Time to Debunk the Narrative That the West Will 'Save' Women in Afghanistan And Pakistan
The Daily Beast’s "Women in the World" summit took place last weekend in New York City to promote women’s empowerment. Presenters included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Meryl Streep, and Queen Rania of Jordan, as well as indigenous activists like Marietou Diarra and Kiran Bedi. Using the Daily Beast’s platform and star power to share their compelling personal narratives and achievements was impressive. Yet a discussion titled "On the Brink: Women in Afghanistan and Pakistan," embodied longstanding critiques of how gender and women’s oppression in areas of strategic U.S. interest are problematically framed within western contexts. In addition to conflating the experiences of Afghan and Pakistani women, themes salient to the stories of women living in highly militarized regions, such as how conflict shapes their experiences, or the contexts from which existing challenges for women emerged, were conspicuously absent.
"Saving" Afghan Women
Though one would be hard pressed to find her record in human rights advocacy, Frances Townsend, the former Assistant to President Bush for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, moderated the discussion. She began by interviewing Ching Eikenberry, a USAID consultant and the wife of current U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry. Townsend asked Eikenberry about the lives of rural Afghan women, the practice of forced marriage, and the prevalence of shame in Afghan culture. While these are all issues worth exploring, they require social, cultural, and political context, as well as the voices of the women in question. Neither Townsend nor Eikenberry broached the efforts of Afghan women activists in challenging their own oppressions. Despite the marriage of both women to U.S. policy in Afghanistan, neither raised how U.S. involvement in the region has contributed to the rise of anti-women, armed groups, or how a bloody war has shaped the lives of Afghan women. Instead, a cursory account of Afghan culture ensued, with Eikenberry at one point declaring her "wish" for Afghanistan that her "Afghan brothers" take a moment to "please lift the scarf and look at your wife one more time. Not at her beauty, but really look at her." Her prescription was followed by brief video documenting horrific cases of violence against Afghan and Pakistani women.
Their conversation was uncomfortably reminiscent of critiques made by Afghan activists after 2001. Back then, they argued that despite the fact that years of American policy in Afghanistan had helped empower some of the most brutal rights abusers in the nation’s history, suddenly, "saving" Afghan women from Afghan men became the cause célèbre among political leaders and some mainstream feminists, coincidentally while the Bush administration sought to justify military intervention. In Saving Afghan Women, Afghan activist Sonali Kolhatkar described it as a Western obsession "more interested exploring the fascinating desire of Afghan men to treat women like dirt, than examining those forces (most often Western male-dominated governments) that have fostered misogynist extremism at the expense of women's rights." Almost a decade later, this still appears to be the case.
Townsend then moderated an exchange between three activists native to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Townsend's questions focused on the myriad of obstacles for women, often stressing that they stem from a culture in which shame is ubiquitous, at one point asking Afghan entrepreneur Andeisha Farid, "It sounds like from what you're saying there is a great deal of shame in Afghan culture. Can you talk more about that?" Despite Townsend’s narrow questioning, panelists pointed to some of the realities in both countries.
Suraya Pakzad, director of the Afghan organization Voice of Women brought up the need for more domestic violence safehouses, after the recent public flogging of a woman in Afghanistan’s Ghor province, a punishment rendered by a warlord in response to her attempt to escape domestic violence. Townsend then interjected, and rather than focusing the conversation on the fact that such violence is emblematic of deeply rooted problems, in this case warlords who dispense sinister notions of justice, she reflected that Pakzad's request was not small, but it was a “big ask” that the U.S. is capable of giving. The consequences of this erasure are more dire with the Afghan government now openly confirming that it passed a law giving blanket amnesty to some of the individuals who committed the most heinous human rights crimes prior to 2001. Pakzad also addressed the need for women to be involved in any peace process that takes place in Afghanistan. She requested that the U.S. government only fund peace talks on the condition that they include Afghan women so that their rights are not traded away. Townsend did not once focus the conversation on this important consideration.
In the little time devoted to Pakistan, Pakistani journalist and activist, Fatima Bhutto, discussed barriers in women’s access to justice, explaining the intricacies of the Hudood Ordinance and providing the context of how such repressive laws came into effect under dictator Zial-ul-Haq in 1979. Understanding the roots of these laws also requires knowing that Zia-ul-Haq received support and funding from the U.S. around the same time that he was also funding the Afghan mujahideen who were the precursors to today’s Taliban and warlords. Drawing the parallel to today, Bhutto added, "It would be useful to ask your government to stop propping up governments like Hamid Karzai’s and Asif Zardari." These messages from Pakzad and Bhutto should have been the central takeaways from the discussion, but they could be easily lost in Townsend’s redirection of conversation.
Who Speaks and for Whom?
Although there are many Afghan women activists who support continued U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, there are also some who argue that Afghanistan’s liberation can only come from within and have called for an end to what they see as U.S. occupation. None of the panel’s Afghan activists shared these views. Drawing attention to this is not to say that one set of set of beliefs is dominant or more legitimate, but rather, that excluding these voices results in a failure to reflect the nuances of Afghan women. Additionally, while U.S. strategy regards Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single theatre of operations, often referred to as "AfPak," this should not denote that the experiences of women in these two nations falls into that grouping as well. A more rich discussion could come from pairing the experiences of Afghan women with those of Iraqi women, whose stories of resiliency and toil to ensure their place in the new Iraq are revealing when considering parallel, though different, struggles in Afghanistan.
There is no dearth of individuals with proven commitments to human rights. Organizers should have known better than to select Frances Townsend to moderate, and thus, shape the conversation. Deciding who speaks (and for whom they speak) requires more careful consideration. As Fatima Bhutto reflected to me later, "To have Ching Eikenberry on stage, representing not just the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, but also USAID, and then to not talk about the war that Ambassador Eikenberry's office is currently leveling on the people of Afghanistan was a pity."
The Beast on the Brink
It is disappointing to see the potential for a layered discussion about women in Afghanistan and Pakistan reduced to a litany of obvious development goals and decontextualized challenges. When there is so much at stake, and when the Daily Beast assiduously built a platform of such magnitude, heavily politicized conversations like this one need to be done right. Otherwise, those who are interested in learning about the complex lives of women and girls in Afghanistan or Pakistan should look elsewhere.