This paper points out epistemic violence over the ‘Afghan Girl’ whose photographic portrait became iconic after appearing on a National Geographic cover in 1985. It was during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when the girl was photographed in Pakistan for the first time, which subsequently made her widely known in the West. Her picture articulates the image of innocent Afghans suffering from the ‘evildoing’ of the Soviets during the Cold War. It drew the sympathy of quite a few Westerners toward Afghan refugees, encouraging them to become involved in antiwar volunteer activities and charities. Despite her picture’s tremendous publicity, nothing was known about her until the curiosity about her re-emerged after a long hiatus when the Taliban regime collapsed due to attacks by NATO in 2001. By the time National Geographic crews found the ‘Afghan Girl’ again in Pakistan in 2002, her symbolic significance shifted from that of a victim of Soviet air strikes to one of the Taliban regime, notorious for having introduced sexist policies to Afghanistan.
The rediscovery of the ‘Afghan Girl’ is associated with a paternalistic project aiming at saving the girl from a barbaric male-dominated society. The fact that the National Geographic decided to create the Afghan Girl’s Fund to support girls’ education is clear evidence that some Westerners view themselves as saviors of miserable girls who do not have access to proper education. They needed a woman—not a man—as an icon, one that can successfully project the image of a victim of female oppression to suit their convenience.
The trajectory of the ‘Afghan Girl’ stimulates us to revisit Gayatri Spivak’s critique on speaking about women in subaltern classes. Spivak disclosed Foucault and Deleuze’s imperialist subject-constitution in her paper entitled “Can the Subaltern Speak?” She maps out the subjective sovereignty of varying elites(in her case, the British and Indian elites) by demonstrating the practice of sati, the burning of widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres, and its subsequent abolition in India. Spivak reached the conclusion that no one encounters the testimony of the women’s voice-consciousness, as subjective sovereignty is always conserved among the elites.
This paper suggests some similarities between the ‘Afghan Girl’ and the controversy over sati. Whenever the magazine photographs and writes about the ‘Afghan Girl,’ the West is always presupposed as the subject. Global/ local elites represent her in a way suiting their interest. Although she is formidably publicized, her raison d’être is recognized only as a mirror of Westerners. As such, she is situated as ‘the other’ whose relevance fluctuates in accordance with the context of Western politics. This paper tries to problematize such issues, and looks into subjectivity, representation and the intersectionality of the ‘Afghan Girl’ from a post-colonial perspective.