Listening to public radio in NYC today I heard the position, again, that war in Afghanistan is necessary in order to protect women’s rights. Who can argue with that, right? The guest on Brian Lehrer’s NPR program, Sunita Viswanath, the founder of Women for Afghan Women, was lamenting the fact that President Obama had failed to mention women’s liberation as a rationale for military escalation in his recent speech at West Point.
Without any more information, a concerned listener might come to the conclusion that more war in Afghanistan is necessary not only to keep America safe but also to free Afghan women and girls from violence and oppression, Al-Qaeda or no Al-Qaeda; after all, US intelligence has concluded that Al-Qaeda barely exists in Afghanistan anymore. In other words, Obama tells us that American security demands military escalation, but even if he’s wrong, our war is just.
The same women’s rights rationale was used as propaganda for invasion and occupation of Taliban territory after September 11, probably because it’s such a hard one to argue with.
Except that, eight years later, we now have hard evidence that this line of reasoning is highly questionable, if not completely ridiculous.
This largely pro-war radio segment (listen below) comes from the left end of the relatively narrow spectrum of American mainstream media. Ostensibly with its heart in the right place but tragically misinformed and ultimately counterproductive to humanitarian values and politics, we hear caring rhetoric that’s missing many important facts resulting in a discussion about war without any counterposition opposing "feminist" military intervention.
While I think Obama’s decision to escalate is an obvious mistake morally and politically, at least this time he did not use "women’s rights" to rationalize the war as he has in the past. I’d like to think he understands that it’s so obviously disingenuous as a justification, a blatant propaganda tool to manufacture consent for war. Taliban society is hardly the only patriarchal society in the world and using this rationale for war should logically mean we need debates about invading other countries where women are oppressed, with a first look at our oil-producing BFF Saudi Arabia. While we’re at it, what about calling out the National Guard? How many women die every day in the NYC at the hands of their husbands and boyfriends?
Ms. Viswanath makes it sound like we are liberating Afghani women as we fight against the Taliban in the Afghan civil war. But what we are doing is hardly so clear. For example, this summer the Afghan parliament, the one the US military helped install, passed a law dictating the frequency that Shia women are obliged to have sex with their husbands. So thanks to our help, rape is now legal in Afghanistan. And what about the Pentagon funding of Taliban forces that we’re supposedly trying to eradicate?
Is this progress? Can we really continue to justify military intervention by calling it support for Afghan women?
Here’s today’s radio show from WNYC:
And here’s an informative transcript from FAIR’s Counterspin broadcast this past summer that adds crucial information about the current state of women’s rights in Afghanistan, debunking the seductive myth that we are helping by getting more deeply involved in the Afghan civil war:
CounterSpin: ...the idea of invasion as a means of liberation for women and girls still seems to hold some persuasive power, as suggested by recent endorsements of the Afghanistan war by the Feminist Majority Foundation, for example.
Here to discuss what invasion and war have meant for Afghan women and their rights and what more war is likely to mean, is Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of the group Afghan Women's Mission, host/producer of Uprising Radio on KPFK in Los Angeles, and co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence. She joins us now by phone from Los Angeles.
Welcome to CounterSpin, Sonali Kolhatkar!
Sonali Kolhatkar: Thank you very much, Janine.
CS: Well, I nearly broke my computer with a search on "Afghanistan" "Taliban" and "women's rights" for the fall of 2001. Whatever they may say now, that very much was the conversation then, that "freeing" Afghan women from the Taliban was a key rationale for invasion, at the very minimum a positive byproduct. Well, many could and did declare that a misguided position even then, but now, 8 years on, we have history to test it against. So, what about that "brighter future" for Afghan women that U.S. papers told readers to expect?
SK: Well, on paper, in the Constitution of Afghanistan, a few things have improved for women and we should get those out of the way. The Constitution says that women are equal to men and there are no longer laws that dictate how women can dress or that bar women's education and employment and healthcare. So on that front, in terms of the sort of legal structures, there has been some progress made. However, on the flip side in the Constitution there's also a clause that was inserted at the last minute to appease the fundamentalists that said that Islamic Sharia law will be the supreme law of the land, which you can imagine can be interpreted in any way, particularly if fundamentalists are in power, which they are. Additionally, while opportunities are not barred for women regarding healthcare, education, and employment, there really are no opportunities or are very, very few opportunities. There's so much grinding poverty in Afghanistan that indicators like maternal mortality, for example, have not changed. Afghanistan suffers from some of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, same with infant mortality, same with women's literacy. And then you actually have had laws in Parliament that have passed very recently that have legalized women's oppression in various ways. For example, there was a law that was written and passed by the Parliament and then signed by the President that dictated that women who are in the Shia community would have to obey their husbands in terms of offering them sex every four days. Many have criticized this as legalizing rape, which it certainly is. And women who have protested against this have been beaten back by counter-protesters. Also women Parlimentarians, like Malalai Joya, have been kicked out of the Parliament for speaking out.
Many women of the last eight years have been killed, women's rights activists and human rights activists, and thousands of girls' schools have been burned down by the Taliban and by warlord fundamentalists. And also, you had a huge epidemic of self-immolation in western Afghanistan, where women are burning themselves to death. Additionally the judiciary is an extremely fundamentalist one that Hamid Karzai appointed, which has imprisoned women in greater numbers than even during the Taliban for so-called honor crimes, like adultery or running away from home, and then also imprisoned them for being victims of rape. If they've come forward to say that they were raped by a man they have been jailed for quote illicit sexual relations rather than getting any form of justice. So in all these ways, things have either not changed for women or actually gotten worse in post-Taliban Afghanistan.
CS: So you don't see it as a situation where slowly but surely, you know, perhaps those legal changes are just a first step, but it's a way of moving towards material improvement of women's and girls' lives. You just don't see it going in that direction as a result of the war?
SK: No, and there was a small opening after the war, but it was so squashed so fast by the direct U.S. policy of empowering fundamentalists and having them be part of the Cabinet and the Parliament that any effort now by women's rights activists is going to face the most stiff resistance by men with guns and private armies. You know, one of the least reported aspects of the Afghanistan war has been the domination of the Afghan government by the worst war criminals, serial murderers and rapists in Afghanistan. This is a democracy that we're supposedly defending through our occupation. How are women supposed to have any kind of liberation in this situation?
CS: Well there is some editorial conversation that we hear around the necessity to "attach non-military goals" to the war, is how it's often phrased, and that phrasing tells you everything about the priorities there. I understand that you think this whole approach of "Well, let's win a military victory and then we can set about the business of improving lives," you think that's backward.
SK: Absolutely. I mean first of all, define victory, right? Obama needs to define what he means by victory or defeating the Taliban. Does it mean kill every last member of the Taliban? How do you tell a member of the Taliban from ordinary Afghans? What about the difference between al Qaeda and Taliban, etc. etc.? And also the way in which, I mean you just have to look at the numbers: only about 10 percent of the funding for the U.S. military's operations in Afghanistan is aimed at so-called development efforts, which you can even argue that those development efforts are going to go into the pockets of corrupt warlords as long as they're in power. But only 10 percent, so you really have to look at these development efforts and these efforts to help women as the sort-of sugar coating, the PR, the marketing of the military occupation. If they really cared about Afghan people, that ratio would be reversed: 90 percent going to development and 10 percent to some perhaps peacekeeping efforts, which arguably are needed, rather than war fighting efforts. So if you just look at the money, there's no way that I think any rational, compassionate person could justify this U.S. war, because a small percentage of the funds are going towards development. It's like taking nine steps backward and one step forward.
CS: So if you're talking to journalists who are reporting Afghanistan, either on the rights of women in particular or not, is that what you see as the biggest missed thing, or the aspect of coverage you'd most want changed?
SK: I think that the media has done a terrible job on exposing how women's rights have actually gone backward over the last eight years, how our occupation has actually fueled misogyny. They've also done a terrible job on the warlord domination of the government, which is part of that same story. They've done a terrible job on exposing Hamid Karzai as a pro-fundamentalist president, who is an opportunist and who has betrayed the people of Afghanistan and is deeply, deeply unpopular. They've done a terrible job of showing how incredible Afghan resistance has been to the occupation, to the Taliban, and the warlords. There's ordinary people every day who are struggling against it or speaking out or fighting back, risking their lives. They should be profiled by the newspapers. Malalai Joya, this dissident member of Parliament that I mentioned, her being kicked out of Parliament should have been on the front pages of the newspapers. She is completely against the occupation. That's why she is not given credence. Because the people who are struggling for human rights and women's rights in Afghanistan are also naturally against the occupation, they are not given enough coverage in the mainstream media. The mainstream media has just walked lock step along with the liberal democrats and President Obama, who are also currying big favor with the Republicans in supporting the war on Afghanistan.
CS: We've been speaking with Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of the group Afghan Women's Mission, host and producer of Uprising Radio on KPFK in Los Angeles, and co-author of the book, Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence.
Thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin!
SK: Thanks so much, Janine.