. Unveil and Conquer: war, occupation, and women's rights | Ceasefire Magazine

Unveil and Conquer: war, occupation, and women’s rights Analysis

Ceasefire's Sebastião Martins analyses the way in which the movement for women's rights in Afghanistan has been increasingly co-opted by Washington - as other colonial powers had done in the past - to justify a foreign occupation.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Thursday, October 6, 2011 12:00 - 1 Comment


“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea – something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.” (Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness)

During Algeria’s national struggle for liberation from French colonialism, the veiled Algerian woman – living under the roof of what France deemed as an atavistic and highly patriarchal society – became one of the focal points of colonial efforts attempting to justify and consolidate a foreign occupation.

As Frantz Fanon writes in A Dying Colonialism:

“If we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, we must first of all conquer the women; we must go and find them behind the veil where they hide themselves and in the houses where the men keep them out of sight.”

France fashioned the ‘unveiling’ of Algerian women as an excuse to maintain its colonial rule in furtherance of its disinterested, progressive and enlightening mission civilisatrice – the rhetoric à la mode which has pervaded virtually all forms of colonialism.

Leela Ghandi pays testament to this trend in her Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction, by extending it to the Western critique of India’s family structures (under British rule) and, more specifically, “the Western feminist intervention into the ‘native woman question’.”

Ghandi highlights how Katherine Mayo’s unveiling of India’s “heinous attitudes toward women” in her 1927 book Mother India surreptitiously sought to deem India’s claim for self-determination as illegitimate, thus justifying British colonial rule and – as Mahatma Ghandi argued – its ‘civilizing mission.’

Isolating these mechanisms of colonial behavior and dominance is without question an extremely important contribution of postcolonial theory, since it induces – as Homi Bhabha argues in The Location of Culture – “a painful re-membering […] of the dismembered past to make sense of the trauma of the present.”

While Bhabha’s comment is directed principally at former colonies (e.g. India, Algeria, Nigeria, Angola, Mozambique, South Africa, etc.), it should be extended to encompass those societies which, having not been subjected to the same historical colonial experience (e.g. thus not becoming postcolonial ‘hybrids’ as India or Algeria are today), are nonetheless affected by similar quasi-colonial mechanisms of dominance in the present.

In other words, one should not unearth a repressed colonial past to such an extent that one strategically represses certain and equally important colonial realities of the present.

Incidentally, one of the countries where these mechanisms of dominance of the colonial ‘past’ are still employed in the ‘trauma of the present’ is, of course, Afghanistan, where, for instance, there has been much ferocity against the Taliban’s brutal repression of Afghan women.

That this repression is not mythical is self-evident. In its 2011 World Report, Human Rights Watch highlights how “women in the de facto Taliban-controlled areas face […] death threats […]” and “harsh punishments […] for mixing with men outside their immediate families.”
The report also mentions the assassination of high profile women and the bombings of schools for girls over 10 years old, which killed 126 students between March and October 2010.

Against this backdrop of violence, the invaluable significance of human rights groups and NGOs operating in Afghanistan has also become self-evident. Organisations such as the Women for Afghan Women (WAW) and the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) have been crucial in protecting and fighting for women’s rights both in and outside of Afghanistan, both before and after 2001.

However, it is no less clear that since the onset of the US invasion in 7 October 2001, the ‘native woman question’ referenced by Leela Ghandi has been transplanted from the Afghan front and politicised to rally support at home for the overthrow of the Taliban regime and the subsequent NATO occupation. As The Guardian reported last year, “the US-led invasion of Afghanistan was in part justified by the desire to emancipate Afghan women.”

Laura Bush and Cherie Blair did precisely that when they joined hands to hold the native woman’s banner of liberation high in order to bolster domestic support for the war in their respective countries.

There was also a certain degree of complicity from women’s rights groups, most notably from peace advocate Hibaaq Osman, who gave a speech at the United Nations in 2001, claiming that the only just cause for invading Afghanistan was the ousting of the (women)-repressive Taliban regime.

One might suggest that, according to her logic, Osman is not only justifying an invasion of Afghanistan, but an invasion of the US. For why did NATO not invade the US when African-Americans were being lynched on a daily basis during the 50’s and early 60’s, while the government was doing little to stop these equally vicious human rights violations?

Some five weeks after the invasion, Laura Bush declared triumphantly: ‘Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.’

As a side note, it should be pointed out that First Lady Bush – no doubt concerned with women’s rights in Afghanistan – forgot to mention at least two salient facts.

During the muscle-stretching US bombings that inaugurated the invasion, several human rights and food organizations pointed to the fact that these attacks endangered their efforts and consequently endangered the lives of an estimated 5 million Afghans living on the brink of starvation, not to mention the men, women and children who died then and now due to NATO air raids and other operations.

According to the CIA Word Factbook 2011, the male/female ratio in Afghanistan was 1.06 in 2001, which basically means that the bombings endangered the lives of almost 2,5 million Afghan women. Clearly this does not bold well for the interests of a supposedly women-liberating West.

Secondly, in a statement from 6 October 2001, Human Rights Watch warned that the “U.S. and its allies should not cooperate with [the US-backed Northern Alliance] commanders whose record of brutality [including raping and looting of women as early as 1996] raises questions about their legitimacy inside Afghanistan.” So much for ‘the rights and dignity of women’…

In addition, it is interesting to find how Washington’s appropriation of the ‘native woman question’ in Afghanistan fuels a war-mongering rhetoric the actual substance of which is strikingly similar to that of Abraham Lincoln in his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation: the victims of brutal human rights violations (i.e. Afghan women/African-Americans) are to be protected only in areas controlled by the enemy (i.e. Taliban/Confederate South).

At its nuclear purpose the similarity is even more striking: to “destroy the structure of [the enemy’s] society,” as Fanon writes.

Despite the lack of moral seriousness in the West’s political appropriation of the ‘native woman question’, the fact remains that in the past ten years it has gained a more central role in legitimising the occupation. After all, the other ideological reasons for it (i.e. war on terror; nation building; implementation of democracy) have had less and less effect on an increasingly disillusioned public at home: 72% of Americans today think the US is engaged in too many wars, while only 40% supported the war in Afghanistan in 2009.

This rise in significance has been fuelled to a certain extent by the pouring into Western markets of movies (e.g. Osama, 2003), documentaries (e.g. Afghan Women: A History of Struggle, 2010) and books (A Thousand Splendid Suns, 2007) about – as well as wide news coverage of – the state of women’s rights in Afghanistan.

In July 2009 Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed the Elimination of Violence Against Women Act (EVAW). Although its real effectiveness on the ground is not very optimistic, it was met with loud claps of approval abroad as a great victory for the woman-concerned West.

In late October of the same year the board of the Women for Afghan Women (WAW) “watched with alarm as American opinion […] turned against the war.” Board member Esther Hyneman said with concern:

‘Every woman who we have talked to in Afghanistan, all the Afghan women in the NGOs, in the government, say the United States and the peacekeeping troops and NATO must stay, they must not leave until the Afghan army is able to take over.’

It is rather unfortunate that in her ‘talks’ Hyneman was not lucky enough to have casually bumped into at least one of the mothers of the more than 182 children who were killed by NATO during that year alone. Surely they must feel a little differently about the real extent of NATO’s ‘peacekeeping’ and ‘civilizing’ missions in the region? Not to mention the women who also died in the air raids – but then of course speaking with the latter poses an obvious practical impediment.

Furthermore, in mid 2010 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed to “defend the rights and dignity of women,” stating that she would not accept any peace deal with the Taliban that would endanger their lives.

Perhaps the climatic moment of the ‘native woman question’ as a successful form of propaganda really came last year. Indeed, who can forget the photograph of the disfigured Aisha splashed across Time Magazine’s July edition of 2010, which went on to win the World Press Photo Prize of 2010.The cover title: What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.

As was reported at the time, Aisha married a Taliban fighter (version contested) at the age of 14. After suffering several abuses for four years, she fled her house, but was returned by her father to his in-laws, who cut off her nose and ears as a punishment and took her to a nearby mountain where they left her to die.

Connections have been drawn between Aisha’s photograph and that of bright-eyed Sharbat Gula, “the Afghan girl” whose parents were killed in a Soviet air raid, and who made the cover of National Geographic in 1985, during the proxy war between the US and the USSR. The similarities are indeed noteworthy.

In both of them the women depicted are ‘unveiled’, as it were, into an essence, the stereotypical depiction of the ‘Third World woman-victim’. And by essentializing the victim they both essentialize the perpetrator.

In Aisha’s case, the perpetrator is not simply the myth of the brutal Taliban that must be suppressed at all costs, but also the Muslim who embodies the myth of Islam itself which, as Jocelyne Cesarie writes, “is depicted as a dangerous ideology that encourages violence, terrorism and the suppression of women”.

Ultimately, this reinstates the widespread belief that there is something inherently antagonistic between Islam and the West. For the latter, it is only through this opposition that it validates itself and the need for its ‘civilizing mission’, a West which naturally stands for “enlightenment, humanism and freedom” (CESARIE, Muslims in the West After 9/11: Religion, Politics and Law, 2010).

It becomes clear then that Aisha or any victimized Afghan woman for that matter are merely instruments which are essential for the West’s mythical creation of the new Other (i.e. Islamic extremist/ Muslim terrorist/ruthless Taliban), which is crucial to the legitimisation of Western occupations in the Middle East.

That the specific US occupation in Afghanistan has had little to no real effect on the improvement of women’s rights there is obvious. For, as has been shown, human rights violations as gruesome as those of the Taliban were and are committed both by the Northern Alliance and NATO. Furthermore, it is highly likely that whenever additional foreign troops are deployed the number of Taliban fighters also increases.

Between mid-2006 and mid-2009, the New York Times reported that US forces rose from approximately 20,000 to almost 60,000 units. It is therefore unsurprising that an October 2009 report covered by Al Jazeera stated that Taliban forces had increased from 7,000 in 2006 to 25,000 in 2009.

It is indeed very hard to see how the increase in ‘ruthless women-oppressors’ such as the Taliban, triggered by an intensified occupation, is somehow helping to decrease human rights violations. It is even possible that this domino-effect also extends to the Northern Alliance, thus making matters even worse for Afghan women.

Having said that, First Lady Bush’s triumphant statement should be slightly changed to the following: ‘the fight against terrorism is also a fight [against] the rights and dignity of women’, which endangers the struggle of human rights groups and NGOs for ‘the rights and dignity of women.’

However, it should be added that, while their efforts are worthy of praise, the willful complicity of certain of these institutions in validating the US occupation is also worthy of stark criticism. Indeed, how can one both defend and endanger human rights without being as hypocritical as Washington itself?

Not only should these organisations oppose the occupation – as RAWA has done repeatedly – but they should actively seek to ‘unveil’ any attempt by the West to use the Afghan woman as a war ticket, and exposing this as being against her interests and consequently to demarcate themselves from such positions.

Looking back on the death and destruction that the NATO occupation has wrought, one is left to wonder: what happens to the Afghan woman if we don’t leave Afghanistan? Should her path towards dignity not be through the independent struggle (WAW, RAWA) as it was with the Civil Rights Movement, instead of being allegedly ushered – but really thwarted – by a self-contradictory Western patron?

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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Unveil and Conquer: Beyond the Melting Pot | Ceasefire Magazine
Nov 1, 2011 16:01

[…] the previous instalment, the path of independent struggle of women’s rights groups inside Afghanistan and of Afghan women […]

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