," she was quoted as saying in The New York Times.

Jodi Bieber, who took the photograph, said she had been struck by Aisha's beauty and that one of her prime concerns was to show her that. "I said to her, you are really such a beautiful woman. I could never understand or know how you're feeling, but what I can do is show you as beautiful in this photograph."

Aisha is now undergoing months of reconstructive surgery at the Grossman Burn Foundation in California, which campaigns on the issue of violence against women as well as carrying out free plastic surgery work.

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