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Just as US corporate news media “discovered” Afghan women’s rights only when the US was angling for invasion, their since-forgotten interest returned with a vengeance as US troops exited the country.
After September 11, 2001, the public was subjected to widespread US news coverage of burqa-clad Afghan women in need of US liberation, and celebratory reports after the invasion. Time magazine (11/26/01), for instance, declared that “the greatest pageant of mass liberation since the fight for suffrage” was occurring, as “female faces, shy and bright, emerged from the dark cellars” to stomp on their old veils. In a piece by Nancy Gibbs headlined “Blood and Joy,” the magazine told readers this was “a holiday gift, a reminder of reasons the war was worth fighting beyond those of basic self-defense” (FAIR.org, 4/9/21).
The media interest was highly opportunistic. Between January 2000 and September 11, 2001, there were 15 US newspaper articles and 33 broadcast TV reports about women’s rights in Afghanistan. In the 16 weeks between September 12 and January 1, 2002, those numbers skyrocketed to 93 and 628, before plummeting once again (Media, Culture & Society, 9/1/05).
Suddenly remembering women
Now, as the US finally is withdrawing its last troops, many corporate media commentators put women and girls at the center of the analysis, as when Wolf Blitzer (CNN Situation Room, 8/16/21), after referring to “the horror awaiting women and girls in Afghanistan,” reported:
President Biden saying he stands, and I’m quoting him now, squarely, squarely behind this decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan, despite the shocking scene of chaos and desperation as the country fell in a matter of only a few hours under Taliban control, and the group’s extremist ideology has tremendous and extremely disturbing implications for everyone in Afghanistan, but especially the women and girls.
This type of framing teed up hawkish guests, who proliferate on TV guest lists, to use women as a political football to oppose withdrawal. Blitzer guest Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R.-Illinois), for instance, argued:
Look at the freedom that is being deprived from the Afghan people as the Taliban move into Afghan, or moving into parts of Afghanistan now, and you know how much freedom they had. Look at the number of women that are out there making careers, that are thought leaders, that are academics, that never would have happened under the Taliban leadership…. The devastation you are seeing today is why that small footprint of 2,500 US troops was so important.
As you mentioned, for women and younger girls, this is also very devastating for them. The humiliation that they will endure at the hands of the Taliban all around this is just a horrible, horrible mar on the United States under President Joe Biden.
‘America rescued them’
Such analysis depends on the assumption that the US invasion and occupation “saved” Afghan women. In the Wall Street Journal (8/17/21), an op-ed by former George W. Bush staffer Charity Wallace ran under the headline : “The Nightmare Resumes for Afghan Women: America Rescued Them 20 Years Ago. How Can We Abandon Them to the Taliban Again?”
Two days later, a news article in the Journal (8/19/21) about the fate of women in Afghanistan explained: “Following the 2001 invasion, US and allied forces invested heavily to promote gender equality.”
The Associated Press (8/14/21), in a piece headlined, “Longest War: Were America’s Decades in Afghanistan Worth It?,” noted at the end that “some Afghans—asked that question before the Taliban’s stunning sweep last week—respond that it’s more than time for Americans to let Afghans handle their own affairs.” It continued, “But one 21-year-old woman, Shogufa, says American troops’ two decades on the ground meant all the difference for her.” After describing Shogufa’s experience for five paragraphs, the piece concludes with her “message to Americans”:
“Thank you for everything you have done in Afghanistan,” she said, in good but imperfect English. “The other thing was to request that they stay with us.”
Leave American troops idle long enough, and before you know it, they’re building schools and protecting women. We found an actual patriarchy in Afghanistan, and with nothing else to do, we started smashing it down. Contra the Nation, it’s hard to believe that Afghan women “won” gains in human rights, considering how quickly those gains are sure now to be revoked. The United States military made it possible for those women to experience a measure of freedom. Without us, that’s over.
Flanagan pointed to Afghan activist Malala Yousafzai, whom she accused “critics of the war” of forgetting, saying Yousafzai “appealed to the president to take ‘a bold step’ to stave off disaster.”
Next to last in women’s rights
Such coverage gives the impression that Afghan women desperately want the US occupation to continue, and that military occupation has always been the only way for the US to help them. But for two decades, women’s rights groups have been arguing that the US needed to support local women’s efforts and a local peace process. Instead, both Democrat and Republican administrations continued to funnel trillions of dollars into the war effort, propping up misogynist warlords and fueling violence and corruption.
Contra Flanagan’s insinuation, Yousafzai didn’t ask Biden to continue the occupation. In an op-ed for the New York Times (8/17/21) that most clearly laid out her appeal, she asked for humanitarian aid in Afghanistan and for refugees fleeing the country. In fact, her take on the US occupation’s role in women’s rights (BBC, 8/17/21) is much more critical than most voices in the US corporate media: “There had been very little interest in focusing on the humanitarian aid and the humanitarian work.”
As human rights expert Phyllis Bennis told FAIR’s radio program CounterSpin (2/17/21), Malalai Joya, a young member of parliament, told her in the midst of the 2009 troop surge that women in Afghanistan have three enemies: the Taliban, warlords supported by the US and the US occupation. “She said, ‘If you in the West could get the US occupation out, we’d only have two.’”
Things did get better for some women, mostly in the big cities, where new opportunities in education, work and political representation became possible with the Taliban removed from power. But as Shreya Chattopadhyay pointed out in the Nation (8/9/21), the US commitment to women was little more than window dressing on its war, devoting roughly 1,000 times more funding to military expenses than to women’s rights.
Passive consumers of US corporate news media might be surprised to learn that Afghanistan, in its 19th year under US occupation, ranked second-to-last in the world on women’s well-being and empowerment, according to the Women, Peace and Security Index (2019).
As the Index notes, Afghan women still suffer from discriminatory laws at a level roughly on par with Iraq, and an extraordinarily low 12.2% of women reported feeling safe walking alone at night in their community, more than 4 points lower than in any other country. And just one in three girls goes to school.
Wrong kind of ‘help’
In 2015, a 27-year-old Afghan woman named Farkhunda Malikzada was killed by an angry mob of men in Kabul after being falsely accused of burning a Quran; US-backed Afghan security forces watched silently (Guardian, 3/28/15). The shocking story spread around the world, but the only US TV network to mention it on air was PBS (7/2/15), which offered a brief report more than three months after the murder, when an Afghan appeals court overturned the death sentences given to some of the men involved.
FAIR turned up no evidence of Caitlin Flanagan ever writing about Malikzada, either—or about the plight of any Afghan woman before last week.
According to a Nexis search, TV news shows aired more segments that mentioned women’s rights in the same sentence as Afghanistan in the last seven days (42) than in the previous seven years (37).
The US did not “rescue” Afghan women with its military invasion in 2001, or its subsequent 20-year occupation. Afghan women need international help, but facile and opportunistic US media coverage pushes toward the same wrong kind of help that it’s been pushing for the last two decades: military “assistance,” rather than diplomacy and aid.
For more than 20 years, US corporate media could have listened seriously to Afghan women and their concerns, bringing attention to their own efforts to improve their situation. Instead, those media outlets are proving once again that Afghan women’s rights are only of interest to them when they can be used to prop up imperialism and the military industrial complex.