From the war in Afghanistan to the feminist war

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By BERENICE BENTO*

We are facing the woman-currency, but not in the scope of State feminism, but of a State anti-feminism

The desire for domination and control by the United States and other countries with imperialist DNA found in women's struggles an artifice to produce the necessary justification for violence against other peoples. In order for them to gain victory, adjacent wars were unleashed. Most notably, the war between feminisms.

How to name the internal disputes between feminisms? There has been an undeclared war between feminisms for some time now. Certainly, the feminism of black and white American women who are engaged in the struggle for the self-determination of the Palestinian people, like the voices of Angela Davis and Judith Butler. Can you put them together with Democratic congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who donned a burqa and gave a speech in 2001 supposedly defending Afghan women? They live in a western and war-making country.

Would it be enough to name them under the misleading umbrella of “Western feminism”? I may include another term, "White Western Feminism". So are all Western white women complicit in imperialist policies? Regional (Western) and race (white) markers have the effect of reinstating two types of determinism that should be fought: geographical and biological determinism. Discussions about alliances, coalitions, awareness of gender structures, class, sexuality, religion are erased. The congresswoman's feminism, due to her attachment to and defense of the interests of the State, can be typified as “State feminism”. I will come back to this point.

In the essay posted on the website the earth is round I point out, in an incipient way, the notion of woman-currency in the moral-global market. How has State feminism instrumentalized women's lives? What is the function of the woman-money? What is being disputed when the situation of part of a population (women) is presented in a simulacrum as a necessary and sufficient cause for the invasion and occupation by a power of a country?

There are two moments when the woman-money was launched in the moral-global market as never seen before in contemporary history. The first moment was when the United States invaded Afghanistan. The second, last August, when the Taliban took power in Kabul. A true discursive “water head” was formed around the condition of the Afghan woman. In both moments, state feminism was instrumental in moving public opinion locally and globally.

Fast forward to 2001. Laura Bush, wife of President Bush, said, "I'm Laura Bush and I'm giving this week's radio address to kick off a worldwide effort to address brutality against Afghan women."[I]

A month earlier, in October 2001, Republican Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney of New York wore a burqa during a 2001 congressional speech on the rights of Afghan women. She said: “Anyone who knew before 11/90 how the Taliban treated women should have recognized that the Taliban are capable of doing almost anything. The Taliban have controlled 1996% of Afghanistan since XNUMX, when they unilaterally declared the end of women's basic human rights. The restrictions on women's freedom in Afghanistan are incomprehensible to most Americans."[ii] These two speeches can be read as inaugural moments of state feminism.

Two women with/in power who wish to make their interests coincide with those of all women, transforming themselves into moral-global referents. We are facing a metonymic operation proper to orientalist rhetoric[iii]. They take for themselves the key to the world bank of morality, whose ballast is in the repeated quest to become a universal reference for all other moralities. Morality, abstract currency, becomes incarnated in the body of the woman-money.

Last August, those voices were raised again to point out the mistake of the United States in pulling out of Afghanistan. Not a word was uttered about the rubble and crimes against humanity committed against the Afghan people by the occupying power. “Afghan women” are displaced from the context in which they live, in a process of objectification of their lives. This was the second moment of global visibility for state feminism.

If there are new discursive strategies that start to circulate in the global public spheres, how can the interruption of the occupation be justified? On September 01st, the scenes of terror that took over the city of Kabul, with thousands of people fleeing, made US public opinion lean toward maintaining the occupation that had lasted 20 years. President Joe Biden did the accounting for the losses. According to him: “After more than $2 trillion spent in Afghanistan, a cost that Brown University researchers estimated would be more than $300 million a day for 20 years in Afghanistan – for two decades – yes, the American people should hear this: $300 million a day for two decades. If you take the $1 trillion number, as many say, that's still $150 million a day for two decades. And what do we lose as a result in terms of opportunities? I refused to continue a war that was no longer serving the vital national interest of our people. And most of all, after 800.000 Americans serving in Afghanistan – I traveled all over the country – courageous and honorable service; after 20.744 American soldiers and women were wounded and the loss of 2.461 American service members, including 13 lives lost this week alone, I refused to open another decade of war in Afghanistan. We have been a nation at war for far too long. If you're 20 today, you've never known an America at peace.[iv]

There is not a single word about the dead, maimed, displaced Afghans over these two decades. Of course, he also didn't say how much the country (the companies with fraudulent contracts, the arms industry, inputs) earned. This will be a state secret. Nor does it mention the rubble and ruins they left behind in Afghanistan. Here is the practical effect of the transformation of women into instruments, into currency. What is gained from the circulation of this currency? An entire country.

The anti-feminist state

The invasion of Afghanistan represents a turning point (a new starting point) to discuss the meanings of “feminism”. The latest book by Rafia Zakaria, Against White Feminism[v], resumes this discussion of the use by US authorities of the situation of Afghan women to justify the 2001 invasion.For Zakaria: “And the reason why I call it the feminist war, the first feminist war, is because, until then, American feminists at least they functioned as a control of the state. They were against the war. They were against invasions and unjust interventions. But when that happened, you know, the big feminist organizations and prominent feminists, including Gloria Steinem, supported the incursion into Afghanistan, saying that it would establish democracy, which would ultimately be good for women's rights […] In Afghanistan , Afghan women will go back 200 years. It's because of this, it's because this kind of misuse of feminism, largely led by white Western women who wanted to change Afghanistan in their own image, in the way they saw it best, has completely failed.”[vi].

In the same interview, Mahbouba Seraj, coordinator of the Afghan Women's Network, states: “Ms. Rafia is being a little unfair. (...) It's not like that”. And she began to detail what has changed in the situation of women in the last two decades: “From the point of view of education, many more girls now that they go to school, have graduated from schools and are ready to take care of their lives and keep themselves in progress. Likewise, there are teachers, doctors, nurses and engineers […] And, hopefully, education is something we will fight for and will continue. And for me it is also interesting to see what will happen without the push from the West and women and NGO money and all that.”

At the same time, Mahbooba Seraj concludes by saying that he feels absolute relief to see the last of the American forces leaving. "Now we're able to figure out what we're going to do in this new era."[vii]

We are faced with two Afghan thinkers and activists with divergent positions. I am not aligning myself with any position. I just point out that the interpretation disputes (with their political effects) about advances, retreats, women's place are multiple in Afghan society. On one point the two agree: with the Taliban, women will have to fight to maintain their gains and the recent past of Taliban militiamen leaves no room for hope for a democratic government with gender equality policies.

Debates and interpretations are not limited to academic or media spaces. Afghan women, since August, continue to take to the streets weekly. On September 04, dozens demonstrated to demand a place in the Taliban government, the right to work and to continue studying. A day earlier, a senior Taliban militia commander said they would be taken into account, but not for the Executive or for any other position of responsibility.

The women gathered in front of the provincial government headquarters in Herat, the third largest city in Afghanistan. On their posters, we could read: “Do not be afraid, we are all together” and “No Government can survive without the support of women”.[viii] There are many ways to put women's lives in danger. In Afghanistan, prohibiting women from working is condemning entire families to hunger and other precarious conditions, as they are responsible for their families and represent 30% of the country's workforce. The demonstration was brutally suppressed by the Taliban. Several women and journalists were injured.

A few days later, on September 12, 300 women, linked to religious schools (madrassas) and covered from head to toe, defended the Islamic Emirate in Kabul and protested against Western influence.

“Western culture has no place in Afghanistan and coeducation is the first step towards it”,[ix] said a woman who identified herself as the director of a madrassa. They spoke on behalf of all Afghan women: “The women who protest against the Islamic Emirate do not represent Afghanistan, they are a minority. We are the majority. Afghan women do not like the democracy of Western culture[…] We are glad that the Emirate has not allowed any women in high government positions and that it has implemented Islamic law. Long live the Afeganistão".[X]

Here, contrary to what happens with state feminism, we see women who support the Taliban's anti-feminist policies and use the “Western” marker to wage war on other women. Possibly, those women who were harshly repressed in the demonstrations on September 04th did not have any solidarity from those who claimed to be legitimate representatives of Afghan women against Western values, those who spoke under the watchful eyes of Taliban militiamen. In other words: the right to work, education and gender equality is reduced to “Western values”. What do state feminism and state anti-feminism have in common? Women who claim to represent other women and do so to justify oppressive policies. What sets US state feminism apart is its use of the “oppressed woman” rhetoric as a global currency in its imperialist policies.

The overexploitation of the image of the oppressed woman is transformed into a sign that presents itself as sufficient. When I say “Afghan woman” or “Palestinian woman”, a set of images linked to a larger chain of signifiers is triggered: she can't walk down the street, she doesn't have a voice, she doesn't study. In this supposedly closed and complete identity, we find an emptying of it. It is an empty sign, which can be filled from the interests of the State, as the Taliban has now done.

We are facing the woman-currency, but not in the context of State feminism, but of a State anti-feminism. This is perhaps the biggest change for the Taliban. He understood that it is necessary to wage another type of war to dispute their positions. They are also in the moral-global dispute and have learned to make the woman-currency circulate in their favor.

*Berenice Bento is a professor at the Department of Sociology at UnB. Author, among other books, of Brazil, year zero: State, gender, violence (UFBA Publisher).

Notes


[I] “Laura Bush goes to fight for Afghan women”, in: https://internacional.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,laura-bush-vai-a-luta-pelas-mulheres-afegas,20011119p29161.

[ii] https://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/politics/2021/08/26/maloney-defends-wearing-burqa-amid-criticism-from-challenger

[iii] SAID, Edward. Orientalism: The Orient as the Invention of the West. Rio de Janeiro: Companhia das Letras, 2015.

[iv] Biden Defends Ending “Forever War” in Afghanistan & Criticizes Using War as Tool for Nation-Building, in: https://www.democracynow.org/2021/9/1/biden_afghanistan

[v] Rafia Zakaria. Against White Feminism. WW Norton & Company, 2021.

[vi] Was Afghanistan the First “Feminist War”? Examining the Role of “White Feminism” in the Longest US War, in:  https://www.democracynow.org/2021/9/2/rafia_zakaria_against_white_feminism

[vii] Was Afghanistan the First “Feminist War”? Examining the Role of “White Feminism” in the Longest US War, in: https://www.democracynow.org/2021/9/2/rafia_zakaria_against_white_feminism

[viii] Afghans protest, fearing curbs on women's rights, free speech in: https://www.aljazeera.com/gallery/2021/9/8/photos-afghans-protest-fearing-curbs-on-women-rights-free-speech

[ix] “Taliban want Afghan women to cover up and support their dictatorship”, in: https://brasil.elpais.com/internacional/2021-09-12/talibas-querem-que-as-afegas-se-cubram-e-apoiem-sua-ditadura.html

[X] https://brasil.elpais.com/eps/2021-09-04/o-sonho-desfeito-das-mulheres-afegas.html

 

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