Of course, THE goal was never to save Afghan women. Everyone in Afghanistan and the surrounding region knew this. But the superpower was in a bloodthirsty mood, the tragedy of September 11th demanded vengeance. Afghanistan had not been involved in the attacks at all, but Saudi Arabia, from which most of the attackers came, could not be attacked as this would destroy the world and its own economy. Afghanistan, already confused by decades of foreign occupation and CIA proxy wars, was the answer.
The bombings began in the fall of 2001 and will continue until the end. To make a cover story about the necessity of the invasion – they couldn’t openly cite revenge as a reason – they clung to the deplorable state of women’s rights in the country. It was true that Afghan women lived in miserable conditions, but so did Afghan men; every third person was literally at risk of starvation. The bombing of villages looking for a livelihood unleashed new heights of chaos and slaughter; but the narrative of the war did not include this aspect.
The US-NATO coalition and the taxpayers who funded the neo-imperial excursion wanted to hear about the “good” that is being done in Afghanistan. The front pages in widespread newspapers were devoted to “honor killings” and western plans to eradicate them, the girls’ schools that were on the outskirts of bombed villages, and the “new” Afghan women who were employed by the Americans or this or that NGO was now an independent woman.
The trick is an old trick. Long before the Americans got there, it was the British who resorted to the slogans “Save the brown woman” to justify their own colonial presence. Back then, only the Indian women who supported the British Empire were included in the plans – and sometimes left out. In the early 1900s, a conference was held in London on “How to Best Empower Indian Women”. As one Indian activist put it aptly: “A conference about us without holding us and deciding what we need is ridiculous; We don’t need British women to strengthen us, we can do just fine without them. ‘
Long before the Americans came along, it was the British who resorted to the slogans “Save the brown woman”.
Afghan women could not respond in this way. They were already living in a “hellish landscape,” a creation of the Taliban’s misogynist tendencies, public flogging, executions, house-to-house searches and much more that was an integral part of the militant group’s desire to control and intimidate. Some protested the invasion, pleading repeatedly for peace, no air strikes, no invasion, no occupation, but their voices were drowned out, in some cases by the many wealthy Afghan expatriates who were supposed to benefit from the invasion and the aid money, that was attached to it.
Trickle-down feminism, as invented by ardent white middle-class feminists who became warmongers, did not work. During the 20 years of the US-NATO presence, an auxiliary economy emerged in Kabul and some other provincial capitals. The Afghan women who found jobs related to the US presence, and especially the women who worked in the Green Zone, lived a certain “free” life in which freedom meant not wearing a burqa and one in front of the neo-colonial masters Kowtow to make their paychecks funded. In this small sense the “Liberation” was a success.
In every other way it was a failure, and the evidence is visible of how easily the structures erected by the invaders collapsed. Without help, the economy will shrink and thousands of Afghan women will be pushed out of it, even if the Taliban let women work. In rural areas, women are still faced with more air strikes, dead husbands and sons, and how to survive.
What was required in Afghanistan was a cultural change and a grassroots change. This did not happen because by combining women’s empowerment with foreign occupation, drones and bombs, the whole idea was so de-legitimized that any talk of women’s freedom was and is viewed as a collaboration with the empire and its shameful machinations. This last point is crucial because it represents the gigantic task Afghan women face of developing an indigenous conversation about empowerment that can re-legitimize the idea. In the current climate of uncertainty and constraints, this seems almost impossible.
In any case, Afghan women need the basics to survive in the short term. Those whose husbands, fathers, brothers, etc. have been killed, and there are thousands and thousands of them, need help to live. Internally displaced persons or refugees en route to Pakistan, Iran or elsewhere need humanitarian assistance. The need is urgent and time is of the essence, because the double catastrophes of the Taliban takeover and the pending Covid-19 surge driven by Delta variants do not bode well for their future.
The US-NATO experiment to turn Afghan women into gross imitations of middle-class women in the white and western world has failed. The consequences will be borne by the Afghan women who have never approved an invasion on their behalf but will still pay the price for it. The new Taliban administration, despite its best efforts to appear friendly and accommodating, is likely to be as backward and repressive as ever.
Hope lies in the ability of Afghan women, especially the educated, to develop a locally relevant plan for their own well-being and empowerment. This will take some time, very likely a very long time, and one can only hope and pray that they can survive until the time comes.
The author is a lawyer and teaches constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, September 1, 2021