Women as Symbols of Conflict

July 30, 2010 — 1 Comment

"The Afghan Girl" Taken by Photographer Steven Curry, for National Geographic in 1985

Those piercing eyes. That is all one remembers.  She stares at us with defiant, sharp green eyes that seem to ask our souls a question that we do not have an answer for. Her tanned, slightly dirty face seem to tell a story of struggle and hardship in the elements of rural Afghanistan. We did not know her name or her age then. But her image brought international attention to the plight of Afghan refugees displaced after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s to early 1980s. The original story, “A Life Revealed: Along Afghanistan’s War Torn Border” transported us to a land that paid the heavy human cost of war, international invasion and interference, and internal instability. Fast forward to today, we have a new Afghan girl.

This article, entitled, “Afghan Women and the Return of the Taliban” and more importantly, this cover image of a mutilated Afghan woman has drawn ire from many. The story is about Aisha, a young girl who was punished for running away from her husband. The article stresses the point that as the Karzai government enters talks with the Taliban, the rights of Afghanistan’s women will dissolve away as a potential concession during negotiations. This did not happen to Aisha when Afghanistan was under the iron grip of the Taliban. This happened last year, the article mentions.  The article makes its point that:

“As the war in Afghanistan enters its ninth year, the need for an exit strategy weighs on the minds of U.S. policymakers…..For Afghanistan’s women, an early withdrawal of international forces could be disastrous.”

Without getting into the political and ideological battle over the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, what is striking is the habitual, perhaps almost exclusive use of female images to portray the horrors of war, especially in the Middle East in recent memory. Images of battered women attempting to escape the terrible conditions of masculine conflict and aggression are also very often used to justify continued international military solutions. These are images of young, attractive females cut down in their prime of life.

I did not want to put this clip up. but many remember the woman we simply know as Neda from Iran, who was caught on tape dying from gunshot wounds during the massive protests in Iran last summer. The clip can be viewed here, on YouTube. Please note that if you view this, the image is extremely graphic and disturbing. You can see a young woman in a black top and jeans, lying on the ground after she has been shot. Her eyes are glazed and it only takes seconds to see her life slip away as blood streams from her body. This clip made the rounds in international media outlets here in the U.S.. Neda became a symbol for the Iranian protests, and her death brought perhaps much needed attention to the situation in Iran. But it again begs the question, Do we as an audience need to witness a woman dying or mortally wounded in order to be persuaded in one direction or another? This post on Racialicious perhaps goes into that question better than I can.

War, the horrible dance where families are ripped apart, homes are gutted, flesh is shredded, children are orphaned, and psyches are scarred. But the images of women seem to exclusively represent war. How did we get here, from the first Afghan Girl on the National Geographic, to Aisha on this month’s cover of Time? Perhaps the conflict that Afghan girl was involved in was not our war, here in the States. It was the Soviet Union’s war. The United States was using aid money to perhaps help arm today’s extremists against the Soviets not involved. The Afghan Girl was not used to advocate for increased U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. But Neda and Aisha accompany U.S. cries for continued action and involvement in Afghanistan and Iran.

(As an aside, it is curious to note that this image comes out not even a week after the Wikileaks historic leak of 90,000 documents related to the Afghanistan War)

What does this say about photojournalism? How do we compare the Afghan Girl, whose photo is something like a work of art, to Aisha’s photograph? Now I believe that we should all be aware of the struggles of women all over the world. What I am questioning is how our media crudely ushers in such awareness. There is something about the Afghan girl that still captivates me to this day. True, she has suffered. But Curry managed to capture a nuanced iconic image that lingers with millions around the world, twenty-five years later. Have we lost that ability in the rush to sell copy and generate clicks in our 24/7 news cycle? Or more crudely, does it sway our opinions about our involvement in the war? What does our media think of our capacity as an audience to empathize, to become aware of the ravages of war, that it has become protocol to publish the mutilated bodies of foreign women in order to grab our attention?

Women’s intact bodies sell everything from clothes, to cars to sports. Do the mutilated bodies of women help to sell stories about war and conflict?

One response to Women as Symbols of Conflict

    aconerlycoleman July 30, 2010 at 6:42 PM

    “Women’s intact bodies sell everything from clothes, to cars to sports. Do the mutilated bodies of women help to sell stories about war and conflict?”

    Wowwww. You just verbalized what I’ve been trying to say for a while. Even when intact, those bodies are supine and truncated for the purpose of titillation. Commodify everything- even the mutilated bodies of “othered” women- that’s the nature of capitalism’s imperialistic impulse.

    I posted this link to your Twitter account, but


    I posted this for the commentary. Some felt shock- others were weary of the representations of Afghan women as essentially dehumanized and oppressed. One person made the excellent point that these images are rarely displayed when they are American women who have been battered and maimed by their estranged husbands.

    None of this shocked me. Having studied history, seeing how the US funded the mujahideen and indirectly funneled the same weapons that the insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are using… None of this shocks me.

    We don’t see the same coverage of women soldiers and police in Afghanistan- not in “western” media. Here’s a Russian newspaper article on the topic:


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