ZNet free update, May 9, 2002
"Saving" Afghan Women
by Sonali Kolhatkar
As I got ready to be interviewed by Helen Caldicott, the famous Helen Caldicott, activist and feminist, I remarked to my fellow interviewee how excited I was to be speaking with one of my heroes. I had heard Helen on the radio and read articles about her and her brave campaigns to fight nuclear weapons and environmental degradation. Helen was late but it didn't matter I was elated about being interviewed by her. About forty five minutes after we were suppose to begin, we finally did. She began by asking me about my work with the Afghan Women's Mission and Afghan women's rights. Despite my nervousness, I answered calmly, but Helen wouldn't let me finish my sentences. She kept asking me to talk about why Afghan men treated women in the way they did. I tried to talk about the US empowerment of misogynist fundamentalists in Afghanistan and how US support had raised a generation of men who abused the power of their guns on women. But she angled for another answer and kept pushing me to try to read her mind and tell her what she wanted to hear. Thrown off balance by her aggressive questioning, I finally gave up and she proceeded to tell me all about female genital mutilation which the Feminist Majority had apparently told her, took place among Afghan women. Aghast at this information, which in my years of carefully studying the issue of Afghan women's rights, I had never come across, I mumbled that it was not something I was aware of. The interview ended as I took the headphones off and walked out, angry and frustrated with Helen ranting about the barbarity of women's vaginas being sewn up and that Afghan men did not want women to be able to have orgasms.
I raced over to my computer to do some research. Could I have been wrong? Was FGM really prevalent among Afghan women? I couldn't imagine it. I had known of it happening to women in some African countries. Surely I would have heard of it happening in a country geographically and culturally close to my home country of India, a country I had studied closely?
Well it turns out Ms. Caldicott was wrong. Female Genital Mutilation is not practiced in Afghanistan. I learned two lessons from my experience: 1) No pedestal is well deserved greatness is an overrated perception, and, 2) Feminists like Helen Caldicott and the Feminist Majority, approach the women of the Global South with short sighted preconceptions of feminism and their superiority. Helen Caldicott, was more interested in exploring the fascinating desire of Afghan men to treat women like dirt, than in examining those forces (most often Western male dominated governments) that have fostered misogynist religious extremism at the expense of women's rights.
It is easy to condemn the "barbaric" men of Afghanistan and pity the helpless women of Afghanistan. It is this very logic that drives the Feminist Majority's "Gender Apartheid" campaign for Afghan women. Far more interested in portraying Afghan women as mute creatures covered from head to toe, the Feminist Majority aggressively promotes itself and it's campaign by selling small squares of mesh cloth, similar to the mesh through which Afghan women can look outside when wearing the traditional Afghan burqa. The post card on which the .swatch of mesh is sold says, "Wear a symbol of remembrance for Afghan women", as if they are already extinct. An alternative could have been "Celebrate the Resistance of Afghan Women" with a pin of a hand folded into a fist, to acknowledge the very real struggle that Afghan women wage every day, particularly the women of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), who are at the forefront of that struggle. Interestingly enough, 50% of all proceeds go toward helping Feminist Majority in promoting their campaign on "Gender Apartheid" in Afghanistan.
On almost every image of Afghan women in the Western mainstream and even alternative media, images of shapeless blue clad forms of Afghan women covered with the burqa, dominate (Amnesty International's poster of Afghan women, the cover of Cheryl Bernard's new book on RAWA, etc.). We all know and understand the reactions which the image of the burqa brings, particularly to Western women and feminists. That horror mixed with fear and ugly fascination like knowing the site of a bloody car wreck will make you want to retch but you do it anyway. Whose purpose does this serve? How "effective" would the Feminist Majority's campaign be if they made it known that Afghan women were actively fighting back and simply needed money and moral support, not instructions? It if for this reason, I have gathered, that the Feminist Majority is not interested in working with RAWA, RAWA is too independent and politicized. What good is it to flaunt images of Afghan women marching militantly with fists in the air, carrying banners about freedom, democracy and secular government? Those women wouldn't need saving as much as the burqa clad women seem to. We may realize that groups such as the Feminist Majority are not necessary to tell Afghan women how to help themselves from their oppression. We may gather that Afghan women are perfectly capable of helping themselves if only our governments would stop arming and empowering the most violent sections of society. After all, it was the US CIA which armed and trained the likes of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the 1970s, even back then famous for mutilating women with acid for failing to cover themselves up. Hekmatyar was known by the CIA for being a "fascist". Where is the criticism of the CIA's barbarity in Helen Caldicott's remarks on Afghan women?
It is not just white women feminists in the US who seek to control the message of women's movements in the Global South. This March, I excitedly obtained the endorsement of the board of the Afghan Women's Mission for the Global Women's Strike which happens each year on International Women's Day. This was a three-year movement spanning tens of countries where women walked out of their homes and jobs to demand equal pay and compensation for child rearing among other things. This year's theme was "Invest in Caring, not Killing" and, appropriately, the strike was dedicated to condemning the US War in Afghanistan. The local organizer, Margaret Prescod, was initially pleased that the Afghan Women's Mission was signing on. However, Prescod and the main organizers of the strike who resided in England, objected to the language of our flyer only two days before the planned march in downtown Los Angeles. The main message on the front of the flyer was a condemnation of fundamentalism and an indictment of the US support for it, embedded in a quote by a RAWA member. It included the following sentence: "We welcome the combat against terrorism. In fact, this combat should have started years ago in terms of preventing incidents like September 11. But this combat against terrorism cannot be won by bombing this or that country. It should be a campaign to stop any country that sells arms or supports financially the fundamentalists' movements or fundamentalist regimes". Undoubtedly the bombing of Afghanistan was and is a large concern to the Afghan Women' Mission and RAWA in whose support we work (AWM and RAWA have both released public statements condemning the bombing), but fundamentalism and the very real terrorism of the Taliban and Northern Alliance is a large part of the on-going problem that Afghan women live with every day, that kills them every day, before and after the bombing. Perturbed that our anti-war message was not clear enough, the organizers of the strike threatened to not allow AWM's endorsement. This coalition of women was condemning the bombing while demanding equal pay and compensation for child rearing but could not fathom or appreciate that some women on the other side of the world had slightly different problems. Afghan Women's Mission ultimately participated in the march while leaving our flyer largely intact.
RAWA has also faced some consternation from the progressive left. Upset at RAWA's criticism of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, groups like the International Action Center, a.k.a. the Workers World Party, have silently ignored RAWA's contribution. A friend at the Worker's World Party claimed some years ago how she had seen pictures of Afghan women being beaten by Afghan fundamentalists in the 1970s and was so relieved when the Soviet Union went in to save them. Sounds similar to George Bush's claim to have "saved Afghan women". If one examines the various propaganda methods used to justify invasion of Afghanistan in past decades, a similar pattern emerges: saving Afghan women has been cited by the Russian, the US backed Mujahadeen fundamentalist war lords as well as the Taliban (!). In fact, the entire US war against Afghans has been made more palatable to Americans who were told by the President that it was those Afghan women we were going to be saving by bombing. First Lady Laura Bush developed a sudden interest in Afghan women's rights and began spouting Feminist Majority-like rhetoric. George Bush claimed that we had saved Afghan women from oppression as he showed off his poster child, Sima Samar, the new head of the Women's Affairs Department in Afghanistan. And the US State Department used RAWA's images from their website without their permission, in their propagandist leaflets that were scattered over Afghanistan, to justify the bombing.
Of course, it's not just women in the US who have exploited or misunderstood RAWA's message. At a recent anti-war forum, I spoke alongside well known activist and writer Michael Parenti, who claimed that the Soviet Union was invited into Afghanistan in 1979, that it didn't really invade. After I contradicted him in my speech, citing that the vast majority of the Afghan population were fairly united against the foreign domination and imperialist motives of the Soviet Union, Michael angrily asked me after the talk why RAWA does not concede to some of the good that the Russians did in Afghanistan. Wow. Do we ever dwell on the good that the US may have done in Vietnam? How could he ask this of a group whose leader was brutally assassinated by a Russian KGB operative in collaboration with an Afghan Mujahadeen, for being outspoken against the occupation and fighting for women's rights?
Today, as the US sponsored government in Afghanistan which legitimizes the same Afghan fundamentalist war lords supported by the US throughout the 1980s, gets ready to convene a government, over a thousand Afghan refugee women have applied for a scant number of seats reserved for them in the Afghan grand assembly! Clearly Afghan women are tirelessly struggling. in the face of a fundamentalist tilted government which has already promised Islamic Sharia law, misogynist in its formulation, even before the assembly has met.
From Helen Caldicott to Michael Parenti, isn't it imperative and a little bit obvious that when we speak of Afghan women and their rights, we must listen carefully to what they themselves have to say about it? As the admirable struggles of women of color, particularly in the Global South, come to the knowledge of the West, we must remind ourselves of the validity of their views and hopes, over our perceptions of what they should say and do, how they should dress and whether or not their oppression stems from being able to have an orgasm.
Sonali Kolhatkar is the Vice President of the Afghan Women's Mission. She has spoken out about Afghan women's rights at college campuses and community forums all over the country and her latest paper, "The Impact of US Intervention on Afghan Women's Rights" is in publication with the Berkeley Women's Law Journal. Sonali is also the host and co-producer of a daily two hour drive time Morning Show on politics and public affairs at KPFK Radio in Los Angeles, part of the Pacifica Network. She has a Master of Science in Astrophysics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.