Our favourite postcolonial studies lecturer, Priyamvada Gopal, is troubled by the cover of Time magazine’s August issue. The cover features an 18-year-old Afghan woman named Bibi Aisha, whose nose and ears were cut off by order of the Taliban as punishment for fleeing her abusive in-laws. The image shows not an accident of war, but Taliban justice. With the support of the Grossman Burn Foundation and Women for Afghan Women, Aisha, who lives under armed protection in a women’s shelter in Kabul, is soon to head to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery. However, Ms Gopal isn’t happy about Time magazine “condensing Afghan reality into simplistic morality tales”:
Misogynist violence is unacceptable, but...
Ah. The but.
...but we must also be concerned by the continued insistence that the complexities of war, occupation and reality itself can be reduced to bedtime stories.
Readers can peruse the Time articles accompanying the image and decide for themselves whether the complexities of war and “occupation” are being “reduced to bedtime stories.” Ms Gopal’s own article - titled, somewhat bizarrely, Burkas and Bikinis - has a subheading that reads:
Time magazine’s cover is the latest cynical attempt to oversimplify the reality of Afghan lives.
Simplifying reality is a bad thing, see? “Afghans,” we’re told, “have been silenced and disempowered” by simplistic Western stereotypes. But the people who actually do, physically, silence and disempower Afghans – with threats and knives and acid, for instance - don’t seem to register as worthy of discussion.
The mutilated Afghan woman ultimately fills a symbolic void where there should be ideas for real change. The truth is that the US and allied regimes do not have anything substantial to offer Afghanistan beyond feeding the gargantuan war machine they have unleashed.
So no simplification there. Apparently, the restoration of education for millions of Afghan girls doesn’t count as “real change,” and nor do those dastardly and imperialist school building projects, which the Taliban so righteously endeavour to destroy. When not burning food aid intended for pregnant women or spraying acid in the faces of schoolgirls. And I suspect the Afghan woman who chose to be photographed for Time’s cover in the hope of encouraging even more dastardly imperialism might regard her disfigurement, and that of other women in Afghanistan and elsewhere, as more than mere symbolism. Though the perpetrators of such acts are very much aware of symbolic value, with their handiwork often serving as a warning to other women who presume to misbehave.
Undaunted, our esteemed educator continues,
In the affluent west itself, modernity is now about dismantling welfare systems, increasing inequality (disproportionately disenfranchising women in the process), and subsidising corporate profits.
Yes, of course. That’s all modernity is about. We are insufficiently socialist, so who are we to judge barbarism? I’m sure these things must be foremost in Bibi Aisha’s mind as she prepares for her flight to America and reconstructive surgery. Truly, she is heading for the belly of the beast.
Other ideas once associated with modernity – social justice, economic fairness, peace, all of which would enfranchise Afghan women – have been relegated to the past in the name of progress.
As is so often the case, Ms Gopal doesn’t pause to define “social justice” or “economic fairness,” even in contrast with the values of the Taliban, for whom “peace” means submission. Nor does she hint at how one might encourage such things without the influence of those “allied regimes” that “do not have anything substantial to offer.”
This bankrupt version of modernity has little to offer Afghans other than bikini waxes and Oprah-imitators.
Behold Ms Gopal’s refusal to simplify reality, such is the subtlety and nuance of her mind. One for our collection, methinks.
In the comments following her article, Ms. Gopal inevitably invokes racism as a primary motive, claiming that, “the favoured game in town really is White Men Rescuing Brown Women From Brown Men” - a caricature for which no evidence is deemed necessary. She bemoans “US aggression and violence against Afghans,” as if the Allies were deliberately targeting civilians rather than the Taliban (who of course do deliberately target civilians as a matter of routine, and who buy or kidnap children as young as seven to use as walking bombs). She also objects to “assertions of civilisational superiority,” as if the society in which she lives, and lives quite comfortably, offered women no more opportunity for self-determination than one in which girls’ schools are burned to the ground in the name of piety.
Priyamvada Gopal is employed to shape young minds by the University of Cambridge. Her dislike of the “American regime” and its “fundamentalist monopoly on the meanings of freedom” will be familiar to regular readers.