Globe, the Graduate Institute Review
18 October 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 speedy takeover of Afghanistan has raised global concerns about the plight of Afghan women. To understand this context, we need to step back from the dominant narratives of “progress” and “women’s emancipation” that have accompanied the foreign presence in the country.

The tragic scenario currently unfolding 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.

The West did not “abandon” Afghanistan, but like the Russians in 1989, Western troops were defeated in another imperialist war. As a result of these serial wars, women have suffered from multiple forms of violence, which cannot solely be assigned to the Taliban.

For the past two decades, the violence Afghans have endured has manifested itself in NATO bombings, houses raided by US special forces and CIA-funded militia groups, mass arrests, torture and terrorised communities. But it also took more insidious forms.

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 was not acquired by women but instead bestowed upon them, as women’s non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were established and behaviours governed according to the standards and priorities of international aid agencies.

In reaction to this brutal military-humanitarian occupation, Afghan nationalism was reformulated and the humanitarian “gift” of empowerment quickly turned poisonous for women.

Forced to reiterate constantly their adherence to Islam and encouraged by international agencies to take part in public life and become visible, women’s room for manoeuvre remained extremely precarious. Progress was always fitful and mostly cosmetic, especially for rural women who barely witnessed any reconstruction 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.

This article was published in Globe #28.