War and the Women in Afghanistan.

I definitely took pause reading this excellent column by Michele Goldberg at the American Prospect about the potential for a feminist justification of war. She writes,

Women for Afghan Women (WAW), a nongovernmental organization that runs women’s shelters, schools, and counseling centers in three cities in Afghanistan, has watched with alarm as American opinion has turned against the occupation. An American withdrawal, its board members say, would be catastrophic for the women they work with. “Every woman who we have talked to in Afghanistan, all the Afghan women in the NGOs, in the government, say the United States and the peacekeeping troops and NATO must stay, they must not leave until the Afghan army is able to take over,” says Esther Hyneman, a WAW board member who recently returned from six months in Kabul.

As an anti-war feminist, it is hard for me to hear that women in Afghanistan would want to keep the troops. She goes on to write that there has been reluctance in coming to this positive, however many activists believe this is what is best for women. Part of what makes this challenging to read is because these types of sentiments are often interpolated by the right to justify military expansion covertly for the purpose of the war on terror, not actually feminism. In their book Just Advocacy, Wendy Hesford and Wendy Kozol, write about the strategic use of women’s rights as a justification to expand troops in Afghanistan.

Both the events of 9/11 and the subsequest use of women’s rights to sell the Bush administration’s war on terrorism in the weeks following 9/11 (Smith) renewed interest in the anonymous Afghan girl depicted on the 1985 cover. In her radio address to the nation on November 17, 2001, Laura Bush claimed that, “the brutal oppression of the women is a central goals of the terrorists….Civilized people throughout the world are speaking out in horror–not only because our hearts break for the women and children of Afghanistan, but also because in Afghanistan, we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us…I hope Americans will join our family in working to insure that dignity and opportunity will be secure for all the women and children of Afghanistan.

This is a compelling narrative, if it were not drenched in racism and colonial fantasy. A feminist narrative for increasing troops in Afghanistan is not a new one, however, it is new when it is coming from women in Afghanistan, or is actually feminist, not just a cover up. And like any other country women have different positions on the presence of troops and align themselves with different parts of the political sphere in Afghanistan, some for and others against the occupation, but it still forces us to ask what role should the military have in Afghanistan?
This competition in narrative from what they want and what we want, is a plague to US based progressivism, where often what we are calling for is not what “others” may want in their home countries, but our ideology on war, terror, justice and feminism guides our political affiliations nonetheless. I suppose I am at a loss in finding a way to reconcile this difference, but I do wonder if Obama truly has democracy as his intention for increasing troops in Afghanistan, we have greater leverage to demand that military presence be for feminist good. But I don’t have that kind of faith. Will the American public or military support such an initiative or is the focus perpetually on the terror threat?

Join the Conversation

  • xocoatl

    playing a little fast and loose with the “we”, “our”, and “their” rhetoric today.
    Similarly to the way in which Jesse Jackson is not, to quote South Park, “the emperor of Black People,” I’m not quite sure what authorizes WAW to speak for the women of Afghanistan. Surely there are feminist organizations in the United States that you wouldn’t want to be speaking on your behalf.
    Your distinction between “real” and “fake” feminism is a little hard to swallow as well, given your commitment to trying to understand the world from other, different perspectives.
    I see very little to do with democracy in Obama’s foreign policy (or his domestic policy for that matter. Two party system, anyone?) so I will keep calling him out for being a conservative and voting for politicians I actually support.
    Is it a “feminist good” to install American-style health and education infrastructure in Afghanistan? Hmmmmm…

  • cattrack2

    “This is a compelling narrative, if it were not drenched in racism and colonial fantasy.”
    I’ve never understood the philosphy which equates feminism with pacifism, but I really don’t understood this accusation of racism, colonialism, and imperialism which is untethered from the real facts of Afghanistan.
    How is any of this the case in Afghanistan?Didn’t Al Qaeda attack us on 9/11? Wasn’t it wholly unjustified? Wasn’t Al Qaeda based in Afgh? Weren’t they allied with the Taliban? Isn’t (lo these many years later) the Taliban still active in Afgh?
    Afghanistan is not Iraq, there is no oil to extract there. So how, oh how, is it “racist” and “colonialist” to try & secure the very country responsible for an attack which claimed over 3,000 lives??? This accusation is nothing more than AQ apologism. Every country has the right to defend itself.

  • xocoatl


  • http://www.worldcantwait.net/ Lina

    Thanks for opening this up Samhita! This is no joke. The war in Afghanistan has been going on now for over 8 long years: longer than the Soviet occupation. People ought to be pretty fucking sure one way or another about what’s going on there.
    I argued against the war on the anniversary of the invasion a couple weeks ago. It’s not just easily dismissed jokes like Laura Bush who argue for the war. Ms. Magazine and the Feminist Majority do for instance.
    I agree with xocoatl: what makes WAW the authority on women in Afghanistan? Why not RAWA (the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan)?
    RAWA says that the occupation of their country only reinforces the strength of the fundamentalist theocrats of their country (which includes the Taliban as well as the other warlords). People who care about women in Afghanistan must demand an end to this war.
    original article with all the links available here:

  • Samhita

    I am drawing mainly from the writing of post-colonial feminist theorists that believe using “they are barbaric” as an excuse to invade countries is in fact a campaign of colonization. For more reading on the topic, I suggest reading authors Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Cynthia Enloe, Caren Kaplan and Inderpal Grewal who discuss extensively the impact of US military on the consciousness of the “3rd world” citizen along with theorists such as Franz Fanon and Homi Bhabha that talk about the psychological affects of colonization.
    It is always helpful to read up on things you don’t understand :)

  • cattrack2

    Thanks, Samhita, its worth exploring.

  • Hypatia

    “RAWA says that the occupation of their country only reinforces the strength of the fundamentalist theocrats of their country”
    Exactly. This is one of the reasons why I think war is an extremely ineffective strategy in Afghanistan (or anywhere in the ME for that matter). Al-Qaeda and religious fundamentalists are fueled by anti-Americanism, which is exacerbated by our military occupation.
    Personally, I think Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea) had the best way of overcoming extremism and violence in the region, but I guess that’s wishful thinking

  • DalekSec

    I’ve been watching the war and the bodies of my countrywomen and -men brought home several times, although I’ve been lucky enough not to lose anyone myself.
    I don’t pretend to understand all the sides of the leave/stay issue (working on it, though), but I think it makes sense that Canada, America and the EU are there: the Taliban gave cover to Bin Laden’s attempt to do a horrific act.
    From Samhita’s post, it looks like WAW has taken testimony from actual Afghan women (I suppose they could have made them up or distorted them, but I’m running with what I got here), so I’m not clear what more you could ask for; just because one organization is based in the country in question does not necessarily follow they’re survey of opinion/interpretation thereof is absolutely right.
    I suspect that the NATO forces being in Afghanistan is less of a problem to that country than the fact that there aren’t ENOUGH of them to successfully quell the violent elements (nor perhaps the right approach to doing it) so the Afghan government can maintain law and order (their first run at a fair election seems not to have gone so well). It is a disservice to the Afghan people to have thrown their country into such a situation and not efficiently help them out of it too. I think it is a point of honour that NATO does the job it went to do.
    Maybe I’m wrong. Damned if I know.
    My GUT reaction is simply that the Taliban was/is the most cartoonishly brutal institution in the modern world, and any move toward their destruction is something I can definitely sympathize with, if not unconditionally agree with.

  • Véronique

    Normally I am not on the side of waging war. But I have no problem believing WAW. Those women are on the ground, with war all around them. They don’t need theories. And what they need even less is a re-taking of the country by the Taliban, who created what was possibly the most misogynistic regime of modern times.
    I don’t know if NATO can secure the country. I don’t know if any kind of Afghan army can take over defence of a (somewhat) democratic government. But I’m pretty sure that however poorly Afghani women are faring now, they would be much, MUCH worse off under the Taliban.

  • TD

    Building schools, as Mortenson has done is noble, but the fact is the Taliban is not stupid. They know as well as anyone that an educated, contented populace is not in their interests. They have made it unquestionably clear that they will simply destroy schools if they are not defended.
    How, precisely do you protect those schools without force? Are we to simply write strong letters condemning the Taliban every time they attack schoolchildren with acid?
    Development is extremely important in counterinsurgency. But you cannot have development without simultaneously providing security. Otherwise the insurgents will simply shoot your aid workers and burn down anything they built.

  • Comrade Kevin

    No easy answers exist, certainly. It is difficult to propose a solution without also imposing the “We Know Better” paternalism that has justified many a war or invasion. As a Quaker, I, of course, oppose war in any incarnation and wish that if we are to aid women in Afghanistan that we do so without the need of a troop presence, while being simultaneously conflicted that without said troop presence, it is highly unlikely women’s rights will be protected.
    I could be callous and say we can’t fight everyone’s battle for them but then that statement negates the crusading part of me who wishes to apply that which I believe best assists the oppressed.


    Kazakhstan and Turkmenia, Afghanistan’s neighbors to the north, have quite considerable oil resources – oil which is currently shipped to the outside world via Russia. Afghanistan and it’s southern neighbor Pakistan are an alternative route to the world market that doesn’t cross Russian territory.
    As for al-Qaeda, as reprehensible as their attacks on America were, if America had not spent the past 70 years meddling in Saudi Arabian internal affairs (to control that country’s vast oil resources) and the past 60 years propping up the Israeli war machine, they wouldn’t be attacking us in the first place.

  • khw

    Afghanistan has been one of the options mentioned for the construction of an oil pipeline for the transport of oil from the Central Asian former Soviet nations; which would have the consequence of hindering Russian and Iranian dominance in the area.
    If I am not mistaken, one of the companies involved in promoting this option was Chevron, with Dr. Rice on the board.
    On another tack, it is hard to see just how the stated aim of “bombing Afghanistan back to the the
    Stone Age” and the invasion fit in with the right to defending America. The wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq have, arguably, made the world much more dangerous and are not in any sense in proportion with what actually occurred on 9/11.

  • iheartchai

    I signed in just to make mention of RAWA, but i see that you’ve beaten me to it.

  • iheartchai

    There may be no oil to extract but there are oil pipelines to be built and not to mention that going into Afghanistan (since it’s something that the Bush administration could justify to the american people) opened the door for the Iraq war.
    It’s all connected and it’s all about power and money not about ‘protecting’ us. Our govt could give two shits about us (yes, i really truly believe that)
    Did it ever occur to you that the attack on the US was itself seen by some as an act or retribution, of protection maybe rather than an umprompted attack because they “hate our freedom”? (just like you think that bombing the shit out of Afghanistan is us protecting ourselves?) We’ve been fucking over that entire region of the world for a while now and ppl can only take so much crap before they do something stupid and awful (9/11)
    Im not defending the act, im trying to UNDERSTAND it because that’s the only way to make sure it doen’t happen again.
    You can’t liberate ppl by attacking them and occupying them, you can’t bring democracy by bombimg them and you sure as hell can’t tone down anti-american sentiment by upping the ante.
    We played this game in Latin America for years, pretending to bring democracy and freedom and blah blah blah when it was essentially about money and furthering capitalist interests. How many deaths did we cause, how many brutal dictatorships did we sponsor and arm, how much suffering did we cause?
    To think that it’s any different this time around…well, i just don’t understand that.
    RAWA wants us out, and i tend to agree with THAT Afghani feminist group.