MMW Roundtable on Time Magazine’s Aisha Cover

Editor’s Note: This week’s Time magazine featured an 18-year-old Afghan girl named Aisha on the cover. Aisha’s face is framed with dark hair and a loose scarf; it looks like any other portrait Time might publish. Except there is something missing: Aisha’s nose. Her nose and ears were cut off as punishment for running away from abusive in-laws—members of the Taliban handed down this punishment. Her portrait appears next to the words “What happens if we leave Afghanistan.”

MMW has decided not republish the photo of Aisha that appears on this week’s edition of Time magazine or include a link to it.

Sara: In a way, all photographers exploit their subjects. It is a profession, after all, and the bottom line involves distributing the photos and making a living from that distribution. Sourcing that argument, we can also say that all representational artists are of a manner exploitative, since they draw on human experiences that aren’t their own and create photos that often only cater to markets with little understanding of the represented experience.  And then they sell or display that art, using it however they please. But in a visually saturated culture, photographs are the exploitative currency of choice. They capture our bodies in vignettes, bits of remaining shrapnel long after the end of a war. They hold what Susan Sontag called “the presumption of veracity,” which gives them unparalleled authority.

The Time cover is no exception to this. It is, by all accounts, a horrifying photo, shot like Steve McCurry’s frank 1984 portrait of Sharbat Gula at a refugee camp. It bears startling similarity to some of Sebastiao Salgado’s photos—photos that have themselves been called “poverty porn” for their alleged attempt to capture and own the unreachable experience of the Global South. And while there is a long American media history of using the stories and photos of Afghan women to advocate for political action (which in the end has very little to do with those women), the photograph itself is rarely ever the culprit.

The photograph, as long as it was taken consensually (and in Aisha’s case it was), doesn’t constitute its own misuse, in this case. There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with photographing Aisha, or telling her story. Do I think there are politics involved here? Of course. And we should take note of them. But in not displaying the photo we’re losing a chance to contextualize it in a way that Time didn’t.

You can read more of my thoughts here.

Fatemeh: Aisha consented to having her picture taken; I have no qualms with her decision. However, I have major issues with Time positioning her on the cover with the headline “What happens if we leave Afghanistan.” It assumes that  the US presence is keeping Afghan women safe (which Aisha’s mutilation disproves) and without the U.S., Afghanistan will be a terrible place, especially for women.

Krista: “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan?”  Well, the obvious response is that this violence happened while the international forces were in Afghanistan, so the logic leading to the conclusion that things would necessarily be worse if “we” left isn’t exactly clear.  (It’s pretty obvious that this is the conclusion suggested by the cover, which makes the magazine’s statement accompanying the cover photo that “We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it” a little hard to believe.)

The thing is, although “saving women” has been part of the Western rhetoric throughout a large part of this invasion, Afghan women have rarely been much of a priority for the coalition forces, whose goal of conquering the Taliban has had them allied with many a violent misogynist over the years of the occupation.  This photo, with its accompanying caption, perpetuates the myth of the foreign occupiers as allies and saviors of Afghan women, though this has never really been the case.  (Not to get into a debate on whether the situation for women has improved at all, just that I don’t think anyone can count on these occupiers to always have women’s best interests at heart.)  It also implies that violence is only being committed by the Taliban, leaving out any pictures of mutilated bodies caused by coalition attacks, violence that is happening precisely because “we” are in Afghanistan.

With regard to the actual photo, I find it disturbing to see it being so publicly circulated as a way of making a specific political point.  The young woman in the photo–frozen in an image that defines her only by the violence that has been enacted upon her–is reduced to the “what” that will happen if “we” leave.

I would also argue that the photo objectifies its subject in a specifically racist way, in that the body of a woman of color is used to make a statement in a way that white bodies rarely are.  I find it really hard to imagine a white face being used in the same way on the cover, no matter what the political statement it was trying to make; even when journalists focus on telling and showing “the true story,” regardless of how upsetting it might be, there are often decisions made not to publish certain images out of respect for the dignity of their subjects.  I realize that the woman in this photo agreed to have her picture taken and circulated, which certainly does make this case much more complex, but I still find it invasive and deeply troubling.

Tasnim: The deliberation over the publication of this image doesn’t strike me as thoughtful or scrupulous, but as a blatant attempt to push its provocative-ness; Aisha’s image adds weight to the line “what happens if we leave,” which guilts the reader into supporting the war on terror. The exploitation of women’s rights issues to give credence to a floundering war depends on images like this to push the message that women in Iraq and Afghanistan are better off now. The idea of a heroic liberating army stemming the tide of medieval, misogynist barbarity will always be great propaganda, mainly because of how easy it seems to be to for people to believe.

It is that reliance on prejudice which lies behind the case in Afghanistan where U.S. soldiers dug bullets out of three women’s bodies and then stabbed them to make it look like their families had killed them, and the attempted cover-up of the case in Iraq where U.S. soldiers blamed Sunni insurgents for the rape of a 14-year-old girl and the murder of her and her family.

Aisha’s neighbors recognized the abuse she had suffered and took her to the police, like any sane people would. But Time magazine seems to want its readers to believe that there are no sane people in Afghanistan. This whole story hinges on the reader’s preparedness to believe that this kind of abuse is “natural” for “them.”

Depressingly, quite a few commentators on this seem to believe the punishment was part of that bogeyman Sharia Law, and that Afghanistan is Agrabah. Yes, Time magazine confirms that Disney’s Aladdin had it right: ”They cut of your nose if they don’t like your face.” What’s sad about the Time magazine’s use of this “portrait of Aisha” is that it is not about Aisha at all, but simply about pushing the reader into supporting the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. I wonder what the reaction would be if the image was of a woman mutilated in a U.S. raid or drone attack, with the headline “what happens if we stay.”

You can read more of my thoughts here, at my blog.

There are more feminist perspectives at Feministing and Jezebel.

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  • http://durkadurkistan.wordpress.com Durkadurkistan

    “I wonder what the reaction would be if the image was of a woman mutilated in a U.S. raid or drone attack, with the headline “what happens if we stay.”’

    I thought that was a fascinating idea!

    http://durkadurkistan.wordpress.com/2010/08/02/the-cover-time-magazine-wouldnt-dare-print/

    PS. I always enjoy the roundtable discussions you post :) Would be really cool if you could make them as videos somehow.

  • http://www.nuseiba.wordpress.com Sahar- Nuseiba

    Not only is the brown/’third world’/Muslim woman constructed and reduced via violence/oppression, she remains faceless/nameless/less human with the burqa and without. This is not to say the burqa ‘erases’ women, as Mona Eltahawy has mistakenly claimed, rather, Western representations of the burqa-clad woman depict her as sub-human entity. In both ways, she is objectified to the Western audience. Nameless and denied of her subjectivity – so she can be imbued with meaning that suits political agendas. Why am I talking about the burqa when the image has nothing to do with it? Because the burqa continues to remain central to the narrative of the occupation of Afghanistan– at least to the Western audience who will see this image as a consequence of ‘yearning’ for liberation. The burqa has been removed, the headscarf/hijab remains on her head though her hair is slightly noticeable so suggest her subversion/rebellion, however, her facial injuries serve the same role as burqa: the violence of religious/cultural fundamentalism and its attempt to control the body of the woman. So we are reminded of the original narrative (which the burqa became a symbol of) and how the 2001 Western ‘champions’ of these women continue to fight to ‘save’ them from an allusive e enemy bent on turning them into slaves of a religious patriarchy or whatever the Western imagination conjures up when they think of the Taliban. In other words: symbolic violence will always define the Afghan woman. Further, the caption ‘What happens when we leave Afghanistan’ complements what is being signified in the image. However, it is not to be taken literally. ‘Afghanistan’ here symbolises (reduced to) the misogynistic, fundamentalist and extremist land and culture that these women are attempting to resist and reform, regardless of the context.

    This reductionist narrative is merely just another updated version to say ‘the threat is still there, people’! in order legitimate the war and quell the recent questioning of the war.

    As I argue on a post I wrote a while back on the construction of the ‘oppressed’ Afghan woman, these iamges remove the historical context in which religious extremism emerged, reduced these acts of violence to that of cultural violence and perpetuates the racist myth: Western enlightenment and cultural superiority over Islam’s backwardness, regression and misogyny.

    http://nuseiba.wordpress.com/2008/11/17/the-afghan-woman/

  • http://www.stop-stoning.org Rochelle

    “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, many of whom have flourished in the past few years.”

    Why did you not address this? It seems that all the talk of letting women speak for themselves, there wasn’t much consideration on what this woman wanted, what she felt about the Taliban, the US invasion or anything else.

  • karmel

    So many of these comments are reductionist to the extreme, it appears that the writers and commenters have become what they fear most. As a so-called western woman (although I don’t call myself that) I am NOT fixated on the burqa and DO NOT regard Aisha as some poor pawn of western media or governments. As Rochella says, it would be helpful if the editorial board of this website actually discuss what Aisha says and not engage in the same old same old at every opportunity.

    PS I found this website today because I CARE about Afghan women and my young daughter and I want to help some way but I swear to god that whatever we eventually do would be pissed on by the likes of commenters above. IS there anything a white woman CAN DO to help Afghan women (and surely you must admit they need help from the global sisterhood) that won’t offend thee?

    Oh let me guess… you don’t believe in the global sisterhood. Well I do and I am entitled to my opinion too.

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  • Antonio Carlos moretti

    Photo of Aisha’s shocking, but it is real. But that does not justify the invasion and presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world. Each nation must find its own way and any intervention should be supported by the United Nations (UN). I always had an admiration for the Muslims I know here in Brazil and many of them I am a friend. But to me it is very strange to know that facts like these are repeated against women and religious leaders have adopted. I find it very sad that happens in the middle of Century XXI. What can we do to prevent these atrocities?
    Antonio Carlos Moretti – Jornalista – Brasil
    karlmoretti@hotmail.com

  • http://www.beverlyweber.com Beverly

    As always, an interesting roundtable. I found the image tremendously disturbing as well – though I think it is important, sometimes, to be confronted with disturbing realities. As stated, Aisha chose to

    It is interesting to note that not only is this article “not about Aisha,” but she is never directly quoted in the entire article. After reading the comment above complaining about the MMW editors ignoring what Aisha had to say, I returned to doublecheck – but Aisha is not quoted. Parliamentarian Sabrina Saqib and talk show host Mozhdah Jamalzadah are, however, in order to show their fear of what a Taliban resurgence might mean. Saqib, as far as I can tell, doesn’t actually support continued occupation (but correct me please if I’m wrong, I didn’t find as much out there as there should be). I was surprised as well that the article didn’t even mention Afghanistan’s oldest women’s rights organization, RAWA, which has been vocally against both occupation and a return of the Taliban (see http://www.rawa.org/rawa/2010/03/07/emancipation-of-afghan-women-not-attainable-as-long-as-the-occupation-taliban-and-national-front-criminals-are-not-sacked.html)

    It is the writer of the Times piece, as far as I can tell, who has created the grammar : US leaves = Taliban resurgence – not the women he interviewed. Are these our only choices?. If we assume that there are only two choices – US continues occupation or Taliban regains rule – we’ve prevented ourselves from truly finding solutions to the problems (or supporting the women’s organizations already working on them.)

  • Tec15

    There is of course this:
    http://wikileaks.org/wiki/CIA_report_into_shoring_up_Afghan_war_support_in_Western_Europe,_11_Mar_2010

    Oh but if this woman speaks up in favour of the Us Invasion than I guess that’s enough to justify the war and it’s attendant consequences now and forever.

  • Sarai

    I’m sorry, but if we leave, the Taliban WILL take over and more of these brutal practices will be encouraged and enforced even more so than they are now. I don’t care about culture and political correctness. Mutilating ANYONE’S face is just plain WRONG and it needs to be stopped!
    American and the rest of the world needs to focus more on how to improve the lives of the people who are already here.

  • http://arwaaburawa.wordpress.com/ Arwa

    I think we can all accept what happened to Aisha was wrong- that’s not the issue. (do you think that Aisha decided to pose for the photo because its everyday practice? No. She posed to show what she had suffered and also that it totally unacceptable.)The problem is whether continuing the war is really the solution. In war, women are ALWAYS the ones that lose out.

    Maybe, its jst me beind cynical but why is it everytime the US/UK needs to put in more troops they suddenly gain an enormous amount of concern for these Afghan women who they have so far failed to help?

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  • S2McH

    To the writer who posted, “Afghan women who they have so far failed to help?” I would ask if you have been there?

    How or what do you know about the improvements and revelations that have come to common Afghan women, children and men since the U.S. forced the Taliban from rule?

    There is plenty of information out there on the establishment and sponsorship and supplying of schools alone. It would seem that the windows that have been opened in the minds of the students, as rudimentary as it might have been so far, and the hope, and ideas about government, citizenship, geography, even hygenie and health would be considered as blessings with lifelong benefit, now and in succeeding generations.

    Have you read in the least about superb medical care and procedures performed, often at personal cost and sacrifices by the servicemen and their families and friends at home, that have saved, lengthened and improved the lives of people in small off-the-map villages in Afghanistan? Have you read about villages adopted by US servicemen, and about the shipping containers full of shoes, coats, soccer balls, school supplies, dolls and personal hygenie products donated and shipped and delivered by serviceman and their families at home?

    Do you know anything about the number of children airlifted, after great effort to meet cultural and archaic and administrative hurdles, to have life-saving heart procedures done in the West? You don’t think the mothers of those children understand the concern for their lives that the Western presence holds and demonstrates?

    No one behind this war wishes for the violence and damages done to the innocents. The Taliban has no such similar sentiment.

    [Editor's Note: This comment has been edited to fit within moderation guidelines.]

  • Mks

    Honestly if it was one of you women in the picture the would you have the same arguments. Shame on you. This kind of stuff can still happen in any part of teh world today –is a great tragedy and any help that can be given is great.

  • Martin K.

    @ Krista (whose Comments “Well, the obvious response is that this violence happened” where quoted by another article)

    So the presence of the American and other western Soldiers is the reason Muslim Men in Afghanistan treat their “Ladies” harsh? What a lousy excuse” I’d like to know in which portion of the Koraan oder the Hadiths can anything be found that would advise such a “punishment”? Are you telling us that the presence of western Forces in Afghanistan would make people forget their other “kind behavior”. OK what about the victims of Muslim violence who happen to belong to another Muslim sect? Yeah all lies of the Western Media is it not?. Or is it not rather so that against all propaganda of Islam being the religion of peace and tolerance it isn’t so?

    Lets face it, in Pakistan young Girls are also disfigured after an attack with acid.

    Again is the West to be blamed for this too? Or is it image of woman in Islam really to be blamed? Here in West we get the impression that women are the “property” of their husbands, and they can do to them what they want?

    Another poster “Tashnim” wrote that the neighbors took the victim to the police. So what did the police do? Send her back to the husband because they didn’t believe in the abuse? What did this “kind act” do, did it prevent the mutilation? After all the police is made up of men too. Obviously the police didn’t feel she needed protection.

    Maybe the Western forces should really leave Afghanistan but I do NOT believe the KILLING of Muslims trough Muslims will stop EVER!
    Good by

    Martin K. Vienna Austria

    [Editor's Note: This comment has been edited to fit within moderation guidelines.]

  • http://www.misanthropytoday.com Misanthropy Today

    That it happened while the US was in Afghanistan is immaterial and a very dishonest argument. The fact is, the forces that did this to her are the same ones that the US is fighting against and the same ideology they are fighting against. Common sense says that if they left, there would be more of this.

    Are you trying to say that because the US is in Afghanistan it somehow drove the taliban to do this to this woman? If so, get your head checked.

  • http://akatra.blogspot.com patrick vidaud

    Aisha was deliberately mutilated by Muslims. It would have happened without the presence of Western forces in Afghanistan. The fact that NATO was there allowed the atrocity to be known. This must be a good thing.

  • Krista

    Okay, let’s be clear. What happened to Aisha is horrific and totally unjustified. None of the MMW writers here are trying to say that it was okay, or that the people who did this to her are to be excused in any way.

    And yes, those people are indeed Afghan and Muslim. Obviously I’m not trying to say that the NATO forces did this to her or were the cause of this happening. However, the fact remains that this happened to Aisha while NATO forces were present in Afghanistan, which makes it hard to understand why this would become the illustration of what would happen if these forces *left*. Moreover, as I mentioned above, I don’t think that we can count on the NATO forces to *always* have Afghan women’s best interests at heart, as has been demonstrated numerous times.

    As for patrick’s comment that “The fact that NATO was there allowed the atrocity to be known. This must be a good thing.” – this is only true because international media seems to have a hard time listening to Afghan women unless there’s some kind of link to other interests. Afghan women were speaking out quite vocally pre-9/11, and were largely being ignored. The fact that NATO’s occupation makes us stop ignoring Afghan women says a lot about how and why foreign media decides to pay attention to certain people, but it isn’t a good enough reason to continue the war.

  • Karmel

    @Krista
    you say: The fact that NATO’s occupation makes us stop ignoring Afghan women says a lot about how and why foreign media decides to pay attention to certain people, but it isn’t a good enough reason to continue the war.

    Nato occupation in Afghanistan is what makes us NOT IGNORE afghan women?!
    Where do you get your logic from… the POMO school of “Twist anything into what you want it to be.”?

    It is things like a woman with a hole in her face, courtesy of her friendly neighbourhood taliban and brainwashed misogynist male kin that I DO NOT IGNORE AFGHAN WOMEN. NATO has nothing to do with it.

    Don’t you have a heart> Walk a mile IN HER SHOES!! Where do you live? I”ll bet you live far away from Afghanistan and have no intention of going near it. (And that goes for the rest of you who blame NATO, etc…)

  • http://www.nuseiba.wordpress.com Sahar- Nuseiba

    A lot of the arguments defending the use of such imagery and the campaign to ‘save’ these women are part of the problem as they’re divorced from the political context. We should be questioning and problematising the assumptions which they are made on: who is NATO, or any foreign (especially a Western) organisation/country that believes they are in a position to protect these women? What are the historical and current function of these institutions/organisations? Are they not what James Tully describes as tools of an ‘implicit imperialism’ (example: NATO was established to maintain American hegemony in Eastern Europe) that this part of the world has been subjected to since the Second World War? Further, the justifications for the war have been exposed as a farce: the U.S. and international body had no qualms with allowing religious fundamentalism to blossom during the 1990s and even had deals with the Taliban. The fundamentalisms, political instability and poverty in Afghanistan arose out of cold-war politics in which two superpowers used the country to wage war on one another and then left it to fend for itself. Not a single Afghan took part in the 911 attack (not that it would justify an invasion of an entire country). The Taliban were willing to cooperate by offering to hand over Bin Laden to a third party who was more neutral; this was rejected. The plan to invade Afghanistan was already set out in the late 1990s with the intention to maintain control over untapped resources and establish a pipeline. Today, the country is worst off than it was prior to 2001; the west versus Islam narrative has exacerbated tensions and fuelled extremism in the region as part of a reaction to these imperialist adventures and the instability that ensued. Finally, women and children are the ultimate victims of war . All of this needs to be factored into the discussion we’re having and used to expose the fallacy ‘protecting’ Afghan women and why such imagery is merely a ‘cultural’ smokescreen.

  • Krista

    @ Karmel: I didn’t make my point very clearly there. What I’m saying is that the Taliban made terrible things happen long before 9/11 and long before the NATO presence there. People outside Afghanistan seemed to find it pretty easy to ignore Afghan women at that time. What happened to Aisha, sadly, isn’t something new – it’s the attention that it’s getting that’s new(ish), which is why I’m saying there’s more at play than simply a deep concern for Afghan women.

    (I don’t mean that this is why you personally care about it – I made that point in the context of saying that the global media/political attention that is given to Afghan women seems to be highly dependent on the existence of foreign interests in the country, not on the actual situation of Afghan women themselves.)

  • http://www.nuseiba.wordpress.com Sahar- Nuseiba

    Karmel, though I don’t live in Afghanistan, i’m an Afghan whose life has still been effected by that historical context I tried to briefly describe above – and who still has a lot of family living there – including Aunts and female cousins. Here is my advice: if you are so concerned for Afghan women, I suggest you stop endorsing military invasions and wars that foster an environment in which poverty, political instability and fundamentalism become salient features. I suggest you stop explicitly or implicitly endorsing institutions/non-state actors like NATO and state actors like the U.S. who, bereft of any moral/philanthropic agenda, operate under an economic and American hegemonic raison d’etre that exploits feminist/cultural narratives to achieve this. Finally, I suggest you concentrate on these structures, policies and institutions – that produce the north-south inequalities and subsequently the environment that Afghan and other women in the developing world have to live in. It is only when you concentrate on the latter, you will be helpful to Afghan women.

  • http://www.stop-stoning.org Rochelle

    I find it interesting who is allowed to speak for whom here.

    I’m hearing throughout this conversation: ‘white women can’t speak on behalf of Afghan women’. And yet the original post and Sahar’s many comments aver a particular interpretation of Aisha’s image in the eyes of what is presumed to be ‘the West’ without any evidence and totally removed of any context.

    In Sahar’s first comment, she claims that this image ‘suggests’ Aisha’s rebellion, ‘reminds’ of 2001 narratives, ‘depicts’ her sub-human entity. She doesn’t say to whom this image depicts these things, for whom this interpretation exists, or any evidence that people actually interpret this image this way. She just grabs some interpretations that she probably read about in her intro to postcolonial theory class and transposes them on the whole of the West. Talk about removing subjectivity, much? What about the viewer’s subjectivity — their experiences, their history, their cultural context — which (surprise!) may differ throughout the West.

    It’s funny how we find it disturbing when white westerners speak on behalf of Afghan women, but these commentators seem to have no problem making blanket statements of westerners. Sahar, pointing out that she’s Afghan, presumes she is in a better place to give suggestions for how to ‘help Afghan women’ than Time magazine, palliating her own position of privilege writing from outside Afghanistan. She gives no evidence for her absurd claims on US foreign policy, offers no voices of women on the ground; she doesn’t even mention any alternative ‘institutions’ we can support that don’t ‘operate under an economic’ agenda. (A political organization that is removed of economic bias and constitutes a completely moral/philanthropic code? Do they have unicorns, too?)

    I’m not saying Sahar isn’t allowed to speak. Of course she is and clearly has thought a lot about the issue. We can most definitely learn from her. But I wonder what kind of credentials it takes to be treated as an ‘expert’?

    I just met with a group of women who lived in Afghanistan (we were at the training in Indonesia) who said that they hoped NATO or US or some force would stay in Afghanistan, because they predict the country will fall into even more chaos if NATO leaves. Every woman living in Afghanistan that I meet says the same thing. Are their voices less legitimate, I wonder? Are their arguments ‘too Western’ for you, Sahar? Would they contradict your tribalist readings of Spivak, Chakrabarty, McClintock and Said?

    This is the problem with discourse analysis: We’re just left to believe that cultural artifacts have one interpretation and the commentator/scholar carries the smarts to figure it out. I, for one, am not convinced.

  • Jason Thompson

    Speaking of ‘alternative institutions which don’t operate under an economic agenda’, this has got me thinking…

    If the U.S./European presence in Afghanistan is seen as a purely imperialist act and the troops as foreign occupiers who will invariably draw opposition and extremism from groups like the Taliban, my question is:is there any other power, say Turkey, an Islamic country which seems more culturally aligned with Afghanistan, who can take the place of the U.S. and guide the country into a compromise situation in which some measure of women’s rights is maintained?

    Obviously the Taliban’s policies are an anomaly among Muslims, but I’d like to know about Muslim countries and organizations which can help liberalize Afghanistan from a less adversarial perspective. I realize that most Muslim-majority countries don’t have as much economic and military weight to throw around as the U.S. does, but since the majority of Muslim countries are not nearly as far-right as Afghanistan, in what ways are they exerting soft power to reduce Taliban extremism? Isn’t a commitment to justice a major part of Islam, as it is part of other religions, and even a part of secular humanism? I realize liberalism can’t be imposed at the barrel of a gun, but if there is any way of improving conditions for women in the country, rather than reverting to the isolationist, rather than imperialist, sort of racism of simply assuming that what would be unacceptable for women here is acceptable “there”, in “that place”, and that’s the way it is, and washing the U.S.’s hands of “them”?

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  • Oscar P

    The American soldiers who tried to cover their crimes did so because they knew that what they had done was very wrong. I suppose and hope they will be punished.

    Sakineh Mohammadi could be stoned to death because the LAW in that country says so. Theres nothing wrong with stoning an adulterer.

    Did Aishas husband or the Talibans tried to cover this crime? Did they think it was wrong? Will he be punished?

    Can you see the difference?