Women demonstrators from Afghanistan's Hazara minority attend a protest in Kabul, Afghanistan on July 23, 2016 [File: Reuters/Omar Sobhani]
Author’s note: Twenty years ago, the United States and the United Kingdom exploited the cause of women and girls in Afghanistan and the rest of the Muslim world to justify their invasion, occupation and other forms of intervention in Muslim nations. Their leaders enlisted their wives, Laura Bush and Cherie Blair, in the propaganda war to “lift the veil” on the Taliban, well after the group retreated under fire.
In the following years, more women entered the workforce and more girls went to school, but Afghans continued to suffer from widespread poverty, illiteracy, and patriarchy compounded by violence, repression and war, hurting women first and foremost. Afghanistan became the “forgotten war” and the cause of its women disremembered until recently when the Trump administration basically handed Afghanistan back to the Taliban and the Biden administration withdrew US forces rather humiliatingly from the country.
Suddenly, the cause of Afghan women is back in the headlines for fear that the little that was accomplished may be reversible. As I wrote back in 2010 in the piece below, despite the best of intentions on the part of many, Western military crusades in the Muslim world do not solve social and political problems; they compound them.
Western media is awash with reports about Taliban mistreatment of women in Afghanistan and Pakistan that feature countless voices in support of the war to secure a “brighter future for women’s rights”. This week’s Time magazine cover story is a case in point.
If Western wars “liberated” Eastern women, Muslim women would be – after centuries of Western military interventions – the most ‘liberated’ in the world. They are not, and will not be, especially when liberty is associated with Western hegemony.
Afghanistan has had its share of British, Russian and American military intervention to no avail. In fact, reports from credible women’s groups there signal worsening conditions for Afghan women since the US invasion a decade ago.
The Taliban’s social norms might be an affront to modern values, but they cannot be replaced summarily with Western values, let alone by force.
If, as General Petreaus insists, US soldiers should “live” with Afghans in order to defeat the “insurgency”, expect more hostility towards the foreign invaders and their values.
White man’s burden
The same Orientalist civilising rationale that was used over centuries to justify bloody colonial wars is being used nowadays to manipulate a war-averse public into supporting military escalation in Central Asia.
Western man’s long-held fantasy of “rescuing” veiled women from their repressive captors is being exploited to promote the idea that war can free women from the wrath of the “bearded terrorists”, as it “liberates America” from their terrorism.
In light of such a heavy dose of surplus morality, it was particularly embarrassing for US leaders that their allies were making amends with the same shunned illiberal groups and practices.
Last year, the Obama administration publicly scolded Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, for recognising Sharia in the tiny Swat Valley as an “abdication” to the Taliban and rebuked Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, for signing a law that reportedly permits rape in marriage among the country’s Shia minority. Never mind that until recently, marital rape was legal in the UK and US, where it is still not treated as ordinary rape in a number of states.
Those who seek military solutions to social problems fail to make the distinction between Islam and the Taliban or between the cultural and religious aspects of life in Central Asia. Furthermore, they fail to explain why or how women’s rights can be attained by military means.
After all, the great majority of Pakistanis and Afghans have already voted against the Taliban – and in the case of Pakistan, in favour of a secular party headed by a Westernised woman, the late Benazir Bhutto, who was allegedly assassinated by the Taliban. Indeed the founders of Pakistan were no less secular than many of their Western counterparts.
Recent months have shown that the Pakistani government is capable of confronting the Taliban when necessary. And when Pakistani television showed the public flogging of a 17-year-old girl, it led to widespread outrage among the more than 170 million Pakistanis.
For decades, Pakistanis and Afghans were the victims of the medieval-styled Taliban, Mujahideen and warlords who were backed and armed by the US through the Pakistani and Saudi intelligence services.
In fact, for much of the 20th century, Western-led or supported military interventions in the greater Middle East have, intended or otherwise, targeted mostly the national secular regimes in the region – from Iran’s Musaddeq to Egypt’s Nasser through Iraq’s Hussein, not to speak of Afghanistan’s Soviet-installed Najibullah.
White woman’s burden
The irony escapes the likes of conservative British politician Cyril Townsend, who wrote in the Saudi owned pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat – under the headline Women’s Rights in Afghanistan – that British female soldiers are fighting for women’s rights to be realised there.
No explanation has been offered as to why, 18 years after the deployment of half a million US and British troops to liberate Kuwait and defend their ally Saudi Arabia, Saudi women still cannot vote or drive.
Similar cheering was expressed in 2001 by Laura Bush and Cherie Blair in support of the “war to liberate the women of Afghanistan” when in reality they were promoting their men’s war, not women’s rights.
Time magazine joined the war choir this week with a plea not to forget the plight of Afghan women. Richard Stengel, the magazine’s managing editor, wrote that he did not run this story or show this image “either in support of the US war effort or in opposition to it”. Perhaps, but the cover story contributes to justifying the war on humanitarian “civilising” grounds instead of criticising it on those same grounds.
A century after English poet Rudyard Kipling first invoked the “White Man’s Burden” to explain the US’s invasion and occupation of the Philippines, Washington and London continue to justify their military interventions and occupation, on more of the same debunked falsehoods.
It is scandalous that after the sham of the “White Man’s Burden” was exposed with the blood of millions, more of the same violence is justified under the pretext of a “White Man and Woman’s Burden”.
This is especially the case when many advocate the bombing of other cultures into social parity or cultural affinity with the West. Such dangerous eschatology that hopes to build on destruction will end up destroying entire Muslim societies for the charade of attaining women’s liberty as the West fancies it.
Victims of the ultimate power abuse, wars
As the foremost victims of the abuse of power, Western women are uniquely positioned to reject the most patriarchal and destructive of all power abuses: Wars.
As for Muslim women, there is no room in this war for what they stand for, their hopes or aspirations. Their voice is progressively silenced by the deafening sound of bombs and explosions.
Eastern women have been the first civilian casualty of wars. How many mourning widows, mothers, sisters and daughters will it take to reject wars of choice and expose their alleged civilising mission? After decades of war, Iraq and Afghanistan are now nations of widows – five million and counting, according to some reports.
Remember that the mistreatment of women stops at no cultural or geographic borders. Paradoxically, in the US, violence against women in war veteran families is three to five times higher than in average families. This is literally a “White Woman’s Burden”.
Many women enlist in the military to attain equality with men, and more of them have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan than ever before. But I agree with those who seek to undo a man-made world of wars altogether.
At any rate, men do not go to war to save women. Rather, according to war historian Martin Van Creveld, men go to war to run away from their wives and families in search of ecstasy. Not exactly a woman’s cause now, is it?
Marwan Bishara is an author who writes extensively on global politics and is widely regarded as a leading authority on US foreign policy, the Middle East and international strategic affairs. He was previously a professor of International Relations at the American University of Paris.