It was a vivid autumn evening. Americans were still grieving from the stun of 9/11, and the only entity that dared punctuate the eerily quiet streets of New York were the lurid faces of the missing, plastered across a thousand white pages on everything that could still stand in lower Manhattan. It was under this tense and mournful atmosphere that first lady, Laura Bush, took to the airwaves. It would be the first solitary address of any president’s wife in U.S. history, and Mrs. Bush would use her airtime to bolster her husband’s military campaign, Operation Enduring Freedom. Just six weeks after the US invasion of Afghanistan, Mrs. Bush spoke with confidence and pride as she described the rejoicing felt across Afghanistan with the fall of the Taliban. ?Nearly a decade has passed since Mrs. Bush’s address. The military campaign Bush began in 2001 has become known as the War on Terror. Americans have long learned to swallow the irritating truth that the corporate media assisted the political elites of this country in financing its military aspirations by capitalizing on the deep grief of September 11th. And what of those fatuous geographical alignments of “evil” so prudently crafted in order to solidify American resolve for Iraq? Well, they’ve shifted to Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. But so has global solicitude, once ardently vigiling with slogans declaring “we are all Americans,” now shrinks and scowls embarrassed it was inveigled into believing “Enduring Freedom” meant something other than torture, bombing and occupation.
Of all the stories culled into existence in order to facilitate mass compliance and participation in the War on Terror, none has been as politically potent as Mrs. Bush’s initial November appeal. Her call dared all decent people of the world to join the US and its allies in freeing the women of Afghanistan from the “brutal terrorism” of Islamic fundamentalism. Almost ten years later this explanation continues to oblige the US government’s ‘feminist’ agenda in South Asia. Even Time Magazine weighed in with its July 2010 headline, What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan. Notice the punctuation, and picture a melancholic young Afghan woman, wrapped in a purple veil, her black hair framing her warm brown skin, her nose (according the article inside) savagely cut off by the Taliban.
Unfortunately for the young woman, and the millions like her in Afghanistan, the War on Terror has spiraled into a war of terror. And even those of us who smelled the dire stench of imperialism before a single boot fell to the ground in Afghanistan are nevertheless perplexed by why it goes on into perpetuity.
“Moral arguments do not work,” an old professor of mine stated emphatically when I posed the question to him of how we were going to end the wars. “I don’t know,” he said, followed by a long, penetrating silence, then, “perhaps you, my dear, should write.” He slinks away to call for another drink, and I dare myself not to feel semantically ill-equipped to stop the hemorrhaging of innocent people caught in the cross hairs of a world gone mad on war.
Brushing aside my insecurities, I am resolved to address the contention that this war is a necessary step in liberating the women of Afghanistan. Despite Laura Bush’s optimism, I don’t believe the War on Terror has made anyone safer, not least the women of Afghanistan.
I contest Mrs. Bush’s assertion by taking notice of the dynamics of modern Afghanistan that make her promise entirely problematic. You see, firstly I am unconvinced that the majority of Afghans have much access to sources of international news. A recent poll conducted by the International Council on Security and Development found that nearly 92% of men (women were not polled) in Qandahar and Helmund provinces knew nothing of the September 11th attacks. Further, they reported that nearly 40% of all those surveyed believe the war is being waged to “destroy Islam” and others, Afghanistan itself. If after ten years a majority of Afghanis from the most war-torn areas remain unaware of the US’s principle argument for the war, I cannot say that the 2001 invasion held significant political meaning for the majority of Afghan women.
Beyond this, Afghanistan is a country where the majority of its citizens, nearly 78% according to a 2008 UNICEF report, live in the provinces. This also means that a majority of Afghanis have extremely limited access to civil infrastructure like electricity, running water, roads or means for transportation. Poverty rates are among the highest in the world, and literacy among the lowest. In the case of women, statistics find that only 12.6% are literate, most of them residing in Kabul and Herat. Several surveys do demonstrate an increase in enrollment of girls in secondary schools in Kabul in comparison to ten years ago. They also find that provinces not involved in the heaviest fighting report improvements for women when it comes to freedom of movement outside the home. Still, many claim that these changes are only cosmetic, and that conditions for women have either stayed the same as they were under the Taliban, or have worsened as a direct result of insecurities caused by war.
This past November, twenty-nine non-government organizations in Afghanistan submitted a briefing to the NATO Heads of Government Summit at Lisbon. The briefing entitled Nowhere to Turn described the conditions under which most Afghanis were living and described the security situation within the country as “rapidly deteriorating.” The report also chronicles three major concerns the NGOs deem major factors causing insecurity: a marked increase in night-raids conducted by US Special Operations Forces, a failed counterinsurgency campaign that looks increasingly unable to prevent a civil war, and widely circulated accounts of the US going around the Karzai government and financing and arming any opposition group claiming to be fighting the Taliban.
In a situation where living is far from assured, liberation is unthinkable.
Laura Bush’s contention that Afghan women have benefited from the ‘liberation’ brought to them by the US military is problematic because it isn’t backed up by conditions “on the ground” in Afghanistan. But there are several other more insidious issues raised by the U.S. governmental and mainstream media propagation of this notion. The narrative about ‘freeing’ Afghan women only became politically expedient when the aim of capturing Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda proved harder to do than anticipated. So the Bush Administration asked Laura to polish off that erstwhile story of the savage East in need of an altruistic West, and they cleverly reinvented orientalism in the guise of “the woman question.” Though emotionally manipulative and strongly lacking in historical credibility (the US financed militia groups throughout the 1970’s and 80’s when it was more advantageous to beat the Soviets than to rally for women) the narrative has become one of the most widely used justifications for continued occupation. Whilst there is no novelty in inculcating historical amnesia at politically opportune occasions, neither are these narratives about ‘East’ and ‘West’ impervious.
As we approach a decade of war in Afghanistan we must confront not only the material conditions that make structural improvements in Afghanistan unlikely, but also those narratives that allow continued support for the status quo. For me this confrontation is best expressed in the crucial debates about strategies for resistance.
Many post-colonial theorists contend that discursive change must be a precondition for structural transformation. In other words a process of decolonization necessitates not only the transformation of the political and economic apparatus of colonialism, but also its legitimizing narratives. I see this issue of freeing the women in Afghanistan through war as nothing more than a narrative used to legitimize the apparatus of imperialism, and unfortunately it is not only the political elites who are recycling this story.
There was a great and sobering opportunity, following the September 11th attacks, for all those “meaning makers” (journalists, academics, artists, etc.) to seriously contend with the ideology of American exceptionalism that has kept much of the US public naïve about the injurious role US foreign policy has played in the world. Instead public discourse was concentrated on futile questions like, “why do they hate us?” and determined that the principle issue between ‘the West’ and ‘the Rest’ were civilizational in nature – i.e. Samuel Huntingdon’s foolish “clash of civilizations” theory. Thus, it is no surprise that many people were persuaded that the U.S. must help the abject Muslim women in need of liberation. Notice the refusal by many leftists to critically reflect on the perils of bestowing cultural icons (e.g., the veiled Muslim woman) on serpentine historical and political realities.
Rather than seeking to ‘save’ the women of Afghanistan, with the superiority it implies and violence it affects, solidarity activists can critically engage by making a concerted effort to recognize their own responsibility to address the injustices that forcefully shape the world in which we live. Critical engagement also involves struggling to understand and manage cultural differences. Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod specifies actions we can take , “What does freedom mean if we accept the fundamental premise that humans are social beings, always raised in certain social and historical contexts…that shape their desires and understanding of the world… I do not know how many feminists who felt good about saving Afghan women from the Taliban are also asking for a global redistribution of wealth or contemplating sacrificing their own consumption radically so that [other] women could have some chance of having what I do believe should be a universal human right – the right to freedom from the structural violence of global inequality and from the ravages of war, the everyday right to having enough to eat, having homes for their families…have the strength and security to work out, within their communities and with whatever alliances they want, how to live a good live, which might very well include changing the ways those communities are organized.”
For me the issue of what constitutes ‘freedom’ or ‘liberation’ is something subject to historical context, and must be understood in the light of capacities and desires specific to the community in which one lives. If we wish to ‘liberate’ Afghan women from disembodiment and violence, what vision of life after liberation are we asking them to be liberated to? Nowhere on the planet have we yet been able to significantly challenge the male-centric social system of patriarchy that is at the heart of disparate power relations between the genders. Not in Afghanistan, and not here at home.
Similarly war and occupation have been the defining features between our society and Afghanistan. This unfortunate reality can also be the impetus for a commonality of purpose between our societies – either we all work to end the war or none of us will survive to benefit from liberation.