Brushing aside my insecurities, I am resolved to address the contention that this war is a necessary step in liberating the women of Afghanistan. Despite Laura Bush's optimism, I don't believe the War on Terror has made anyone safer, not least the women of Afghanistan.Mokhtareizadeh argues that "in a situation where living is far from assured, liberation is unthinkable"-- but then insists that the narrative of "liberation of women" (recently graphically reinvoked by that infamous July 2010 Time magazine cover story) is not only irrelevant but is also profoundly pernicious:
I contest Mrs. Bush's assertion by taking notice of the dynamics of modern Afghanistan that make her premise entirely problematic. You see, firstly I am unconvinced that the majority of Afghans have much access to sources of international news. A recent poll conducted by the International Council on Security and Development found that nearly 92% of men (women were not polled) in Qandahar and Helmand provinces knew nothing of the September 11th attacks. Further, they reported that nearly 40% of all those surveyed believe the war is being waged to "destroy Islam" and others, Afghanistan itself. If after ten years a majority of Afghans from the most war-torn areas remain unaware of the US's principle argument for the war, I cannot accept that the 2001 invasion held significant political meaning for the majority of Afghan women.
Beyond this, Afghanistan is a country where the majority of its citizens, nearly 78% according to a 2008 UNICEF report, live in the provinces. This also means that a majority of Afghanis have extremely limited access to civil infrastructure like electricity, running water, roads or means for transportation. Poverty rates are amongst the highest in the world, and literacy amongst the lowest. In the case of women, statistics show that only 12.6% are literate, most of them residing in Kabul and Herat. Several surveys do demonstrate an increase in enrollment of girls in secondary schools in Kabul compared to ten years ago. They also find that provinces not involved in the heaviest fighting report improvements for women when it comes to freedom of movement outside the home. Still, many claim that these changes are only cosmetic, and that conditions for women have either stayed the same as they were under the Taliban, or have worsened as a direct result of insecurities caused by war.
Many post-colonial theorists contend that discursive change must be a precondition for structural transformation. In other words a process of decolonization necessitates not only the transformation of the political and economic apparatus of colonialism, but also its legitimizing narratives. I see this issue of freeing the women in Afghanistan through war as nothing more than a narrative used to legitimize the apparatus of imperialism, and unfortunately it is not only the political elites who are recycling this story.
There was a great and sobering opportunity, following the September 11 attacks, for all those "meaning makers" (journalists, academics, artists, etc.) to seriously contend with the ideology of American exceptionalism that has kept much of the US public naïve about the injurious role US foreign policy has played in the world. Instead public discourse was concentrated on otiose queries like, "why do they hate us?" And determined that the principle issue between ‘the West' and ‘the Rest' were civilizational in nature - i.e. Samuel Huntingdon's foolish "clash of civilizations" theory. Thus, it is no surprise that many people were persuaded that the U.S. must help the abject Muslim women in need of liberation. Notice the refusal by many leftists to critically reflect on the perils of bestowing cultural icons (e.g., the veiled Muslim woman) on serpentine historical and political realities.
Rather than seeking to ‘save' the women of Afghanistan, with the superiority it implies and violence it affects, solidarity activists can critically engage by making a concerted effort to recognize their own responsibility to address the injustices that forcefully shape the world in which we live. Critical engagement also involves struggling to understand and manage cultural differences. Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod specifies actions we can take , "What does freedom mean if we accept the fundamental premise that humans are social beings, always raised in certain social and historical contexts...that shape their desires and understanding of the world... I do not know how many feminists who felt good about saving Afghan women from the Taliban are also asking for a global redistribution of wealth or contemplating sacrificing their own consumption radically so that [other] women could have some chance of having what I do believe should be a universal human right - the right to freedom from the structural violence of global inequality and from the ravages of war, the everyday right to having enough to eat, having homes for their families...have the strength and security to work out, within their communities and with whatever alliances they want, how to live a good life, which might very well include changing the ways those communities are organized."
For me the issue of what constitutes ‘freedom' or ‘liberation' is something subject to historical context, and must be understood in the light of capacities and desires specific to the community in which one lives. If we wish to ‘liberate' Afghan women from disembodiment and violence, what vision of life after liberation are we asking them to be liberated to? Nowhere on the planet have we yet been able to significantly challenge the androcentric social system of patriarchy that is at the heart of disparate power relations between the genders. Not in Afghanistan, and not here at home.
The individuals and corporations who are determined to pursue the war cynically use the orientalist narrative to legitimize the war. Destroying the orientalist narrative may actually be harder to accomplish than ending the war. But while destroying the narrative probably wouldn't be enough to end the war, certainly, given the many false assumptions the US government's deployment of the narrative is embedded in, doing so would make the war more recognizable for what it really is. In any case, I think we need to work harder on changing the stories--and as Andrea says, not underestimate the importance of doing so.