After 20 years of occupation, the United States completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan on the 30th of August 2021. Within days, the Taliban took control of the presidential palace in Kabul and all but two of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals. After the takeover, media outlets began calling on the West to ‘save’ Afghan women with headlines reading “Desperate Afghan Women Wait for U.S. Protection” and petitions circling the internet to defend Afghan women under Taliban rule. The cries to save the women of Afghanistan have intensified since the introduction of the new Taliban decree which makes it mandatory for women to cover from head to toe. While not entirely ill-founded, this ‘feminist’ rhetoric contributes to a never-ending narrative that is weaponised to justify military intervention in Afghanistan. This, unfortunately, reinforces harmful stereotypes about Muslim women and ultimately absolves the United States from its own culpability in the destabilisation of Afghanistan.
Waging wars in the name of women is not an uncommon phenomenon and Leila Ahmed describes the use of feminism as a ‘handmaid to colonialism’ in her book, Women and Gender in Islam. She describes how Lord Cromer, the British consul general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907, claimed that Islam subjugated women and the veil was a sign of oppression that was a ‘fatal obstacle’ to the civilisation of Egypt. Unsurprisingly, it was the same men who were silencing the voices of the women in their own countries who ‘used the language of feminism to acquire the booty of the colonies’. Lord Cromer, for example, was the founder of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage in England which actively campaigned against women’s right to vote. Similarly, when the Bush administration launched the ‘War on Terror’ following 9/11, the liberation of Muslim women was at the forefront of the military campaign and served as an instrument to justify violent military intervention in Afghanistan. In her radio address on November 17th 2001, First Lady Laura Bush told the nation that ‘the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women’. George Bush was utterly committed to ending the oppression of women in Afghanistan while simultaneously opposing abortion in the United States. Shockingly, Bush compared abortion to terrorism on the anniversary of Roe v Wade, which he renamed ‘National Sanctity of Human Life Day’. Professor Nadine Suleiman Naber expressed her concern for such ‘hypocritical feminist advocates’ who only seem to concern themselves with feminist issues when it aligns with a military agenda.
“feminism is local, and has many colors, and isn’t always called ‘feminism’ because ‘feminism’ is owned and run by White women who bring White men in fighter planes”
- Shabana Mir
The manipulation of feminism to contribute to a discourse that reduces Afghan women to passive victims not only legitimised military intervention in the region but contributed to the politicisation of the veil. We can see this today in European countries like Belgium and France which have banned the veil in public spaces in an attempt to curb ‘political Islam’. Aside from the restriction of religious freedom, this has had a devastating effect on Muslim women whose religious and national identities almost seem incompatible. As a Muslim woman myself, I fail to see how the West can be so quick to make anti-feminist decisions on Muslim women’s identities in their own countries whilst simultaneously supporting wars in the name of Muslim women elsewhere.
As Marwan Bishra aptly points out, “those who seek military solutions to social problems fail to make the distinction between Islam and the Taliban or between the cultural and religious aspects of life in Central Asia. Furthermore, they fail to explain why or how women’s rights can be attained by military means.” Rejecting Western feminism does not automatically mean the acceptance of one's subjugation because there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to feminism. Liberation for one Muslim woman looks different to another Muslim woman and requires actually listening to the voices of these women - not silencing them.
It is true that Afghan women under the Taliban face violent injustices, but we must be mindful of the narrative that reinforces the notion that Muslim women lack agency and have a unified experience of victimhood. We must continue to spotlight organisations like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), a women’s organisation based in Kabul that has consistently condemned the US-led invasion in Afghanistan and the manifestation of Islamic fundamentalism into official policy by the Taliban. Only when we properly examine the West’s own involvement in the creation of situations that have deepened the antagonistic relationship between “Islam” and “the West” and the overwhelming confusion between veiling and agency, can we deconstruct these harmful narratives and truly save the women we are so desperate to save.
Written by Lina Idrees