afghan women

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By BERENICE BENTO*

The situation of women has changed little in Afghanistan during the period of foreign occupation.

The hunger

A woman holds her child on her lap. With the other hand, in quick gestures, she arranges the scarf on her head and stretches her arm with effort to reach the aid distributed by an employee of an international humanitarian aid organization. The report does not clarify in which of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan this happened. These are scenes of misery before the 15th of August, when the Taliban arrived in the country's capital, Kabul. In the 20 years of US occupation, the country's economic situation reached levels of extreme poverty.

Who was the father of that child that the mother held in her arms? Was he alive? Maybe he was in Guantanamo, America's maximum security prison for "the terrorists"? Guantánamo has become the exemplary symbol of disrespect for human rights in contemporary times. No International Agreement or Convention has been respected by the United States. There were no processes or courts that ensured the prisoners' right of defense. In the article “Indefinite Detention”, the philosopher Judith Butler[I]wonders what value these lives have to be deprived of legal rights guaranteed in international law.

The US empire itself becomes an absolute law, a sovereign power established, contradictorily, in the so-called “greatest democracy in the world”. After 20 years, there are still 140 prisoners. Where were (and are) the mothers, wives, sisters, sons and daughters of these prisoners?

Afghan women activists have long denounced the occupation. Afghan MP MalilaJoya, author of the book Woman among warlords: the extraordinary story of an Afghanwoman[ii](“Woman Among the Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Woman”, free translation), has been emphatic in asserting that the situation of women during the occupation did not change. In her interviews and texts, she points out specific dimensions identified as women's, but the central axis is the precariousness of her people's lives. Men go to war and women, many already living as widows, become responsible for getting food to ensure the survival of the family.

Afghanistan, she says, is a mixture of misery, unemployment, addicted youth, malnourished children. His wish: “No doubt they should appear before the International Criminal Court for the war crimes they committed, all these warmongers – the criminal Bush, Obama, the racist and fascist Trump, and now Biden, who pursues this disgusting criminal policy. They don't care about the wishes of the Afghan people or how tired they are. (…) They push Afghanistan further into the Dark Ages (…) They must be prosecuted. The same goes for the Taliban.”[iii]

Was nothing done in these two decades of occupation? Again, I quote Malala: “Without a doubt some projects have been done [by the United States and NATO] for Afghan women and girls, some schools have been built, mainly in the big cities. This is to justify the occupation, this criminal war in Afghanistan. But even now you see cases of rape, domestic violence, acid attacks, forced marriages, self-immolation, public beatings of women with lashes, stoning to death.”[iv] In addition to the façade function of these constructions, we cannot overlook the pursuit of profits by US companies and international NGOs, shrouded in constant accusations of corruption.

The women learned strategies to deal with the scarcity situation. One was negotiating with the “Taliban” senses. Sahar Ghumkhor and Anila Daulatzai[v] point out that the reduction in resources for humanitarian aid programs for widows led them to find a way to increase food rations. They found that if they told aid agents (funded by the US and European countries) that the Taliban killed their husbands, they would be supported. An Afghan woman says, “We are not helpful and they don't care if we tell them that the Soviets killed our husbands, or if our husbands died in the wars in Kabul in the 1990s, or if our husbands died young, from incurable diseases, or stress or heroin use. They only care if the Taliban leaves us widows.”

The image of the young Afghan man falling, like a rotten fruit, from the US Armed Forces plane on August 18, 2021 is perhaps the ultimate expression of the Afghan people's lack of importance to the occupying power.

What are these women telling us? The impossibility of isolating their situations from the context of their society. Does this mean that there are no unique dimensions of the female condition? That the clothing they wear (whether by choice or mandate) is a secondary issue? I will come back to these points.

Analyzes of Afghan women are made by detaching them from the concrete situation of their lives and the social relationships in which they are immersed. This framework of analysis also appears in texts that attempt to denounce the United States' instrumentalization of women's struggles. If some say that Afghan women are faceless, in others, she appears as a hero, in complete control of their lives. The two perspectives are the same because they isolate them from the relational and plural context in which they are immersed. It is as if these women were not sisters of men, mothers of men, daughters of fathers, widows. In these analyses, the heroine and the faceless woman live in a world segregated from the “man's world”.

What is the effect of decontextualized analyses? They transform the woman into a currency, something that allows discourses to circulate, gain value in narrative disputes. In global geopolitics, “woman money” has become a value in itself. It is enough for me to say: “Afghan women” for the currency to start circulating. Women had their homes invaded, relatives arrested, tortured, killed, daughters and sons lost in Taliban attacks on schools, but these tragedies disappear when the “woman-currency” is put into circulation.

The figures of the heroine (they have agency) or the faceless woman (they are oppressed) end up being equalized because they isolate women from the social, economic and historical relations that will define the conditions of possibility for agency. In the scene of the widowed women described above, we see that three dimensions of their lives are articulated there: gender (women), class (poor), marital status (widows).

A few weeks ago, in an interview, former President GW Bush said that the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan was a mistake. He feared that all his work and Laura (his wife) would be lost. A considerable part of the justification for the US invasion of Afghanistan was based on the tripod human rights/women's rights/democracy. We need to recognize the effectiveness of the “money woman” in geopolitics. It works. “The silence of the global press on the horrors of the occupation was broken on August 15th. But not to point out the rubble in which the country was left. Once again, they instrumentalize the struggle and lives of Afghan women. Suddenly, like a bolt of lightning on a sunny day, the Taliban arrive in Kabul and the country reverts to prehistory. In the article “Tragic fate of Afghan women”, by journalist Miriam Leitão,[vi] the “money woman” was used. “The world sees the fate of women and girls in Afghanistan paralyzed”, says the journalist. How many times has Miriam Leitão been horrified by the living conditions of women who had their relatives killed, tortured by the occupying force?”.

In another article, there is a sample of the effectiveness of the circulation of “woman money”: “The world's digital public opinion data is looking at the plight of women in the Taliban regime: From the total of 53.320 articles produced in 24 hours –up to By the end of the afternoon of this Tuesday (3.Aug.17) – 2021% of news sites on the planet bring narratives about the female issue”.[vii]

How many times has the media listened to Afghan women or let us know about the scarce care policies of the Afghan people in times of the Covid-19 pandemic? The “money woman” becomes a trope that serves the troops. The occupying force will leave, but it will continue to occupy women's bodies. The “woman money” in circulation guarantees power and legitimacy for the atrocities of the occupying power. A mythical narrative is woven in which, in the past (the time of the occupation), women were free and, now, there is darkness and they will meet with a tragic destiny: physical or symbolic death.

In order for the effectiveness of the “money-woman” to be guaranteed, it is necessary to fetishize women, removing and denying them relational and plural existences. Afghan woman becomes, in the global market of moralities, a whole. One of the effects of its circulation is to forget the gender violence that structures our society. This alienation magically makes our own tragedy disappear: Brazil is the 5th country in the world in terms of feminicides.

One caveat: the notion of “woman-currency” that drives the global moral economy cannot serve to not recognize the historical importance of women's movements globally (with an immense plurality of agendas). It is precisely through protagonism that the multiple feminist voices assumed that States began to try to use our struggles as rhetoric to justify domination.

After 20 years of occupation and war, nearly half of Afghanistan's population, including nearly 10 million children, are in need of humanitarian aid. More than half of all children under the age of 5 are malnourished. The UN estimates that nearly 400.000 Afghans have been forced from their homes so far, with 300 people losing their lives. After all, what crime did the Afghan people commit against the world? What kind of collective punishment is this? After the arrival of Taliban militia in Kabul, the United States blocked $9,5 billion of the Afghan state in US banks and the IMF suspended Afghanistan's access to funds. The war against the Afghan people will continue by other means.

In a report on refugees in Europe, an Afghan man, skin tight to his bones and eyes almost in free fall, held up a sign: "We are here because you are there."

The rock

One problem: now, if I am proposing as an analytical alternative to connect the situation of women in broader frameworks, would I not be hiding women's oppression? I will stick to this point, “inviting” Afghan women to this conversation.

In his article “My Taliban nightmare came true. I left, but my sister couldn't” (“My Taliban nightmare has come true. I left, but my sister couldn't”, free translation), Nasrin Nawa recounts the scenes of fear that gripped Kabul as the Taliban approached the city. His despair is with the fate of his sister. She says: “With reports circulating about Taliban militants breaking into the homes of activists, journalists and others, I called my sister and told her to go home and hide all our ID cards. So I told her that she needed to destroy her guitar. She said her hands couldn't do that, but I begged her. I told him that "the Taliban's hands are capable of killing you for your art".[viii]

For young Afghan Zahara Nader, there is another layer of fear and anguish.[ix] She is from the Hazara ethnic group (Bamiyan province), a Shiite Muslim minority persecuted by the Taliban. The statue of Shiite leader Abdul Ali Mazari (killed by Taliban militiamen in 1995) was destroyed[X] by the Taliban. I am not referring to the giant Buddha statues located in Bamiyan, which were also destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.[xi] This destruction happened on August 17, 2021.

The departure from the United States had been agreed for the 31st of August. Since 2020, the exit negotiations of the occupying power and NATO were already underway. These negotiations were between the Taliban and Trump and not between the country's president, the puppet Ashraf Ghani. So, the first country that recognized the Taliban as a government is the United States. Doesn't that seem strange? I believe that this strangeness or mystery was unveiled by the philosopher Rodrigo Karmy:[xii]Taliban militiamen operate their policies in the same register as the empire: within the realm of necropolitics. For Rodrigo, “the Taliban commanders who entered the presidential palace did not come from the trenches. Their clothes looked very clean, their beards and rifles very nice. It was not the war that was behind it, but the make-up room (…). The Taliban did not put any “ancestral culture” into play (…), but a set of techniques and discourses that have been forming since the end of the Cold War (…) Talibanism is a necropolitical machinery made in the image and likeness of former US imperialism ”.

On the Taliban birth certificate it says, father: UNITED STATES.

In an interview, militia spokesman Mawlawi Abdulhaq Hemad[xiii] stated that it would not prohibit women from studying or working. This speech had unprecedented repercussions here in Brazil among those who try to build alternative narratives to those of the hegemonic media and which could interrupt the circulation of the “woman-money”. But that's not what happened. “It is still too early for any analysis”; “we need to wait and see what the Taliban government will be like”; “the Taliban of today is not the same as 20 years ago” were some gems I heard from Brazilian analysts.

When you say “it's still early” you are proposing a kind of forgiveness, something like: let's forget what they did in the past, after all, they already said they changed. If with Miriam Leitão we see the emergence of the “Dark Ages” figure, in these analyses, the anticipated forgiveness seems to suggest that auspicious times will come. And what do Afghan women say? The situation of the Afghan people has deteriorated and women continue to be persecuted by the Taliban. There is no opposition between the Taliban and the occupying forces.

Deputy Malala Joya says that “once again, the women of Afghanistan will be more victims, as the men and women of my country have no liberation. [The Taliban] have stated that when they come to power, 15-year-old girls and widows under 45 will be forced to marry their commanders. And it's just one example, although we have many other examples of his misogynistic acts against women that indicate his nature never changed. For example, two girls aged 14 and 16 from Samangan province were recently, in front of their mother, brutally raped by two Taliban commanders. And two 9-year-olds in Kabul a few months ago were also raped. And this list can be extended. Unfortunately, the situation for women is a disaster.”

This Malala interview took place on July 15, 2021, still under occupation. A month later, on the 17th of August, they cynically say they would respect women.

Journalist Ahmed Rashid (August 16) joins MP Malala in denouncing: “The Taliban needs to rebuild its credibility, because, remember, shortly before this takeover, there were months of assassinations in Kabul of senior officials, government officials, journalists, women, activists. The Taliban were trying to eliminate the educated class. And that created real fear and panic across the country, not just in Kabul. This is the legacy of brutality, quite recent, that the Taliban have to mitigate one way or another.”[xiv]

The young Afghan journalist Nasrin Nawa, now without a job, joins the voices that denounce the violence of the militiamen: “They are attacking people. They are attacking women. But they are not seen by the world because there is not enough coverage. Not enough courage for that. They are afraid”.[xv]

We are facing two types of occupation in a line of continuity: the occupation of Afghanistan and the occupation of women's bodies which, in turn, can be separated into two types of occupation: by the rhetoric of the "woman-money" implemented by the occupiers and by Taliban microphysical control.

the burqa

In the circulation of the “money woman”, clothes seem to have become an indicator of human development. On one side, a barrage of reheated and altered photos (generally photos of Iranian women) showing women before and after the arrival of the Taliban. The bare legs and the miniskirt seem to have become an indicator of high human development and covered women's bodies, on the contrary, would point to civilizational backwardness.

Would the clothing or use of a certain piece indicate freedom or oppression? How to separate (and denounce) the instrumentalization of States from women? I have no doubt that the way bodies are presented, especially in the public sphere, is fundamental for carrying out acts of recognition or denial of recognition. States systematically try to control bodies. And the body, here, is not understood as a metaphysical entity. It is something materialized in fashions and ways that qualify (or disqualify) you for life. Do you remember what was the first observation that the colonizer Pedro Álvares Cabral made about the bodies of the native people of Brazil? “Brown, naked, with nothing to cover their shame”.

Shame was produced and materialized in rags that would serve to cover “their shame”. All in the name of God. Are the clothes unimportant? After all, isn't it exactly for the right to express their gender that trans people have been fighting and because of that they suffer radical violence? If there is no essence of gender, but practices of gender, there is no doubt that clothes also make gender. What does this have to do with Afghan women? Let's go.

Notions of honor/dishonour are linked to gender performances. Hence the importance of Marcha das Vadias and other feminist initiatives that establish, in the public space, the body as an explicit place of dispute and radicalize the feminist maxim that “my body belongs to me”. If “my body belongs to me” and if I want to wear the Muslim scarf or burqa or miniskirt, that is a right that must be respected. But how can I be free in my desire, if the State says: “if you wear a scarf, you cannot study or work”, as the French State does with Muslim women?[xvi] What if I am forced to wear a certain religious symbol imposed by the State under penalty of being whipped or stoned? The “money woman” has become a value that the States have privatized and put into circulation in the global moral market. How can I say that women are free when there are state laws that say what I can and cannot wear? The plural desire of civil society never entirely coincides with that of the State. They do not merge into an indefinable symbiosis.

I make this small aside in the discussion of the situation of Afghan women because this was a tiresomely reiterated discussion. Narrative disputes, like an agitated sea, have thrown us to the rock of norms (heteronomy) or of choice (autonomy). On the one hand, comments on “the drama of Afghan women who will have to submit to the burqa”; on the other, “how silly is this discussion about clothes”. Once again, the apparent opposition of positions disappears because both produce a false opposition between form/content and forget a fundamental actor in this scenario: the State and its fantasies of homogeneity.

Shortly after the Taliban's performative arrival, an Afghan journalist interviewed a member of the group. She asked, in a defiant tone, “Do you think my attire is appropriate?” He, all dressed in weapons, replied: “No. You are very uncovered”. She wore the Muslim scarf (hijab) and a long dress.

In the article “Do Muslim Women Really Need Salvation? Anthropological reflections on cultural relativism and its Others”, Lila Abu-Lugob reminds us that the burqa was not invented by the Taliban. It is the form of coverage that women Pashtuns (an Afghan ethnic group that most Taliban militiamen are part of) wore when they went out. The burka would be, above all, a symbol of modesty and of the “symbolic separation between the male and female spheres”.[xvii] To the dismay of liberal feminists, during the occupation, some women continued to wear their burqas. And those who don't want to cover their blankets with religious and/or cultural symbols? Don't want the veil, don't want the burqa? Will they be whipped? Maybe stoned? This is not important?

Certainly, for many women and children, in addition to the struggle to go to schools (many destroyed by Taliban terrorist attacks), for survival and for the reconstruction of their country, they will have to fight for the right not to cover their heads or/and bodies in accordance with the norms of the new owners of power. Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, the Taliban militia could split, perhaps civil war breaks out, and Western vampires will continue to make humanitarian pronouncements. The certainty: the Afghan “woman money” will continue to circulate. UNHCR will make videos asking for your money to save Afghan women and children. Online petitions with titles “Save the Afghan woman”, “Let's help Afghan women”, will be shared in WhatsApp groups and emails. The truth, however, is translucent: They don't care about the Afghan people, finally echoing the widow's voice.

*Berenice Bento is a professor at the Department of Sociology at UnB.

Notes


[I]BUTLER, Judith. Indefinite detention. In: Precarious life: The powers of mourning and violence. Belo Horizonte: Autêntica Editora, 2014.

[ii]JOYA, Malala. Woman among warlords: the extraordinary story of an Afghan woman. Scribner, 2009.

[iii]JOYA, Malala. Afghan Activist: George W. Bush's Claim US War in Afghanistan Protected Women Is a “Shameless Lie”. Democracy Now, 15 Jul. 2021. Available at: https://www.democracynow.org/2021/7/15/afghanistan_taliban_us_withdrawal?fbclid=IwAR2nf5cyTD1fk24T8Dc6FGUxAR2eRX4tHc3iDZ21cqY1Ed6MiJLIr9_IbTo.

[iv] JOYA, Malala.Afghan Activist: George W. Bush's Claim US War in Afghanistan Protected Women Is a “Shameless Lie”. Democracy Now, 15 Jul. 2021. Available at: https://www.democracynow.org/2021/7/15/afghanistan_taliban_us_withdrawal?fbclid=IwAR2nf5cyTD1fk24T8Dc6FGUxAR2eRX4tHc3iDZ21cqY1Ed6MiJLIr9_IbTo.

[v] Ghumkhor, Sahar. Monsters, Inc: The Taliban as Empire's bogeyman. Aljazeera, 18 Aug. 2021. Available at https://www.aljazeera.com/author/sahar_ghumkhor_170705122004647.

[vi] LEITAO, Miriam. Tragic fate of Afghan women. The Globe, 22 Aug. 2021. Available at: https://blogs.oglobo.globo.com/miriam-leitao/post/destino-tragico-das-mulheres-afegas.html.

[vii] FERNANDES, Manuel. Afghan women and the media. Power 360, 18 Aug. 201. Available at: https://www.poder360.com.br/analise/as-mulheres-do-afeganistao-e-a-midia/.

[viii] NAWA, Nasrin. My Taliban nightmare came true. I left, but my sister couldn't. The Washington Post, 16 Aug. 2021. Available at:https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/08/16/nasrin-nawa-kabul-taliban-nightmare-betrayed/.

[ix] NADER, Zahara. Uncertainty, Fear: How Afghan Women & Ethnic Minorities Feel About Taliban Takeover & US War, 19 Aug. 2021.

[X] ONE TV. With explosives, they destroyed the statue of a former anti-Taliban leader in AfghanistanOne TV.com, 18 Aug. 2021. Available at:

https://www.unotv.com/internacional/afganistan-talibanes-destruyen-estatua-de-exdirigente-politico-abdul-ali-mazari/.

[xi] Behzad, Nasir; Qarizadah, Daud. The man who blew up historic statues for the Taliban. BBC News Brazil, 14 Mar. 2015. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/noticias/2015/03/150312_budas_taleba_pai.

[xii] KARMY, Rodrigo. 6 Afghan theses.The voice of those left over, 24 Aug. 2021.Available at: https://lavozdelosquesobran.cl/6-tesis-afganas/.

[xiii]"I am surprised that people are afraid of the Taliban," says a spokesman for the group.In: IG last second, 17 Aug. 2021.Available at: https://ultimo Segundo.ig.com.br/mundo/2021-08-17/lider-taliba-surpreso-com-medo.html.

[xiv] RASHID, Ahmed. On the Taliban's Return to Power & What Comes Next for Afghanistan.Democracy Now, 16 Aug. 2021.Available at: https://www.democracynow.org/2021/8/16/us_war_in_afghanistan_taliban_takeover.

[xv]NAWA, Nasrin. Afghan Journalist Who Fled Kabul: Women Are “Hopeless” After US War Ends with Taliban Takeover. Democracy Now,19 Aug. 2021. Available at: https://www.democracynow.org/2021/8/19/nasrin_nawa_afghan_women_taliban?fbclid=IwAR21ipBcjskv2ccNjHKUXE3oCFDKaNyuh6tS–QXDLrVq4ZMHzOfcbuAWHM.

[xvi]BBC NEWS BRAZIL. French senate bans wearing Islamic headscarves in public. BBC News Brazil, 14 sep. 2010. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/noticias/2010/09/100914_france_burca_mdb.

[xvii] Abu-Lughod, Lila. Do Muslim women really need saving? Anthropological reflections on cultural relativism and its Others. Journal of Feminist Studies, Florianópolis, v. 20, no. 2, p. 256, May-August 2012.

 

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