The Afghan Women Tug of War

Earlier this week, GRITtv posted an interview with a woman from RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. I wanted to post the video for you all to watch and just say a few things that came to mind as I was watching.

For those who can’t watch the video, here’s a quick summary: Zoya (that’s not her real name) talks about how RAWA predicted that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan would fail. They believed there were “less bloody alternatives,” starting by not working with the Northern Alliance terrorist group. She stresses that what is touted as success in the U.S. (opening schools, banning the burka), does not have a significant impact in Afghanistan. She says that this all goes back to the 1980s when the U.S. first supported these groups and that the mistakes are being repeated. The situation for women in particular (rape, domestic violence, child marriage, etc.) has gotten worse under U.S. control. RAWA is in favor of U.S. withdrawal, but Zoya says that we can help their society by urging our officials to get out. She ends by saying, “if you cannot help us, leave us. But if you want to help us, […] take all these fundamentalist viruses that United States government created for Afghanistan.”

(If anybody has a transcript for this video or would like to draft one up, please let me know and I’ll link to it.)

The first thing you’ll notice is that Zoya uses a pseudonym and has her face blurred out. We don’t need to get into why that’s necessary, right? Speaking out as a woman in Afghanistan, I think it’s great that she’s even on a speaking tour.

What struck me after seeing this video is how different her message is compared to something I read earlier this week about women’s groups in Afghanistan wanting long-term U.S. presence. That article compared to this video paint two very different pictures about what life is like for women in Afghanistan.

I think some of it might be as simple as which women they are talking about. Zoya says in the video that we can’t just talk about one or two areas, but all of the provinces as a whole. If the situation improves drastically in a few areas but worsens just as drastically, if not more so, in several others, then can it really be viewed as a success?

But what I really want to focus on is how either way, it all comes back to women. One group says the U.S. must stay in order to help women. Another group says the U.S. must leave in order to help women and the country as a whole. No matter what, Afghan women are being used as a political bargaining chip.

I don’t know about you, but the loudest voice I often hear is the one saying that the U.S. has to stay in order to help these women. So what message is that sending? Think of the ammunition that is giving those who are against the war. Now they get to be against the war and resentful towards Afghan women since these women are being portrayed as a primary reason for the troops to stay.

We all know how this ends, though: Women lose either way.

(Cross-posted at Jump off the Bridge)


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24 Responses to The Afghan Women Tug of War

  1. NinaG says:

    Your post seems a little pessimistic; Afghan women are not solely being used as a political bargaining chip, they have their own voices as evidenced by this video.
    The reality is the U.S. government has done little to liberate Afghan women and won’t do anything to liberate Afghan women b/c its not their true interest and the US govt really has no expertise in women’s liberation.

    Thank you for posting this video – very informative.

  2. kb says:

    I kind of agree with NinaG-I feel like I’m missing something here. different groups of Afghan women think different things about the U.S. being there-I’m not surprised at all. and they say so-this also seems like the better plan-I’d rather hear what they think from them directly. these statements could be used as a bargaining chip, yeah, but so could any publicly stated story. Does that mean women-particularly women as talked about rather than to as most Afghan women are-shouldn’t tell their actual stories in public? It has to be the choice of the individual woman, but I can’t think that not speaking will do much that’s good.

  3. Well my problem is less with women themselves disagreeing about what is best, but with the way it’s being framed by the media, from what I can see. One group says “we need to stay there, the women need us!” while another says “we need to leave, we’re hurting the women!” I’d rather everyone take just a moment to weight ALL the reasons for being there and ALL the effects of getting out rather than merely saying that it’s for the women.

  4. I actually meant on the media rather than by the media. Basically, the media is showing us that people (U.S. & abroad) stand on one side or the other and keep using women’s rights as their main position.

  5. Jadey says:

    In Canada here, and the situation has been much the same, wrt co-opting the words of Afghani women into political arguments. If someone asked me today if I support the war in Afghanistan, I’d first have to ask them to clarify what they mean by “support”, “war”, and “Afghanistan” (i.e., which part, for which ?), and even then probably wouldn’t be able to give a straight answer. The idea of fighting a war against oppression using our oppressive, ethnocentric tools and means, and simultaneously combating our own nationalism and self-interest is… yeah. It seems like no matter how you slice it, the most marginalized are having the most trouble being heard and are taking the most crap for it.

  6. Fatemeh says:

    Great post!! May we repost this on Muslimah Media Watch?

  7. Michelle says:

    I have to echo NinaG’s sentiments and add that the attack on those who are against the war is possibly unwarranted and definitely lacking in nuance. Have you considered the fact that many (perhaps even most) in the anti-war movement ARE feminists, and are feminists with brains who are capable of evaluating and understanding the complexities of the position of women in Afghanistan? Or that videos like this one provide differing perspectives and information for those who are intelligent enough to not blindly accept whatever the New York Times tells us about Muslims or women without seeking out alternative information? Or perhaps that just as there are differences among women’s groups in Afghanistan, the anti-war movement is not a monolithic entity full of people ambivalent about feminism? Yes, there are problems with sexism in the anti-war movement just as there are problems with racism in the feminist movement, and any situation or movement needs to be constantly evaluated along such social axes. And believe me, I’ve had my fair share of dealing with MANarchists and masculinism in my own anti-war activities. I just think that it’s important to consider the subtleties of every situation in order to be able to find the best path forward and to ensure that people are not denied their voices. Unqualified statements serve only to isolate. The women of the anti-war movement have agency, and the women of Afghanistan, who need more support for their voices than ever, do as well.

  8. EH says:

    One might point out that the news article you link to primarily features non-Afghan women speaking /for/ Afghan women. The one prominent Afghan voice is clearly an elite (Afghan-American who works as an advisor to the government of Hamid Karzai).

    You can paint it as “two sides of this debate” in a “she said/she said” sort of debate, but you can also look closely at who these voices are and who they represent.

    In addition to RAWA, those interested should listen to this recent interview with Malalai Joya, former Afghan MP.

  9. Fatemah, thanks, you can certainly repost it.

    Michelle, I’m not sure what you’re referring to when you say “attack on those who are against the war.” I certainly am not attacking them, I was merely pointing out that, IMO, women are being used as a bargaining chip by both sides. I am fully aware that feminists with brains are leaders in the anti-war movement. I gave no indication in my post that I would disagree with that statement.

  10. Kathleen says:

    Right on, EH.

  11. Michelle says:

    frau sally benz, I am referring to this part:

    “Think of the ammunition that is giving those who are against the war. Now they get to be against the war and resentful towards Afghan women since these women are being portrayed as a primary reason for the troops to stay.”

    My problem with this is that it is unqualified. In all the sexism and misogyny I have encountered in my entire life and in activism, I have actually never, not once, encountered this sentiment. If you have an appropriate example, provide it and expose this problem. If not, statements that assume people’s reactions without providing context or evidence are fodder for anti-feminists who are looking for holes in your arguments, you know, so they can call you a crazy irrational uterus or whatever it is they do.

  12. Jill says:

    Michelle, the full context of that statement is:

    I don’t know about you, but the loudest voice I often hear is the one saying that the U.S. has to stay in order to help these women. So what message is that sending? Think of the ammunition that is giving those who are against the war. Now they get to be against the war and resentful towards Afghan women since these women are being portrayed as a primary reason for the troops to stay.

    That implies a potential response from people given the existing media and political narratives; it doesn’t say that people are already responding that way, just that it offers more ammunition to those with certain views. Certainly we can all agree that Afghan women have been used as bargaining chips by both sides, right? And that Afghan women are indeed being used as justification for maintaining U.S. presense in Afghanistan? (See, for example, Ellie Smeal’s statement on the “surge”). Sally is just putting forward what may be an outcome of that strategy.

  13. Michelle says:

    Jill, the problem is that I have seen absolutely no existing narrative that corresponds to this sentiment, which is why I find these statements to be out in left field. A narrative that DOES exist, on both sides, and prevalently, is “Those women/those Arabs/those Arab women don’t know what’s good for them.” About which I am personally much more concerned.

  14. kb says:

    while I don’t have all her facts, EH expressed what I am confused about on this post-the seeming suggestion, and maybe I’m misinterpreting, in which case I apologize frau sally-the post seems to be a negative reaction to afghan women speaking, because other people might use their stories. How is that feminist?-this would apply to Jill’s comment too-is it more feminist to tell these women to just shut up because of that potential reaction? what is the right way to deal with it? is there a right way?

    • Jill says:

      Huh? KB, I think you’re misinterpreting. No one is objecting to the Afghan woman speaking. We’re objecting to American media and political narratives which speak for Afghan women — i.e., we need to go over there and wage war in order to “save” them vs. we need to back off in order to “save” them. Without listening to the “them” involved.

  15. kb says:

    I was under the impression that the RAWA was direct voices of afghan women. am I confused there. I agree that the issue you’re talking about is a problem, but this video this post is about seems to be the solution-more voices of the women themselves.

    • Jill says:

      Yes… but where did Sally criticize RAWA? Or the woman in the video? I’m honestly confused. I have no idea what you’re talking about.

  16. kb says:

    “But what I really want to focus on is how either way, it all comes back to women. One group says the U.S. must stay in order to help women. Another group says the U.S. must leave in order to help women and the country as a whole. No matter what, Afghan women are being used as a political bargaining chip.

    I don’t know about you, but the loudest voice I often hear is the one saying that the U.S. has to stay in order to help these women. So what message is that sending? Think of the ammunition that is giving those who are against the war. Now they get to be against the war and resentful towards Afghan women since these women are being portrayed as a primary reason for the troops to stay.

    We all know how this ends, though: Women lose either way.”

    the entire end of the post seemed pretty critical to me. and I didn’t see much contrast made between RAWA and the previous news articles mentioned-which is I think why I’m so confused here. The argument that we need to talk to rather than about Afghan women is good, but RAWA is to me a solution to that, not part of the problem. and I there wasn’t much mention of that in the post. both this video and the news seemed lumped under the umbrella of-people talking about Afghan women.

  17. I apologize if my writing is unclear, but Jill interpreted the sentiment behind my post correctly. I AM being critical, but not critical of the women speaking up for themselves. I value their words and getting the chance to hear their experience. What I am critical of is the way those voices are being framed by political pundits, the media, and even U.S. human rights and women’s rights organizations. That is why I said a general “one group vs. another group” rather than RAWA vs. WAW and specifically bolded the sentence about women being used, to provide that detachment and (I thought) make clear that I was talking about outsiders, not Afghan women themselves.

    Again, sorry if my post was unclear, but that was my intention.

    As for Michelle’s point, I am applying what often happens to women in the U.S. with what I see potentially happening in this scenario. When women are brought up in U.S. politics as the reason for passing a law or making reform in some area, people against that law or reform (Conservatives, for example) then lash out at the women themselves to blame them. This actually doesn’t work with women only, but many marginalized groups.

    I believe that people who are already against the war will think we’re staying there only to help women. The reverse could be said as well — if we get out then people who support the war will blame women for us having left. But I didn’t use that as my example because 1) the U.S. is not withdrawing and 2) like I said in the post, I’ve heard the “we must stay to help women!” much more frequently than “we must leave to help women!”

  18. EH says:

    “I believe that people who are already against the war will think we’re staying there only to help women.”

    Aren’t most people who are against the war against the war at least in part because they realize that the war is bad for women (and other human beings)? And that claims to the contrary are largely noncredible?

  19. Kathleen says:

    Again, I agree with EH — I think FSB is being too charitable toward the “the war is to help the women of Afghanistan” crowd. Some of the people who say this might actually believe it. I don’t think that category includes many people who have informed themselves about Afghan history and society. Lots of people who say it, however, don’t mean it for a second. It was one of GWB’s lines about Afghanistan, and we have zero obligation to take him at his word about it.

    The idea that anyone who is already anti-war is going to “blame the women” for its continuation is not credible, and not fair to anti-war sentiment; there are actually better and worse positions here, not equal and simply different ones.

    It probably is the case that people who supported the war in Afghanistan as revenge, or in “instead-of-informing-myself-I’ll-just-supportthetroops” mode, will be perfectly willing to “blame Aghan women” if it drags on and on with no clear progress (ahem). This will be part of blaming Afghans generally — if only they would “step up to the plate”, stop being so barbaric, stop resenting civilian casualties, etc. We don’t have to worry about this kind of sentiment — it’s hypocritical, self-serving crap that puts “the troops” in harm’s way to no good purpose. We just need to name it for what it is.

  20. This is one of those moments where I wish what I think in my head would actually come out in words. I don’t mean to generalize to ALL people who are against the war, just the sort of people who are likely to blame women for these things. Perhaps because I spend a lot of time around people who express this sentiment, it is more prominent in my head.

    But, again, I’m not trying to generalize to mean everyone against the war, because I’m against the war and I certainly don’t think it has anything to do with Afghan women.

  21. The Chemist says:

    Something about this post bothered me and I think kb explained what it was- even if I didn’t realize it. It was just a hint of ambiguity that made it seem a little off, though I didn’t misinterpret it, I was simply at a loss for how to interpret it. Now that you’ve clarified, I can say:

    Right on, and on point.

    I really, REALLY want to bring attention to Michelle’s statement here:

    A narrative that DOES exist, on both sides, and prevalently, is “Those women/those Arabs/those Arab women don’t know what’s good for them.” About which I am personally much more concerned.

    This has been bothering me a great deal, and I get rather apoplectic with rage here. I can’t tell you how sick and tired I am of White Men(TM) making asinine statements about (for example) whether the veil should be banned for “the good of the subjugated women”. I’m no defender of anything except a person’s right to agency. When I hear a statement like, “A woman who wears the veil is mentally ill [and presumably unfit to decide for herself].” I get as close as I come to wanting to commit violence.

    Nothing gets me tasting bile more than self-righteous privileged people saying they get to make the decisions for the benefit of the uncivilized.

  22. brittany says:

    i saw zoya speak in real life. she was phenomenal.

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