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Feminism, bombs and liberation

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Lies are being spun that most Afghan women’s lives improved under the US occupation. Judy Cox explores the reality for Afghan women after 20 years of war
Issue 2770
Afghan women have had their lives destroyed by the Taliban regime and US invasion
Afghan women have had their lives destroyed by the Taliban regime and US invasion (Pic: Flickr/ United Nations Photo)

Don’t be conned by the imperialist feminists who justify the US invasion of Afghanistan and help to perpetuate the oppression of Afghan women.

It’s fiction that most Afghan women’s lives improved during the 20 years of the corrupt US-backed puppet government.

Those who claim ­otherwise have based their evidence on life in areas of Kabul where a small number of women accessed education and employment opportunities. Their “evidence” is a handful of largely cosmetic measures.

The Bonn Agreement in 2001 set out a plan for governing Afghanistan, which enshrined the idea of women’s participation. The Afghan constitution guaranteed 20­ percent female representation in the Loya Jirga assembly.

In 2002, then ­president Hamid Karzai signed a Declaration of the Essential Rights of Afghan Women. This promised women civil rights, access to education and choice over what to wear.

Such measures justified international support for the regime and kept aid money gushing into the banks of Karzai’s corrupt government. But they meant little to the majority of Afghan women.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama) reported in 2009, “The current reality is that the lives of Afghan women were seriously compromised by violence and women were denied their most fundamental human rights”.

In the same year the Afghan government passed a law requiring Afghan women to obey their husbands in sexual matters, violating the country’s constitution.


Despite the talk of an increase the number of girls in education, Afghan women today have the lowest literacy rate in the world, and the worst disparity with men. Among Afghans aged 15-24, 50 percent of men are ­literate compared to just 18 ­percent of women.

Other Unama reports ­published during the 20 years of US occupation found that early marriage and frequent pregnancy led to maternal mortality rates of 1,900 per 100,000. This is one of the highest in the world.

Afghanistan spent just 0.6 ­percent of its GDP on health—the average for South Asia was 5 percent—and the life expectancy of Afghan women is just 44.

The government passed the Elimination of Violence against Women law in 2009. But six years later the Unama reported that Afghan women were ­regularly attacked and killed for holding jobs considered disrespectful to traditional practices or “un-Islamic”.

Rape was also widespread and its perpetrators were often above the law. And women’s economic vulnerability left many trapped in abusive relationships, leading to record levels of self-immolation.

In December 2018, Time ­magazine reported that Afghanistan was still the worst place in the world to be a woman.

A female Afghani diplomat told the paper, “Supporting women in Afghanistan is ­something people from all over the world pay lip service to, but money and aid never get to them. It’s eaten by corruption, and the monster of war.”

Paper commitments to ­women’s rights provided a ­failing regime with legitimacy in the eyes of its foreign ­backers, but not in the eyes of the women of Afghanistan.

Back in the late nineteenth century, European colonialists justified imperialism by ­claiming that the West was superior, modern and ­progressive and that the East was inferior and backward.

Britain invaded and occupied Egypt in 1882 to seek access to the Suez Canal. But the commander of operations Lord Cromer claimed to be liberating women from the “degradation” of Islam. He insisted that Egyptians must be “persuaded or forced to imbibe the true spirit of Western Civilisation”.

Yet Lord Cromer was a founding member and president of the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage.

Even some British feminists echoed the ideas of racial and cultural superiority in support of the British empire. Suffragettes Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst suspended their militant female suffrage campaign to support the First World War.

Five crucial questions about end of Afghanistan occupation
Five crucial questions about end of Afghanistan occupation
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Emmeline declared, “Some talk about the empire and imperialism as it if were ­something to decry and be ashamed of. It is a great thing to be the inheritors of an empire like ours, great in territory, great in potential wealth.”

All colonial ­powers claimed the same right to impose values on women. Veils were ceremonially burnt by the French forces who occupied Algeria.

Emmanuel Macron’s current government still promotes an idea of “Frenchness” based on the exclusion of Muslims. But “colonial feminism” was a false feminism that offered no hope of real change to women.

In November 2001 Laura Bush, the wife of then US president George Bush, stated, “Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights of women.”

The idea that US military power was being used in the noble cause of women’s ­freedom was echoed by a layer of so-called feminists including Cherie Blair and Hilary “the Hawk” Clinton.

The Feminist Majority Foundation in the US cheered on the “Coalition of Hope”.

And the West is not ­innocent when it comes to violence against women, or political and social inequality. In the US some 1,500 women a year are killed in “crimes of passion”.

War is incompatible with women’s rights—it means the deaths of women and their ­families, and the destruction of vital infrastructure.

An example from Afghanistan that illustrates the impact of war on women is the Wech Baghtu airstrike. On 3 November 2008, a US bombing of the village wedding party resulted in the deaths of 37 Afghan women and children.

As veteran US peace activist Tom Hayden wrote, “It’s hard to think that Afghan women can be liberated by an invading, bombing, imprisoning American army. It’s hard to believe that Predator drones, Special Forces, detention camps and foreign occupiers are solutions to Taliban fundamentalism.”

Pentagon feminists cuddle up to repressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia, while cynically manipulating the language of women’s rights to ­justify ­military interventions.

The imperial feminist agenda is also promoted by Western corporations seeking publicity and new markets.

In 2009, Revlon and L’Oreal raised just under £550,000 to launch Beauty without Borders in Afghanistan.

A woman running the ­program said, “When I first came to Kabul, I was shocked at what these women did to their hair and faces. They used ­buckets from nearby wells to rinse their hair.”

Afghan women may have preferred clean water to ­lipstick liberation, but they weren’t consulted.

The defeat of the West’s Afghanistan war
The defeat of the West’s Afghanistan war
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Feminism backed by military invasion and corporate feminism work manicured hand in glove. They both made it harder for women to organise and fight for their own interests.

Imperialist feminists have colluded in designating Afghan sons, brothers and fathers as the enemy.

Left wing feminist Gayatri Spivak observed that colonialism is justified by the idea that “white men must rescue brown women from brown men”. When this excuse is used, women are disempowered and men are dehumanised

But Afghan women are not passive victims waiting to be rescued by US bombs.

Miriam Rawi is a member of The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which opposed the Taliban government and US military intervention.

She argues, “The ‘war on terror’ and the ‘liberation of Afghan women’ were more lies to cover the many hidden agendas of US ­imperialism in Afghanistan.” Intersectional feminism over the last 20 years has seen many more people become aware of the necessity to take up issues such as race alongside gender.

Although intersectionality as a theory has limitations, it’s important that more feminists now insist that factors such as race and imperialism cannot be separated from questions of women’s rights.

This is a positive ­development to the battle for women’s liberation. The next step is to carry this further to the questions of the centrality of class, and to discuss how race and gender are affected by it.

The road to liberation is not through bombs—but by the actions of the oppressed themselves.

Struggle from below may seem very hard in Afghanistan today, but imperialist feminism will always be a barrier to women from fighting for liberation. Building opposition to war and imperialism lifts this barrier.

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