“The War on Terror, at least in theory, was America’s first ‘feminist’ war,” Rafia Zakaria writes in her book, Against White Feminism. Nowhere has this been more evident than in Afghanistan, where the United States was able to rally support for an invasion and subsequent occupation by using Afghan women and girls as bargaining chips to appeal to wealthy white feminists. By using the image of the poor Afghan woman, lobbyists, politicians, and well-to-do NGO presidents were able to paint a portrait of America the savior, flying into Afghanistan to “liberate” women and girls from the men of their country by employing the American ideal of that term.
Lawmakers readily embraced this logic, without a shred of thought to the actual needs of the communities in Afghanistan, by continuing to push the narrative that women and girls were not just oppressed by men but by their own culture, a culture that members of Congress didn’t understand or care to understand. In 2001, Rep. Carolyn Maloney delivered a speech on the house floor clad in a Burka, a traditional garment worn by some Muslim women. The stunt was meant to illustrate the ways in which the Taliban had stripped Afghan women of their freedom by forcing them to cover their bodies and limiting their access to education. Nowhere in Maloney’s speech was there mention of the role the U.S. played in destabilizing Afghanistan and arming the rebels that would eventually become the Taliban.
“Females are not permitted to leave their homes unless accompanied by a male relative, and when they do leave they’re forced to be covered,” Maloney said. “It’s hot as you can tell; it’s restrictive and difficult to see... We must be vigilant in our attempts to force the Taliban to alter its treatment of women and girls, and to begin to correct these transgressions.”
Maloney’s demonstration was a disgusting display of cultural insensitivity but a watered-down version of this attitude still permeates the political and media response to what is happening in Afghanistan. “Women and girls” are invoked by many feminists out of concern for the fate of Afghan women who are in danger once again of being persecuted by members of the Taliban as a result of American interference in the country.
But many women’s groups and white feminist thought leaders continue to pontificate on the situation from the safety of a perceived moral high ground, calling for the U.S. and other Western countries to intervene. Even with full knowledge of the past, these groups don’t seem quite ready to grapple with the fact that they themselves were part of the problem.
Just last week, Ms. Magazine—a publication founded by Gloria Steinem, who called on George W. Bush to “take emergency action” to save women in Afghanistan in 2002 along with members of the Feminist Majority Foundation—published a set of bullet points calling for even more intervention from the U.S. and an increase in NGO presence and aid to Afghanistan. The points are vague at best, and once again assert a westernized interpretation of feminist justice that makes no room for the actual situation on the ground, which the post’s anonymous author argues was wholly improved by the presence of the U.S. military. This is the same U.S. military that provided the arms and the funding that allowed the Taliban to thrive in the 1990s. And the same U.S. military that shot at a group of Afghani “adolescent girls,” leaving one of them wounded and the man who shot her walking free.
Feminists and the broader media must understand that what’s happening in Afghanistan isn’t some feminist experiment gone awry that can be disregarded, its lessons applied to a different group somewhere down the line. The people of Afghanistan, including the men and boys trying to escape with their families, are facing imminent danger from this iteration of the Taliban that promised during a press conference on Tuesday to allow women and girls to be educated “within the bounds of Islam.”
If ever there was a moment for monied, powerful white feminists to stand to the side and allow for Afghan and Muslim women to direct the narrative and guide the future of aid, this is it. This is the time to finally acknowledge that a feminism that only functions to do the work of American imperialism isn’t feminism at all.