What Will Happen If We Leave?
This is a guest post by Negah Rahmani, the writer can be contacted here.
The August 9th cover of Time Magazine with the portrait of 18-year-old Aisha has ruffled a few feathers, and rightly so. The magazine’s subtext “what happens if we leave Afghanistan” leaves little guessing room as to where they stand in regards to the war efforts.
I can’t imagine anyone who will not be touched and outraged by Aisha’s plight. However, the story of Aisha is neither unique nor recent. Horrendous experiences like that of Aisha’s are reported on a regular basis where Afghanistan is constantly being ranked as one of the worst places to be a woman.
The use of the burqa-clad Afghan woman as part of the war propaganda has been much contested. It’s hard to believe that nine years later and the images like that of Aisha are still being used to persuade public opinion and justify the U.S occupation. The current cover asks no questions and instead states boldly that atrocities like this will happen if WE, the West, leave Afghanistan. This forms part of a much larger and outrageously orientalist media discourse on the topic. The point that the cover is making in short is this: we, the white man need to rescue these Afghan women from the cruelty of Afghan men. The image of Afghan women have been used, and overused, for far too long as a propaganda tool to justify the ‘liberation’ of Afghans by the coalition forces and it is sad and frustrating to see that Time has continued the trend. And I guess the simplest analysis is that this DID happen while WE were there.
As Michael Scheuer states in a recent article for the Diplomat, winning in Afghanistan was never more than finding Osama Bin Laden and stamping out the Al Qaeda stronghold in the country. In fact U.S’s initial attempts to bargain with Taliban to handover Bin Laden and their consequent partnership with the Northern Alliance and Pakistan, all with deplorable record of women’s rights abuses, sums up how much of a priority women’s rights was and has been in the war effort.
Besides the image on the cover, the article itself has some inherent flaws. The article uses photographs of women like Fawzia Koofi, the former Deputy speaker for parliament and Mozhadah Jamalzadah a young Afghan-Canadian woman who has returned to start an Oprah-style talk show in Kabul. Aryn Baker tries to paint a picture of Kabul as a city of opportunities and possibilities for women like Jamalzadah. The only problem is that these women form a minority within a minority. The elites from Kabul are a world away from their counterparts in the provinces. Jamalzadah with her bright blonde hair and western attire will seem foreign to women in Badakhshan, Helmand and Herat. This is the mistake that has been repeated in Afghanistan time and time again. Kabul is not Afghanistan. The ideology and experiences of Kabul’s elites are not shared with the rest of the country. It is not indicative of what Afghanistan is as a country and who the Afghans are as a people. This was the issue when Queen Soraya and King Aminullah tried to modernise the country in the 1920’s and has been repeated in the 60’s, 80’s and again now. Afghanistan needs to be understood for the diverse mishmash of cultures, tribes, traditions, histories, identities and mentalities that it is. The lives of women in Kabul, especially the urban elite, are dictated by different circumstances and social codes than what women face all over the country. Examples such as Koofi are not relevant and rarely do the changes made in Kabul have an impact in the provinces.
This is also true of the concepts and standards Baker uses to measure progress. Concepts of the constitution safeguarding women’s rights, mandating a minimum 25% female representation in the parliament and opportunities to join the police force and army are shallow shells and empty promises. Although the constitution of Afghanistan gives men and women equal rights it also gives Sharia Law supreme power. Sharia can be applied to overrule constitutional laws and are deemed more appropriate in instances where the law is not clear. The reality of the situation is that women do not have equal rights, violence against women is as WomanKind WorldWide put it in their 2009 report ‘exponential’ (and they were only considering the things that get reported). These changes, insisted on by the Western allies, have little to no bearing to the lives of Afghan women, especially outside of Kabul. Time magazine’s claim that WE (ie the West) are what stand between hell for women and equality is laughable at best.
What’s worse is that articles like these fail to recognise that perhaps the presence of U.S and its allies has had a detrimental effect on women’s rights and have set the feminist movement at least a decade back. Povey, one of the most cited academics in the field of Afghanistan concluded in her 2004 paper that the Western ‘pre-packaged’ idea of improved women’s rights have failed to recongnise what Afghan women had achieved throughout the Taliban regime. She writes of an underground feminist movement that was spread throughout the country where women were putting their lives at risk to defy some of the Taliban’s harshest rules. Every single woman interviewed by her admitted to have partaken in income-generating activities. Most were teaching girls or were sending their daughters to make-shift schools. Women formed a large network and despite the circumstances had created, in essence, a social movement that had incredible potential and affected real, grassroots change for the women by the women.*
The biggest defeat of the war has not been the regress of the policies and politics of the country but rather this fact. Women have been set back. The networks that they had created that were sustaining them have been broken. And they have been denied the recognition for their efforts in the struggle for better rights and living standards. They have been denied their voice as much after the U.S occupation as they were before. This image of them as helpless and in need of rescue by white men in shining armour is not only grossly inaccurate, overly simplified and misused but an offense to the identity, struggle and history that they have lived.
* Povey’s paper can be found: Povey R, 2004, ‘Women in Afghanistan: Passive Victims of the Borga or Active Social Participants’, in Women and War: Feminist Perspectives, Oxfam GB, UK
Negah Rahmani is a student at the Monash Asia Institute undertaking a Masters in Asian Studies with a focus on Afghanistan and women’s rights.