When people in the US talk about the scourge of violence against women in Afghanistan, discussion tends to stop cold at one word: culture. As if culture is some sacred terrain upon which we dare not tread. The flawed syllogism goes like this: misogyny is endemic to Afghan culture. We can’t criticize that culture without reinforcing a racist agenda and justifying US military intervention. Therefore, we can’t take a stand against misogynist violence in Afghanistan.
We can argue the assumptions embedded in that logic, but ultimately, the culture conversation misses the point. Afghan culture may be misogynist, but so is every culture. There’s nothing unique about the suffocation of women’s potential to live as full human beings, backed up by extreme violence and justified by religion and nature. The difference between Afghanistan and any other place is the extent to which women have succeeded in winning rights and transforming culture in the process.
What, then, is obstructing progress for Afghan women? For one thing, women who seek to exercise their basic rights are systematically hunted down and killed. A new United Nations report grimly confirms what women in Afghanistan have been telling us all year: women are being harassed and even assassinated for holding jobs, speaking out for their rights or simply appearing in public without a male chaperone. Women politicians, teachers, nurses, artists, aid workers, journalists and other professionals are being targeted by ultra-conservatives aiming to create a society in which women have no rights and no role in public life.
Despite the danger, Afghan women continue to demand their rights. Remember the hundreds of women who took to the streets of Kabul in April? They took their lives in their hands to protest a new law sanctioning marital rape.
Ultimately, though, Afghan women’s prospects for transforming their society are undermined by the US-led war. In fact, many Afghan women activists identify the war as the biggest danger to women’s rights in Afghanistan
Over the past eight years, uncounted numbers of women and their family members have been killed, displaced and terrorized. The war has had a disproportionate impact on women, who have had to sustain family life and meet everyone’s needs for food, water, childcare and a host of other services through years of violence, constant insecurity and grinding poverty. In addition to endangering women’s lives, the war has eroded the political space for women to advocate for their rights.
That’s why the Feminist Majority Foundation’s endorsement of the US war in Afghanistan is so perplexing. The FMF rightly argues that the US owes a tremendous debt to the people of Afghanistan, having induced 30 years of war and misery there. They’ve got the history right, but the conclusion wrong. US guns, bombs and military occupation cannot bring about a society based on human rights. However, a US commitment to education, sustainable agriculture and equitable economic development just might.
Those kinds of policies are what’s needed to reinforce a beleaguered but vibrant Afghan women’s movement, including courageous activists involved in securing food, housing, healthcare and education for women and families, defending women’s shelters, holding peace demonstrations, demanding women’s full participation in public life and fighting for interpretations of Islam that support women’s rights. No foreign military occupation is going to do those things. Afghan women themselves will have to do it.
Through our Afghan Women’s Survival Fund, MADRE is working to support the women who risk their lives to defend women’s human rights. For more information about the Fund and how you can help, click here.
*Cross-posted on myMADRE.