A recent survey compiled by the Thomas Reuters Foundation found that Afghanistan is the world’s most dangerous country in which to be born a woman. Factors such as desperate poverty, inaccessible and poor health care, lack of education, and targeted violence toward female public officials led a panel of 200 gender experts to rank the country as number one.
In Afghanistan, factors like having the highest maternal mortality rates in the world and very limited economic and political rights are shown here to be as serious and deadly as more overt violence such as murder and rape, which are more likely to catch the media’s attention. For this reason, the FMF’s Global Reproductive Health and Rights Campaign seeks to promote the empowerment of women and girls through expanded access to education and health care.
Issues of privilege and positionality arise as Western feminists seek to support the women of Afghanistan, and it is my hope that a dialogue can expand beyond the academic sphere. While we see violence enacted on women by their own people in Afghanistan, it is imperative that we look beyond ourselves in the role of benevolent observer and recognize our location as well as the historical context of the United States’ relationship with the countries in which we seek better opportunities for women. More specifically, we can’t call ourselves advocates for the women of Afghanistan without examining the fact that the U.S.’s very presence there has directly increased violence against all people, particularly women. Tens of thousands of civilian casualties have been directly caused by a war, incidentally called “Operation Enduring Freedom,” launched by the U.S. in 2001. Civilian deaths resulting from U.S./NATO airstrikes have increased in recent years and continue to rise.
As the U.S. continues to wage wars against countries where women regularly face violence, we have to make sure that our language regarding the women does not become co-opted by pro-war politicians. This language is used by the U.S. to justify a “heroic invasion” of countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. We begin to think of ourselves as liberators, which is much easier than it is for us to recognize the extreme violence inherent in the military invasion of a country or in its economic exploitation.
We must be careful about infantilizing women and regarding them purely as victims to be rescued. While we do aim to help with the resources we are privileged to access, we must also recognize Afghan women’s agency, adulthood, and ability to control and change their situations.
It is important that we examine the situation in Afghanistan in how the U.S. is implicated in a historical context as well. This means acknowledging that the U.S. alliance with anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the Cold War was directly connected to the rise of the Taliban, and that the U.S. provided billions of dollars of weapons and military training to these extremist groups well into the 1990s.
In an article published in the American Journal of Public Health in 1999 entitled “The Impact of Political Conflict on Women: The Case of Afghanistan,” authors Wali, Gould, and Fitzgerald note, “It must be fully recognized that the United States’ support for the most radical elements of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the 1980s slowly brought about the destruction of the cultural framework that defined and maintained the time-honored role of Afghan women.”
So what kinds of actions can we take? Helping to promote campaigns that raise awareness of the status of women in Afghanistan and continuing to raise money for schools, hospitals, and Afghan women’s organizations are all good things. Continuing this work is imperative, so long as we consider and acknowledge our own position within this work as Western feminists. Many feminists are having this conversation today, and I hope that we can create a space here to continue to have it on our campuses. We can use our feminist groups as a place to draw attention to these important issues.
The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, “the oldest political/social organization of Afghan women struggling for peace, freedom, democracy, and women’s rights,” has educated U.S. feminists on the dangers of ignoring US/NATO war crimes in Afghanistan. A woman from RAWA spoke at one of our FMLA events when I was a student at the University of Iowa about the importance of U.S. feminists working with Afghan women to make change. We must take on this work of educating other activists so that the women of Afghanistan can focus on the work that needs doing at home.
We are in a unique position in the U.S. to fight against our own country’s destruction of another’s. We must stand in solidarity with the women of Afghanistan through open communication, honest reflection, and informed action. Western feminists, in order to truly support the women of Afghanistan, must maintain a perspective that is not complicit in the violence, but rather attempts to fight against it; to dismantle the assumption of Western supremacy while giving attention to the voices of the women themselves. I believe this is the future of feminism.