faculty & experts
31 August 2021

Afghan Women, Serial Wars and Imperial Violence

Associate Professor Julie Billaud examines the current precarious situation of women in Afghanistan as a product of Western and humanitarian interventions, as well as misconceptions. 

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, which happened in a matter of a few weeks after the withdrawal of the international troops, has raised global concerns about the plight of Afghan women.

Ironically, it is this same concern that was mobilised by Western governments – using a classic trope of colonial feminism of white men having to save brown women from brown men – to justify their military intervention after the attacks of 9/11. Twenty years later, in spite of USD 144 billion spent for the reconstruction, and USD 2.26 trillion spent for the war effort, the Taliban are back in power and the situation of Afghans in general, and women in particular, remains dire.

To understand this context, we need to take some distance from the dominant narratives of ‘progress’ and ‘women’s emancipation’ that have accompanied the foreign presence in the country.

The tragic scenario that is currently unfolding before our eyes is a repetition of an earlier episode that took place during the Cold War, when the Red Army invaded Afghanistan in 1979 using similar Orientalist representations of women in need of rescue while the West funnelled aid to the most extreme insurgent groups – at the time called ‘freedom fighters’ or ‘mujahedin’ and now renamed ‘Taliban’.

The West did not ‘abandon’ Afghanistan, as many news reports argue. Like the Russians in 1989, Western troops were defeated in another imperialist war which killed 71,000 people and displaced 5.9 million more. As a result of these serial wars, women have suffered from multiple forms of violence, which cannot solely be assigned to the Taliban.

As Anila Daulatzai and Sahar Gumkhor aptly argue in a recent article published on Al Jazeera, in 2001 “there were 17 years, at least, of violence and war prior to the Taliban, yet the extent of the duration of violence Afghan women had experienced was unimportant to imperial humanitarians as they “saved” them. Personal and social histories of violence were erased and only violence by the Taliban was acknowledged”.

For the past two decades, the violence Afghans have endured has manifested itself in villages bombed by NATO troops, houses raided by US special forces and CIA-funded militia groups, mass arrests, torture and terrorised communities. But it also took more insidious forms, such as the one of humanitarianism, which forced women to perform certain roles so as to qualify as deserving recipients of aid.

During my fieldwork in Afghanistan in 2007, I observed how women’s empowerment programmes, inspired by liberal feminist views and totally disconnected from the social, material and cultural reality in which Afghan women’s lives are embedded, invited them to become self-driven, autonomous subjects in charge of their own life.

The language of empowerment with its corollary ideas of individual agency and autonomy was not acquired by women but instead bestowed upon them, as women’s NGOs were established and behaviours governed – notably via workshops, conferences and trainings – according to the standards and priorities of international aid agencies.

In reaction to this brutal military-humanitarian occupation, Afghan nationalism was reformulated following conservative interpretations of Islam with the language of women’s rights associated with imperialism. In such a context, the humanitarian ‘gift’ of empowerment quickly turned poisonous for women.

Forced to constantly reiterate their adherence to Islam for fear of losing their cultural legitimacy and being seen as ‘agents of the West’ by their communities, and encouraged by international agencies to take part in public life and become visible, women’s room of manoeuvre remained extremely precarious.

Under the constant critiques of the national press and male politicians, women MPs or those employed at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, faced continuous insults, humiliations and threats. Progress was always fitful and mostly cosmetic, especially for rural women who barely witnessed any reconstruction in their areas and were caught in the middle of the fighting.

The symbolic violence of aid, far from being anecdotal, is indeed what has contributed to fuelling Islamic fundamentalism and its misogynist vision of women’s place in society since the Cold War.

The Taliban should therefore not be considered as Middle Age misogynist monsters but rather as modern Frankensteins created by the West.

Acknowledging Afghan women’s suffering requires accounting for the colonial legacies that have historically maintained them as second-class citizens, and the serial wars that have left the country poverty stricken, aid dependent and deeply traumatised.