“Western” feminists often discuss and offer solutions for the position of women in Afghanistan, however as Munazza Ebtikar writes, these viewpoints are often stripped of the context of decades of military devastation and silence the voices of Afghan women who are fighting for change
Featured image – member of Aghan parliament Fawzia Koofi
Cheryl Benard recently published an article comparing the current plight of Afghan women to women in “Western civilisation”. In Benard’s view, Afghans have been “organically resistant” to imported American ideas and modernity. She advises Afghan women to learn to fight for their own rights and to ally with the Taliban—an insurgency group with the worst track record on women’s rights—in order to stand against Afghan “anti-woman traditions”.
This civilisational grandiloquence, pitying non-Western women because “we” in the West are more civilised and rational, is championed by white feminists who suffer from a white saviour complex. This understanding assumes that gender relations and women’s rights are more advanced in “the West” and need to be imparted on non-western women as agentless objects of unchanging patriarchal systems. It also detracts attention from the discrimination to which women in Western Europe and North America are subject.
Sara R. Farris has coined the term “femonationalism” to describe how right-wing nationalists and neoliberals instrumentalise women’s rights to advance their anti-Islam and anti-immigration campaigns in Europe. Femonationalists include feminist theorists and policymakers or “femocrats” who frame Islam as being a misogynistic religion and culture. In a similar way, Benard takes pride in having worked on Afghan women’s rights for over 20 years while publishing on Eurojihad, or how Afghan refugees in Western Europe are criminals and rapists.
“After 2001, humanitarian institutions, Euro-American media organisations, and academics have promoted the rhetoric that women living in Afghanistan need to be liberated from their religion, their culture, and their oppressive men, with little to no attention to the political and historical reasons behind the current conditions”
Likewise, when the United States first started bombing Afghanistan in October 2001, first lady Laura Bush gave an address to the effect that “the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women”, justifying the US military occupation by using Afghan women as a rhetorical ploy. Meanwhile, Ivanka Trump has championed Afghan women’s rights in her official announcement on “empowering” Afghan women during the Regional Conference on Women’s Empowerment in Afghanistan. Trump stated that the status of Afghan women “will determine whether or not Afghanistan will be a civilized member of the community of nations”.
Concerns about Afghan women have been at the forefront of many discussions about American military intervention in and occupation of Afghanistan since 2001. This came after a long silence following the USSR withdrawal (from which the United States benefitted), at a time when Afghanistan witnessed a Civil War (1992-1994) and intense fighting during the Taliban regime (1996-2001). After 2001, humanitarian institutions, Euro-American media organisations, and academics have promoted the rhetoric that women living in Afghanistan need to be liberated from their religion, their culture, and their oppressive men as part of a broader civilising mission.
This comes with little to no attention to the political and historical reasons behind the current conditions under which women live. The 1964 constitution, on which the current constitution relies, recognised that all Afghans “without discrimination or preference, have equal rights and obligations before the law.” This constitution guaranteed women “dignity, compulsory education, and freedom to work”. Even if there was dissent from more conservative-minded groups, Afghan society gradually reconciled with women’s participation in the workplace and in academic institutions from the 1960s onwards.
An Afghan woman casts a ballot polling centre in Kandahar Province
There is a long history of women fighting for their rights in Afghanistan. As a response to the communist coup in 1978, followed by the Soviet invasion in 1979, various underground women’s groups undermined the USSR-backed government. Women students took part in a massive anti-government demonstration on February 1980 in Kabul, where many were arrested, and some killed. Meanwhile, women in rural areas actively supported the resistance against the USSR and the USSR-backed government. Even during the years dominated by the draconian Taliban regime, Afghan women risked their lives to open underground schools for girls, at a time when schools and universities were made inaccessible to female students and teachers.
But even when we look past the most recognised forms of resistance in which Afghan women have engaged—that is, those forms that are politically intelligible within Western traditions—we can better understand the lessons that leading feminist scholars such as Lila Abu-Lughod and Saba Mahmood have taught us: that women are able to exercise their agency even within an oppressive patriarchal system. Afghan women are not waiting, in the words of Cheryl Benard, to have “people from a different culture far away (feel) sorry for us and (send) their soldiers and tons of their money to lift us out of oppression”. Afghan women have exerted and still use their agency despite the insurmountable hardships that they face every day.
So-called feminists such as Benard ruminate on how aid money or job placements have not “empowered” Afghan women, while disregarding the most crucial element of their lived experiences: Afghan women have lived in conditions of war, occupation, and militarisation over the past four decades, creating and sustaining the circumstances under which freedoms of all kinds are limited. Julie Billaud’s ethnography in Kabul demonstrates how women in post-2001 Afghanistan have dealt with the norms that decades of war, destitution, and displacement have made more rigid. So how can we expect Afghan women’s fight for their rights to live in a just, equal, and safe society to mirror the fight of women living in Western Europe and the United States?
“Afghan women are faced with multi-layered challenges, and to draw an equivalence with any other context in terms of women’s struggles is not only ill-informed, but profoundly unfeminist”
Benard’s article comes at a time when her husband, Zalmay Khalilzad, the official representative of the United States in Afghanistan, is stepping over the Afghan government to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban in Qatar for a fast-track US withdrawal. Benard’s husband is negotiating with the same Taliban that have vindicated America’s longest war, expended American lives and money, and caused the death and displacement of millions of Afghan women, men, and children.
Currently, the very same people who advocated for military occupation in Afghanistan and justified it by claiming to be saving Afghan women are telling us that the Taliban are not so bad after all. And that although they came to Afghanistan to rid the country of the Taliban, they are instead negotiating with them and compromising the lives of the same women they supposedly came to save.
Cheryl Benard advises women to “march up to the table” and speak to the Taliban directly during these peace talks. A female member of the Afghan parliament, Fawzia Koofi, did exactly that earlier this month. And just last week, 700 Afghan women from across the country held a conference in Kabul to express their concerns about the legitimisation of the Taliban by the United States.
Afghan women are faced with multi-layered challenges, and to draw an equivalence with any other context in terms of women’s struggles is not only ill-informed, but profoundly unfeminist. If so-called feminists such as Benard, Bush or Trump are concerned about the predicament of Afghan women, they should push for the re-evaluation of American foreign policy. Imperialist wars have culminated in the destruction of Afghanistan since 1979, creating the dire conditions in which Afghan women now live. Unwanted saviours should check their white privilege, listen, recognise, and not undermine the everyday struggles of Afghan women.
Abu-Lughod, Lila. Veiled Sentiments: Honour and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1986.
Billaud, Julie. Kabul Carnival: Gender Politics in Postwar Afghanistan. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.
Farris, Sara R. In the Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism. Duke University Press, 2017.
Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton University Press, 2012.
Munazza Ebtikar is a PhD student in Oriental Studies and Anthropology in the University of Oxford.Follow @mebtikar