Analysis | Unveil and Conquer: Beyond the Melting Pot

In the second of his two-part essay on the relationship between feminism and imperialism, Sebastião Martins argues that Afghani women, far from being the much-vaunted beneficiaries of NATO's occupation of their country, are in fact its main victims.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Tuesday, November 1, 2011 16:01 - 0 Comments

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“Thanks to the generosity of American people and the wonders of modern surgery” – as the Daily Mail put it –, Time Magazine cover girl Bibi Aisha, 20, has been able to put the horrific past of facial disfiguration in Afghanistan behind her and pursue her measure of happiness in the Big Apple, where she currently resides.

Last February, she was seen “smiling happily” while taking a New York subway, trading the “oppressive” veil and the choking confinement to her husband’s home for lipstick, a shining hairdo, blue jeans and the fresh air of freedom.

However, this happy ending makes one wonder if the melting pot – that is to say the assimilation of Western/US values – is the only real alternative for Afghan women seeking equal rights and political participation? So the West would have us believe, but then, as Frantz Fanon writes, “colonialism wants everything to come from it” (FANON, A Dying Colonialism).

Indeed, does not the Women for Afghan Women’s (WAW) mantra “we are us and we are them” reveal itself as a rather miserable idea when ‘them’ means simply a Metropolis-like reconstruction of the Afghan woman into an automaton of her Western counterparts (i.e. ‘we’)?

For all the “wonders of modern surgery” and Western cosmetics, Aisha’s overall refashioning – attempting to erase the horrors of her disfiguration and ‘veiled’ oppression – paradoxically disfigures – or rather, cleanses – her cultural identity. The process is much more one of imitation than of actually granting a voice to an Afghan woman rooted in the cultural traditions of her society.

The latter is quite clear when we look at Aisha’s face surrounded by Time Magazine’s timeless red cover frame. It is a picture of a silent woman, or rather, a “dead woman”, her disfigured body a mere object unto which we project our own conceptions of morality.

Is there an alternative?

In the previous instalment, the path of independent struggle of women’s rights groups inside Afghanistan and of Afghan women in general was suggested as a valid substitute to this, one which in the long run could transform Afghan society from within.

However, it became no less evident that in the past years this very struggle has been appropriated by Western powers – most notably the US – in order to justify a foreign occupation and to calm a rather unpredictable public opinion at home, swinging frequently from enthusiastic to downright hostile.

Unfortunately, in reality this occupation only hinders the situation of women inside the country, as Afghan feminist leader Malalai Joya, Noam Chomsky and other activists and groups have stated repeatedly.

So long as the occupation persists, the path of independent struggle for Afghan women (i.e. the best solution) is compromised, always at risk of being seen as in bed with Western interests.

Are there, then, no other alternatives?

In one of its press releases in 2009, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) claimed that if one steps out of ‘modernized’ Kabul (only a little over 10% of Afghan women live in the capital), the majority of women oppose the NATO occupation.

This estimate comes as no surprise, if for instance we consider that according to a BBC News report from late February nearly 2 million Afghan women in a country of some 26.6m are (mostly war) widows who endure “poverty-stricken lives”, the average widow having 4 children to support and a monthly income of US$16.

We have already seen the myriad of ways in which the West – as other colonial powers had done in the past – has made it its crusading and strategic mission to politicize the ‘native woman’, in this case through the ‘veil’ (e.g. the veil itself; the strict confinement of women to their homes; their exclusion from any and all public affairs), a ‘veil’ which – it claims – wraps the woman in repressive passivity.

However, it is quite interesting to find how the majority of Afghan women reject a second form of passivity, that is to say, to accept the West as their knight in shining armour.

In all probability the West’s strategy of politicizing the veil for its own purposes backfired from the very beginning in Afghanistan. For, if the West seeks to ‘unveil’ (i.e. modernize/emancipate) Afghan women and the majority of them oppose the occupation, then for those who wear the veil the garment also becomes a political statement, a political response – one, as it were, of resistance.

In other words, in a way the veil becomes primarily not the symbolic barrier behind which the Afghan woman lies in a state of perpetual passivity and confinement, but the very much active manifestation of opposing a foreign invader and its so-called ‘modernity’.

Impoverished, detached from her political representatives in Kabul who are supposed to vouch for her interests, indifferent to Western women’s rights groups paradoxically championing both her rights and the occupation itself, the supposedly public-banned Afghan woman has found a rather suitable way of making a very public statement of her own.

Here lies an adequate starting point for a possible alternative to Westernization or to falling on the women’s rights’ struggle so frequently tampered with by Washington to further its own agenda.

Concurrently, if the main objective – for Afghan women as well as men – is indeed to end the foreign presence in the country, then the anti-occupational struggle lies as much in armed resistance as in shattering public support for the war abroad.

Since in the past years the ‘emancipation of Afghan women’ has become more predominant in Washington’s rhetoric than previous favourites such as ‘fighting terrorism’ or ‘promoting democracy’, it is precisely the former that Afghans should attempt to undermine.

The obvious way to go about this is for Afghan women to have a more active role in resisting the occupation – this would immediately shatter the appeal of the (false) argument that Afghan women want the West to remain in the country.

In this regard, the Taliban’s occasional use of female suicide bombers since July 2010 is clearly a self-defeating strategy. The reason for this is the moral outrage with which the West reacts at these ‘savage’ actions, a no doubt curious reaction – since it is this very West which, among other things, supports the Northern Alliance, known to be as misogynistic as the Taliban and for raping and killing Afghan women as early as 1996.

The point here is that if the Taliban were to allow Afghan women to join the armed resistance itself or have a pivotal role in supplying/aiding them – and this eventually became so significant that not even the Western media could avoid reporting it – maintaining the occupation would become excruciatingly difficult for NATO.

This happens because on the one hand, much of its sustenance is drawn from the supposition at the front and the perception at home that Afghan women wish to be liberated by the West, and on the other because on the ground it benefits from playing with the divisions (both ethnic and sexual) within the country.

The furtherance of women’s rights would then become a “natural” consequence of this banding together of male and female fighters. Not only, at an elementary level, would women be fighting alongside men – already a significant breakthrough since they are currently confined to the realm of the domestic –, but in the long term this would loosen the knots of a highly conservative and feudal society.

The Afghan woman would thus move from the prison of her home to the public stage of conflict in the mountains, to the very heart of the struggle against occupation. The “woman-for-marriage” turns into the “woman-for-action”, and this in itself already constitutes‘emancipation’.

It is not enough to rise against the Western notion that “everything [that is good] comes from the occupation”.  We must go to the end and recognize that all hopes for anything good – for all Afghans – must follow from the fight against the occupation itself. This is the crucial catalyst for change in the country.

That change in the status of women will come eventually is unquestionable. It is also unquestionable, however, that the most productive way for this to come about and for the Taliban to expel a persistent occupier is for them to put their conservatism aside and unite with the most important player in the war.

As Frantz Fanon said of the Algerian struggle against colonialism:

“The men’s words were no longer law. The women were no longer silent. Algerian society in the fight for liberation, in the sacrifices it was willing to make in order to liberate itself from colonialism, renewed itself and developed new values governing sexual relations. The woman ceased to be a complement for man. She literally forged a new place for herself by her sheer strength.” (in A Dying Colonialism)

To read the first part of this essay, click here.

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Sebastião Martins is an MPhil student at the University of Cambridge and a journalist for www.pulsamerica.co.uk, www.irlandeses.org and The Cambridge Student.

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