As Ayub and Kouvo posit, “in the case of Afghanistan it was not difficult to evoke a humanitarian cause, as violations of religious freedom and human rights under the Taliban were already arousing some concern within the international community.”17 On October 6th President Bush devoted the weekly Presidential Radio Address to humanitarian aid rather than self-defense for the first time. Then on November 17th, for the first time in the history of the Radio Address, the First Lady delivered the address, arguing that: “the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”18 As the first official U.S. statement concerning women in Afghanistan, the Department of State published a corresponding report entitled The Taliban’s War on Women; according to Hilary Charlesworth and Christine Chinkin “a mere four pages long and short on historical and political analysis.”19
Except as the virgins awaiting dead jihadis in paradise, and as victims of terrorism, up to this point women had barely played a role in the media narratives of 9/11 and the War on Terror. All the jihadi terrorists were men, as were all the crucial U.S. government decision makers. The depicted heroes after the 9/11 terrorist attacks were mostly men: Rudolph Giuliani and the first responders, firefighters, policemen and rescue workers. The women amongst them were given little attention.20
Then women were to their possibly most prominent role within the context of the War on Terror. Rooted in American Exceptionalism and Othering, the diametrical opposites of America and the Taliban were explained using cultural differences for the conflict, as Lila Abu-Lughod argues:
Instead of political and historical explanations, experts were being asked to give religio-cultural ones. Instead of questions that might lead to the exploration of global interconnections, we were offered ones that worked to artificially divide the world into separate spheres – recreating an imaginative geography of West versus East, us versus Muslims, cultures in which First Ladies give speeches versus others where women shuffle around silently in burqas.21
A new point to justify the war emerged. The U.S. government and media discovered the oppression of women by the Taliban and from then on, Afghanistan’s women needed to be saved.
The Hypocrisy of U.S. Efforts to Help Women
By the early 1990s, under the communist-backed Afghan government, women held 70 percent of teachers’ jobs and 50 percent of government positions. Saba Gul Khattak points out that slow progress on women’s rights was only reversed when the mujahideen took over in 1992 – backed by the U.S.
In 1996 the Taliban took over. Much of the inspiration for their restrictions on women came from 343 refugee camps in Pakistan’s border regions.22 There, men were trained and indoctrinated, foremost by CIA and its partner, the ISI. Through circulation of fatwas (religious edicts), extremely strict codes of behavior were enforced in the camps.23 Later in Afghanistan the Taliban “pursued the gender politics they had imbibed in the camps in Pakistan.”24 A $87 million program to create income in the region didn’t create any jobs for women (the majority of the refugees), essentially because the donors, the UN and the World Bank, thought the Afghan men would dislike it.
Mary Ann Franks lists some of the main points of Afghan policy in 1996, when the Taliban controlled most of the country: policy restricted women were restricted from going outside without a man, being treated by male doctors, attending educational institutions, working outside the home and more. For breaches of these rules women were beaten, tortured and sometimes executed.25
When Afghanistan was invaded in 2001, the US-led coalition teamed up with the Northern Alliance, a military-political umbrella organization which at the time still blocked the Taliban from big parts of the North of the country. The soldiers of the Northern Alliance “were notorious for gang rapes, lust-based murders, and abductions of young women.”26 After the invasion, soldiers of the Northern Alliance as well as warlords associated with the Afghan interim government’s deputy defense minister Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum “are reported to have attacked and raped Pashtun women living in Northern Afghanistan with impunity.”27
Clearly the U.S. were very selective about when women’s rights were an issue and when they weren’t. Women’s rights were an issue when the enemy was oppressing them but they were not an issue when it was allies oppressing them. The U.S. were also indifferent when a party or a government oppressing women’s rights was not considered a threat to national security. Women’s rights became an issue only when it helped the U.S.’ propaganda. The public debate in the U.S. didn’t only portray women as “victims without real agency to affect the future.”28 In doing so, it also had to ignore the “considerable initiatives and activity of Afghan women aimed at contributing to the design of their future.”
However, this paper has already shown how taking on the cause of women in the context of America’s war matches the patterns of propaganda. That the driving force taking on the cause is not humanitarianism but propagandistic becomes more clear when one takes a closer look at the context. First, the hypocrisy around the U.S.’ sudden interest in the women of Afghanistan becomes clear. Second, the dangers of imposing one’s help on those of another culture surface.
The efforts were kicked-off by Laura Bush. This was criticized because the President’s wife holds no official government position, which appeared to convey the message that the issue is “women’s business and not a serious international concern.”29 At the same time the U.S. did not explain “why the concern with repression would not equally apply to women living in Western allies such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.”30 Both countries exclude women from most areas of public life.31
Liberating Women From Evil
Another question concerning help to the women of Afghanistan is how to go about it. As shown above the propaganda around the issue draws from cultural differences, creating simple images of opposition; the free, empowered women of the West and the women of Afghanistan repressed by the evil, Muslim Taliban.
Particularly, anthropologists have raised concern about whether cultural differences have been taken into account in attempting to help women in Afghanistan. They have doubted that the focus of aid is giving the Afghan women what they actually want and granting them agency, versus merely imposing Western values on them and assuming Afghan women want the same things women in the West do.
The ultimate symbol of the Taliban’s repression of women is probably the burqa that it requires Afghan women to wear. It also provides a perfect example for the dangers of making quick assumptions about what “liberates” people in an unfamiliar culture. Lila Abu-Lughod points out the surprise liberals sometimes confessed when Afghanistan had been liberated from the Taliban, that the women didn’t seem to be throwing off their burqas.32
What is a symbol of repression to us isn’t necessarily seen the same way by the women of Afghanistan, certainly not by all of them: “veiling itself must not be confused, or made to stand for, a lack of agency.”33 Abu-Lughod goes on to give an example of how, in sharp contrast to how the burqa is perceived in the West, some women in Pakistan actually see in it a liberating invention as it enables them to carry with them their culturally required seclusion while still able to leave their segregated living spaces:
As anthropologists know perfectly well, people wear the appropriate form of dress for their social communities and are guided by socially shared standards, religious belief, and moral ideals, unless they deliberately transgress to make a point or are unable to afford proper cover. If we think U.S. women live in a world of choice regarding clothing, all we need to do is to remind ourselves of the expression, ‘the tyranny of fashion.’34
For Abu-Lughod the central challenge is to accept the possibility of difference.35 Do Afghan women really need to become like us to be liberated, or do they simply want different things than what we want for them?
This danger of imposing U.S. or Western ideals of freedom on Muslim women becomes more obvious when one considers how many Muslims and Muslim women view women in the West. In 20 years of fieldwork in Egypt, Abu-Lughod says she cannot think of a single woman she knows who ever expressed envy of U.S. women. They tend to be perceived as “bereft of community, vulnerable to sexual violence and social anomie, driven by individual success rather than morality, or strangely disrespectful of God.”36 At the same time, President Bush had extended his argument to the assertion that “they” hated “us” because America was free, and more specifically because America’s women were free.37
It wasn’t only hypocritical to take on the cause of Afghan women, considering the historical context and the lack of previous U.S. interest in the issue; not to mention the lack of interest in cases where no propaganda benefits were expected. The U.S. also displayed a certain imperialist attitude on how to help Afghan women and made assumptions about what the women wanted, denying them agency to decide for themselves. This attitude works well within the propaganda concept of Civilization vs. Barbarism but it does not work in advancing the conditions of women in Afghanistan.
This paper makes the conclusion that when U.S. propaganda decided to make women’s rights in Afghanistan an issue, it did not do so for humanitarian reasons. Instead, women were used on two levels. First, women were used to justify a war, in the media frame of a humanitarian cause, while the motives for the war were in fact not humanitarian but defense-based. Second, even this humanitarian cause – liberating the women of Afghanistan – was actually not communicated or conducted in a manner that focused on truly helping the women. Instead it was communicated in the way that best served the propaganda interests of the U.S.
When Laura Bush said the Afghan women were “rejoicing” as the Taliban were in retreat, the oppression of women by partners of the U.S. – like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan – was still of no interest to the U.S. government.38 At the same time the Afghan women remained conveyed as passive objects and not active agents of their own “liberation.” The U.S. was imposing their values and ideas “liberation” on the Afghan women rather than helping Afghan women towards a future they might ideally want for themselves.
A decade after the invasion it is at best controversial to say whether the Afghan women have benefited from the war. Khattak posits that “in fact their oppression may have intensified with the bombing due to their fear of death and destruction of their neighborhoods and communities.”39 According to human development indicators, such as health and education, in 2004 Afghan women were among the most underprivileged in the world.40 The combined effects of “gender disadvantage, the erosion of local livelihoods , the criminalization of the economy and insecurity at the hands of armed groups (…) produce extreme forms of female vulnerability.”41
At its foundation, the well-being of women anywhere seems to foremost require security and stability and not war: “the gains achieved in women’s formal rights are condemned to remain dead letters in the absence of security and the rule of law.”42
Finally, an intervention conducted not to promote security but U.S. national security from forces in Afghanistan in itself conflicts with the humanitarian cause.43 Not only is it hypocritical to go to war for defense but use humanitarianism as justification, the agendas of both are also largely incompatible.
17F. Ayub and S. Kouvo. “Rightening the Course? Humanitarian Intervention, the War on Terror and the Future of Afghanistan.” International Affairs 84, no. 4 (2008): 647
18Laura Bush. Weekly Presidential Radio Address. 17 November 2001.
19H. Charlesworth and Christine Chinkin. “Sex, Gender, and September 11.” American Journal of International Law 96, no. 3 (2002): 602
21Lila Abu-Lughod. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.” American Anthropologist, New Series 104, no. 3 (2002): 784
22Saba Gul Khattak. “Afghan Women: Bombed to Be Liberated?” Middle East Report 222 (2002): 19
25Mary Anne Franks: “Obscene Undersides. Women and Evil between the Taliban and the United States.” Hypatia 18, no. 1 (2003): 139f.
26Franks: 142, Abu-Lughod: 787
28Charlesworth and Chinkin: 604
40Deniz Kandiyoti: “Old Dilemmas or New Challenges? The Politics of Gender and Reconstruction in Afghanistan.” Development and Change 38, no. 2 (2007): 181.
43Ayub and Kouvo: 647
Pages: 1 2