Aug 052010

Earlier this week, Rafia Zakaria wrote a post on the Ms. Magazine blog critiquing the “left’s” (in which she includes the Feminist Peace Network) response to the TIME Magazine cover and article about what happens to Afghan women  if we leave Afghanistan.  This post is in response to the points that she  raises.  She writes,

First to critique TIME‘s cover has been an American Left so committed to troop withdrawal that any pauses for consideration are instantly rejected as ploys to perpetuate occupation. On the Huffington Post, Derrick Crowe, political director of the Brave New Foundation, described the cover as “TIME’s epic distortion of the plight of women in Afghanistan,” calling it “rank propaganda,” and pointing out that Aisha was attacked while U.S forces were still in Afghanistan purportedly providing “security.” The Feminist Peace Network decried the tired use of “protecting Afghan women” as justification for continued occupation.

To begin with, given that I have oft critiqued the misogyny of the left, I don’t know whether to be amused, saddened or honored that this blog is seen by Ms. as representing the  not so monolithic as that left. But as to the point raised, given the CIA memo regarding the use of Afghan women to promote a continued presence in Afghanistan, I think it is fair to say that in fact it is a ploy.  Zakaria continues,

The Left’s framing is clear: Rescuing Afghan women was a pretext crafted handily by the Bush Administration so it could barge its way into Afghanistan and stay there. And that’s certainly true. Also true, as Crowe points out, is that Afghan women have continued to suffer during the American occupation, enduring both traditional patriarchal practices and newly-minted discriminatory laws. Indeed, assessing the performance of the 10-year occupation in the mutilated-yet-expectant features of a young woman serves as an appropriately graphic visual depiction of our failures in Afghanistan.

The problem with these arguments, however, is that they translate our inability to improve things thus far into a prescription for sudden abandonment of the very projects that women just like Aisha made the mistake of believing in: literacy and entrepreneurship initiatives for women, civil society seminars designed to encourage women’s participation and midwifery training projects to reduce Afghanistan’s sky-rocketing rates of maternal mortality. War is horrific, its misery recorded in lurid detail in the tragedy of Aisha’s mutilation. But withdrawing without a plan for safeguarding the women who chose to believe the American promises of empowerment, however deceitfully those promises may have been made, is to live in denial of a tragedy in which we are roundly imputed.

That is a very important point that needs to be addressed.  While advocating withdrawal, I believe it needs to be done in an orderly fashion with substantive attention paid to the protection of the rights and safety of civilians.  However as it stands right now, it appears unlikely that we will leave Afghanistan any time soon, despite how unpopular the war there has become.

The question of abandoning women is a false issue.  We never went there for their protection in the first place and nine years later, we’ve done very little to realize the projects that Ms. Zakaria mentions.  Afghanistan has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world and is the only country in which the rate of suicide for women is higher than it is for men.  Girls’ schools continue to be bombed and women are being excluded from peace talks.

Let’s be very clear that we went into Afghanistan as a response to the 911 bombings to retaliate against Bin Laden and against the Taliban for allowing him a base of operations in Afghanistan, albeit a fully nuanced explanation of our response is of course far more complex than that and well beyond the scope of this blog.  Let’s also be clear that the purpose of the U.S. military is to defend U.S. interests. However misguided a military response may or may not be,  rescuing or empower women has never been at the top of our agenda, if it were, we need to ask questions such as why have we not responded to the desperate plight of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo and why we have not ratified CEDAW.  Continuing with the Zakaria post,

At the same time, I find the sudden elevation of Afghan women’s agency at this juncture to be both self-serving and instrumental in denying just how badly the world has failed them. Saying that women ravaged by war for over three decades, whose capacity for resistance has been depleted by incessant meddling of foreign forces, can now independently empower themselves in the wreckage of the abandoned programs we leave behind is an argument meant only to pacify the travails of our own conscience.

Again, no argument, unquestionably simply abandoning Afghan women is not acceptable.  I also believe that the U.S. bears an enormous amount of responsibility in this regard. However demanding that we live up to that obligation is problematic, and simply saying that we therefore can’t leave Afghanistan is both simplistic and perhaps even further damaging.

While millions of dollars have been poured into reconstruction in both Afghanistan and Iraq, a huge percentage of that money has been squandered, has ended up in the hands of U.S. contractors, war lords and who knows who else, but the bottom line is it hasn’t done much to help civilians.  This isn’t a working model of how to provide aid and support and certainly not while we continue to  kill civilians.

As I pointed out earlier this week, almost completely forgotten in this discussion is that CEDAW and UNSC 1325 provide substantive tools that can be used to create a productive model of empowerment and that while not being a perfect vehicle either, the United Nations is far better equipped to organize the necessary support that would allow Afghan women a chance at empowerment, and the U.S. should support the utilization of those resources rather than continuing to perpetuate a policy that has amounted to blunder and plunder.

Since the TIME Magazine piece came out, there have been a number of excellent responses.  In addition to the ones that I have already highlighted in previous posts (see below), Michelle Chen writes on Color Lines,

Whatever your stance on the Afghanistan war, photos like this are undoubtedly powerful. But ask whose interests are served by the rationalization of war through perverse appeals to gendered, racialized pity. A moving image can muddle more than it clarifies when the background is underexposed. So if Aisha represents anything about what has happened between when the U.S. invaded her country and when it will leave, then we owe it to her to turn the lens back on ourselves for once.

Priyamvada Gopal ends her well-reasoned analysis in The Guardian with,

The mutilated Afghan woman ultimately fills a symbolic void where there should be ideas for real change. The truth is that the US and allied regimes do not have anything substantial to offer Afghanistan beyond feeding the gargantuan war machine they have unleashed.

And how could they? In the affluent west itself, modernity is now about dismantling welfare systems, increasing inequality (disproportionately disenfranchising women in the process), and subsidising corporate profits. Other ideas once associated with modernity – social justice, economic fairness, peace, all of which would enfranchise Afghan women – have been relegated to the past in the name of progress. This bankrupt version of modernity has little to offer Afghans other than bikini waxes and Oprah-imitators. A radical people’s modernity is called for – and not only for the embattled denizens of Afghanistan.

While being highly problematic in intent and approach, the one thing that can be said about the TIME piece is that it has provoked some excellent and necessary dialog, including the Ms. response even though it is somewhat predictable given that Ms. is now run by the Feminist Majority which early on supported the call to rescue women from the Taliban in the run up to the invasion of Afghanistan.  Certainly referring so generally and disparagingly to the “left”  is both inaccurate and a disservice to many hard-working dedicated activists.

If you have not already, I urge you to read the following earlier FPN posts on this topic and to look at the many links in those posts to other commentary and I invite you to share your comments below (that said, the internet is out in my office and I’ll spare you my rant about the perils of communications deregulation, but I may not be able to respond or post comments in a timely fashion).

–Lucinda Marshall

 August 5, 2010  Posted by on August 5, 2010

  2 Responses to “A Response To The Ms. Critique Of My Comments About Using The Plight Of Afghan Women To Promote The War”

  1. It is truly unfortunate that your insightful comments will reach so few of those in the general public that could benefit greatly from these words.
    As Ms. Gopal wrote, “In the affluent west itself…ideas once associated with modernity…have been relegated to the past in the name of progress.” What an excellent example of the (behind the scenes) dumb-down, divide, and divert strategy of which few of us seem to be aware.

  2. I”m pleased to say that I have had an extensive dialog with Jessica Stites, Associate Editor at Ms. about their piece and my reaction and we both agree that it is worth taking note of differences of opinion within productive feminist discussion as an opportunity for all of us to expand our thinking and we welcome the chance this gives us going forward.

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