What is beautiful?
Ever since I saw this recent Time cover photograph, I’ve asked myself this question. The photo and the atrocity behind it horrified me, saddened me—and forced me to look at myself in a different light.
Eighteen-year-old Aisha is an Afghan woman who fled from her abusive in-laws. When she was caught, she pleaded for mercy but found none at the hands of men. Her brother-in-law held her down and it was her own husband who cut off her ears and nose. Now she is in a women’s shelter in Kabul, guarded, and soon will come to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery.
It takes courage to show anyone a mutilation of the body. It takes even more courage to have this physical devastation photographed. And it takes tremendous courage to do so, knowing that now she is a symbol of the ordeal for Afghan women, and can—will—be targeted by those who approve of treating another human being this way.
Her courage is beautiful.
This past week, I’ve been stressed about my appearance. I had a professional photo taken and was frustrated by how frizzy my hair looks despite all efforts to tame it. Yesterday, I went shopping for new clothes, fought crowds of back-to-school shoppers, and grew agitated as I searched for that elusive pair of pants that fit my body shape. I’ve had meltdowns in dressing rooms and once called my husband in tears, simply because I couldn’t find clothes to fit the “professional” image I desperately wanted to project for a writing seminar.
Why? I want to look beautiful.
Then I look at Aisha. I imagine what she went through at the hands of people who should have loved, honored and cherished her, and instead tortured her and tried to silence her cry for freedom and dignity. I see a young woman, the same age I was my freshman year of college, and I marvel that she hasn’t been cowed into silence. She knows the price she might pay, yet she is willing to pay that price.
She is beautiful. –Jodi Bieber, photographer
Undoubtedly, Aisha was beautiful before. I will not say that she is still beautiful; the addition of “still” implies that her beauty is somehow lessened by this imperfection. Her beauty is heightened because she refuses to play the victim’s role in this real-life drama.
Yesterday, I walked through the shopping mall, passing the window displays featuring gorgeous, perfectly proportioned models, their faces sensual, their eyes mocking as they gazed at those of us who try so hard to look just like them. I tried to avoid meeting their eyes. Even knowing they can’t see me, I still feel intimidated by their air brushed perfection.
Their perfection moves me to self-pity.
Aisha’s face moves me to tears.
If I had a disfiguring scar, I would probably hide in my house, afraid of others’ stares and whispers and taunts.
If anyone cut off my nose, I would be devastated, yet I would know that I could have reconstructive surgery.
If my husband abused me (a highly unlikely occurence), I wouldn’t be forced to live in a secured women’s shelter, fearing that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would lead to increased oppression of my gender. I would be helped by my church, supported by my family, and find comfort in knowing he could be prosecuted.
If I were Aisha, would I have her courage?