White Woman’s Burden in Afghanistan?

By Michelle Chen Aug 13, 2009

Right now, two women in Afghanistan are running for president. That’s two more female candidates than America’s political mainstream could claim last Fall. But these ladies are up against some horrific odds: in seeking public office, they expose themselves to culturally ingrained hostilities, oppressive laws, and the routine threats of military and gender-based violence. So who will “save” Afghanistan’s women? Surely only a military superpower can drive out the Taliban, free women from their burqas, and enable them to learn to read and write and maybe even run a beauty salon… right? This seems to be the rationale of some leading American feminists who back the war on Afghanistan in the name of women’s rights. The Feminist Majority Foundation’s announcement of its campaign to defend Afghan women and girls features a (vaguely qualified) endorsement by Dr. Sima Samar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission:

Viewing the people of Afghanistan and the USA as partners with shared responsibility in the struggle to end terrorism, [Samar] asserted that for victory to be achieved, the US must not re-arm the warlords who have terrorized the people, especially the women and girls.

Contrasting with the homegrown advocacy of Afghan women activists, “victory” here is cloaked in the same moralistic banner as the war on terror. Threading feminist language into the military escalation equates resistance to gender oppression with the devastation of an entire country. Ironically, as American feminists align themselves with the Pentagon, the voices of more radical Afghan women are marginalized. On Alternet, the Feminist Majority’s position prompted a challenge from Sonali Kolhatkar, head of the humanitarian group Afghan Women’s Mission, and Mariam Rawi, founder of the pioneering Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan:

Waging war does not lead to the liberation of women anywhere. Women always disproportionately suffer the effects of war, and to think that women’s rights can be won with bullets and bloodshed is a position dangerous in its naïveté. The Feminist Majority should know this instinctively…. Under the Taliban, women were confined to their homes. They were not allowed to work or attend school. They were poor and without rights. They had no access to clean water or medical care, and they were forced into marriages, often as children. Today, women in the vast majority of Afghanistan live in precisely the same conditions, with one notable difference: they are surrounded by war. The conflict outside their doorsteps endangers their lives and those of their families. It does not bring them rights in the household or in public, and it confines them even further to the prison of their own homes. Military escalation is just going to bring more tragedy to the women of Afghanistan.

The "liberation" of Afghan women thus serves to justify an inherently regressive and reactionary war. It’s a familiar dilemma for First World humanitarians dealing with "backward" societies: when do good intentions become smokescreens for imperialism? Patricia DeGenarro of the Center for the Study of Democracy at Queens University witnessed first hand the cultural incompetence that has hampered foreign assistance in Afghanistan:

During my first trip to Afghanistan, I couldn’t believe how anything got done. We were all locked down behind the barricades. When I was finally able to leave, I visited the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, where the first words from the minister’s mouth were, "Please help me organize these donors. I have no idea who is doing what, and they are everywhere." She wasn’t kidding. Everywhere, there were groups involved in "saving women" without even asking what the Ministry needed…. Donors are so keen on seeing themselves as liberators of these "poor women" that they too often fail to see that this is not just about the Taliban.

In the theater of war, the dominance of outside (white, liberal) organizations, both civil and military, risks reducing Afghan women to mere props. Women on the ground—if anyone asked them—might well perceive this as neocolonialist paternalism (or is it maternalism)? Though set in a different cultural context, Michelle Goldberg’s examination of female circumcision in the American Prospect broached parallel questions about women’s empowerment in the Global South:

Like international debates over family planning and women’s empowerment, the controversy over genital cutting is about who has the right to intervene in the sexual practices of others. In the campaign to eradicate female circumcision, a powerful alliance of rich-country donors and poor-country activists are telling traditional societies that they must change for the sake of their girls. They are trying to eliminate a practice that causes many women incalculable agony but that millions value deeply, in part for its role in warding off sexual chaos. International institutions are pressuring national governments to supersede the child-rearing decisions of families and thus protect girls from harmful traditions. Given that around 3 million African girls are cut each year, the power of global norms to shape individual destiny is being tested on a massive scale.

Even within the United States, the movement for reproductive justice has emerged as a response to a concept of feminism that has historically ignored social and economic challenges unique to women of color. As an alternative to the Western moral crusade for Afghan women, DeGennaro points to community-based organizations in Afghanistan that address women’s economic, health and education issues as well as questions of gender equity, on their own terms:

These are Afghan-focused, Afghan-run and sensitive to Afghan culture. And many of them know that they must work with the men and boys as well. It would serve us well to learn from them…. Feminists worldwide should continue to support Afghan women, not abandon them. The issue, however, is that women’s programs can receive all the money in the world, but if it’s not used holistically and responsibly, nothing will change, and the goal of empowering women will be for naught.

So within the tension between "universal" rights and cultural self-determination, who’s right? The loaded answer is that the whole debate is meaningless—until it honors the voices of the women and communities at the heart of the struggle. Image: USAID