One image obscures more than a thousand words

We have all seen these images popping up in our social media feeds: Afghanistan in the 1970’s versus Afghanistan in the 2010’s. The first image shows girls in Kabul, who could just as well have lived in Paris or Berkeley in that period, with their long hair, short skirts, smiling faces and confident regards. The more recent image, then, shows Afghan women under blue burqa’s. The message is clear: the past forty years have been a period of incredible regression for Afghan women.

  • © Brecht Goris © Brecht Goris

Students of photography are very much aware that a picture never shows reality. Creative dictators have always experimented with adapting photo’s to suit the demands of their power, long before Photoshop came along and democratised the manipulation of images and long before Forrest Gump made it into good natured entertainment. Leaders who fell into disgrace, were unceremoniously removed from pictures, new leaders were added into scenes they never attended.

Framing serves a message, not always reality or truth

The gap between image and reality is much larger, though, than this kind of political manipulation. Every image is a frame, one piece from the broader and bigger reality, and so a photogapher decides which part will be shown and which will remain unseen.

One classic example of the impact of framing, is the iconic image of the Jewish boy leaving the Warsaw Getto under the threatening presence of a heavily armed Nazi soldier. The original image shows a number of families, while the “posterframe” focuses on the fearful boy and the menacing SS-trooper. That frame evokes a much stronger emotional reaction, because it embodies in a much more pure way the idea of innocence-versus-predator.

The larger lesson is that framing serves a message, not always reality or truth. All of this is common knowledge among professionals and students of photography, but it remains completely unknown on social media, it seems.

Optical deception

It should not come as a surprise that, in a comparison between the social situation in pre-war Afghanistan and today, after forty years of uninterrupted war and violence, civil war and foreign interventions, the conclusion would be that the country regressed.

Twitter and Facebook memes are meant to produce outrage, not information.

The problem is that Twitter- and Facebookmemes fail to show the full reality, which is less black-and-white and so much more layered than these messages, that are meant to produce outrage, not information. Not that the images are false or not credible, but they are not necessarily representative and they certainly do not tell the whole story – in spite of the endlessly repeated “wisdom” that an image tells more than a thousand words.

If you would juxtapose a picture from the 1950’s of young female workers who just received their paychack with a contemporary picture of a group of Gothic girls walking home after a long night out, you don’t show lies, but you inevatably create an interpreation -not of each picture apart, but of the half century that lies in between. The images are real, the meaning that is created not necessarily. Did we really go from pure and innocent pleasure to nihilism and doom?

The revelation of East and West in a woman’s body

The images in the memes could both have come out of The Struggle for Afghanistan, since both female students in short skirted uniforms and burqa clad women feature on the photo pages of the book that was published by Cornell University Press in 1981, the early years of the Soviet intervention and the resistance by Afghan mujahedeen. The authors, Nancy Peabody Newell en Richard S. Newell, recount the recent history of Afghanistan and how that ended up in the arrival of Soviet troops by Christmas in 1979. That political history is illustrated by pictures taken by William Witt, an American Peace Corps volunteer who liverd in Afghanistan from 1973 to 1975.

The West is personified by a nearly naked woman, the East by a fully veiled woman

Page 156 of the edition I have, shows an image with the caption ‘East meets West in Jalalabad’. A burqa clad woman with a child looks at a commercial cut-out on which a Western woman in white underwear smiles at her. Or maybe it is a bikini, the quality of the printed picture does not allow to make a final judgement on that.

What is important, is that the West is personified by a nearly naked woman, the East by a fully veiled woman. It seems that mutual clichés have changed little over the forty years between the moment that image was taken or commented upon, and today.

The struggle for female students

The image of the vibrant female students from the 1970’s is not false, but it is in many ways misleading. According to an article in The Economist, in 1978 half of all boys and not even a tenth of all girls between 6 and 12 was enrolled in school. And that was after a few years of reform under Mohammad Daoud Khan, who led a coup in 1973, abolished the monarchy and wanted to jump start Afghanistan’s modernisation. In a sense, he tried to accomplish what king Amanullah had failed to achieve in the 1920’s, because of the resistance from rural Afghanistan, its tribal shura’s and religious leaders.

The new constitution held guarantees for equal rights for men and women, limited the role for Islam in society and promoted education. These reforms were not welcomed in the villages.

The new constitution that Daoud proclaimed in 1977 held guarantees for equal rights for men and women, limited the role for Islam in society and promoted education. These reforms were not welcomed in the villages, where resistance brewed and grew.

Daoud’s approach was considered to be a fundamental breach of an unwritten law governing the relation between ruler and population in Afghanistan: the king was expected to rule the country, but to leave the population alone. Individuals and communities had always made their own choices and followed their own rules of good and evil, honor and revenge, without interference from Kabul.

In The Struggle for Afghanistan, Newell & Newell talk about an “exploding secundary education” as a result of Daoud’s reforms, and they quote the number of 20.000 alumni per year, of whom less than half would go on to tertiary education. A quick calculation learns that, on the basis of what we know about primary education at the time, not more than two out of every ten secundary alumni will have been a girl -if even that. In that case, we talk about maximum 4000 girls finishing secundary education per year, for the whole of the country. If we take into account the preferential treatment of boys in matters of education, not more than a thousand girls will have started a tertiary education every year. That is a very small minority in a total population of then 13 million inhabitants, of whom some four million were younger than twenty.

The images of a swinging Kabul have very little to do with the reality of the Afghan population in the 1970’s

The images of a swinging Kabul with lively, emancipated female students, thus, have very little to do with the reality of the Afghan population in the 1970’s. They show the daughters of the urban elites, strolling on university campuses, with their fashionable sunglasses and miniskirts.

Or they show the sons of the elites, smoking American cigarettes, fascinated by westerns, Victor Hugo and jazz. Or by the ideas of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, or of political islamists like Maududi or Qutb.

Tradition and revolution contest power

The article in The Economist was published on September 22, 1979, and described the educational policies of Daoud’s succesors, the communist revolutionaries of Khalq and Parcham, two competing factions that joined forces in 1978 to depose Daoud. Their communist regime pushed reform much harder even than Daoud did. Khalq (the Masses) would, out of principle, refuse to take religious conservatism or tribal sensibilities into account; Parcham (the Banner) also wanted to do away with fait and ethnic identities, but recognized it would be a work of long duration.

One of the controversial reforms of the communists was compulsory education for all children. ‘When Khalq forced parents to enroll their girls in schools, one could expect resistance’, wrote Newell & Newell. ‘In combination with increasing the minimum age for marriages to 18 years and a marxist education in schools, fears grew that these young women would no longer submit themselves to the authority of the family.’

Women and power

That fear, that took hold of rural Afghanistan but was not absent in cities, turned out to be not totally unfounded. Beginning 1980, it were female students who took the lead in chaotic protests, both as part of communist faction struggles and as part of the nascent resistance to Soviet military presence. ‘The very active role of female students in the anarchic conflicts showed the latent capacity of Afghan women to be proactively part of public developments, and even dominate them.’

35 years later, during a meeting of Afghan and international ngo’s in Brussels in early October 2016, participants are still talking about the potential of Afghan women to bring about peace, change and development to their war torn land. ’53 percent of all EU programmes in Afghanistan have gender as one of their primary objectives”, according to Marjeta Jager, vice-director-general of the European Commission’s Directorate General for Development.

‘Stop designing projects and programmes for Afghanistan in headquarters in Europe and the US’

Afghan representatives called for more respect for Afghan realities and dynamics. ‘Stop designing projects and programmes for Afghanistan in headquarters in Europe and the US. Place more trust in and give more decision power to Afghan organisations with their feet firmly in local realities, for they are much better equipped to understand and answer specific needs on the ground’, said Samira Hamidi, leader of the Afghan Women’s Network.

Palwasha Hassan of the Afghan Women’s Educational Centre made that concrete in a discussion on the impact of growing insecurity on the educational opportunities for girls. She argued that in some cases it is better to respond with creativity, by for instance organising home schooling for the girls, even if that would look like giving in to the pressures from tradition and fundamentalists to not let girls venture out of their compounds. ‘Without education, emancipation is impossible’, according to Hassan. ‘And so we need to make first steps possible, even when circumstances seem to make that impossible.’

Crouching burqa’s, hidden meanings

Another book from the early years of the Afghanistan war is Under a Sickle Moon by Peregrine Hodson. The author joined a group of mujahedeen and walked through part of Afghanistan during six months in 1984. Reading his impressive travelogue, one cannot but notice the near absence of women in the account.

On one occasion Hodson notes: ‘The younger girls of the household brought us water and food, their older sisters had no permission to leave the house: the presence of a male foreigner could have unforseen consequences. Nevertheless, on of couple of occasions I caught a glimpse of heavily veiled figures that looked down at me from the parapet over the main gate, and heard women’s voices and the sound of laughter.’ And elsewhere, he writes: ‘Occasionally we passed women clothed from head to foot in long chador who, when they saw us, crouched down at the side of the track with their faces turned away from us.’

The women in Hodson’s book bear no resemblance to the female students who are liked and shared so vigourously across social media, even though they were contemporaries

The women in Hodson’s book bear no resemblance to the female students who are liked and shared so vigourously across social media, even though they were contemporaries. Hodson, of course, hiked through mountains, villages and fields. He saw the lives of Afghanistan’s majority, not those of the urban minority.

In the period 1960-1970, Kabul was home to no more than 5 percent of the total population of Afghanistan, or some 500.000 inhabitants. That number fell dramatically after the devastating civil war of the 1990’s, though Kabul recovered its population by 2001. Today, Kabul has a population of around four million, equal to 15 percent of the estimated current population of Afghanistan. The large majority of Afghans that swelled Kabul after 2001, obviously came from rural Afghanistan or from refugee camps in neighboring countries.

The women that Hodson saw crouching in their burqas along the roads he traveled, have been moving into Kabul with their families, looking for a security that became absent in their contested rural areas. But moving from a remote village into the capital city, does not automatically turns them into urban people. What we have witnessed in Afghanistan, is that the cities have been colonized by rural, tribal cultures, with their ancient codes of honour.

Gender equality as geopolitics?

A small avant garde of male politicians – with the help of a geopolitical superpower – used their “emancipation policies” as a crowbar to make society more receptive for their own ideology and power

The presence of burqa clad women in the streets of Kabul, hence, does not only reflect a misogynist Taliban ideology, but is, to a certain extent, also a late and perverse consequence of the ill planned policy of emancipation of the 1970’s, that was imposed on people with the use of force.

Those policies contributed in no small measure to the uprising against reformers and communists, who, in desperation, called in the troops of the brotherly nation of the Soviet Union.

The message Afghan women’s activists are giving, is not that the struggle for equal rights and opportunities for women should be given up -quite to the contrary. They do ask, though, for an approach that would not repeat the errors made in the past, when a small avant garde of male politicians – with the help of a geopolitical superpower – used their “emancipation policies” as a crowbar to make society more receptive for their own ideology and power.

When confronted with the enduring consequences of that approach, the reluctance to believe the promises made by some in the West, should come as no surprise.

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