The Afghan Woman is Not A Project

This essay is the original version of the essay that appeared in the New York Times on Afghan Women.

One of the major objectives of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan had always been to liberate Afghanistan’s women from the tyranny of the Taliban. Fifteen years later, instead of progress in the field of women’s rights, a series of shocking images of beaten and battered young Afghan women is paraded in the media to mock that once lofty objective.

The latest of these: Reza Gul, whose husband cut off her nose when she objected to his taking a 7 year old niece as a second wife. Gul waits to be flown to Turkey for reconstructive surgery, unaware that she’s the newest face of failed Western promises to elevate the status of Afghan women.

Afghan women’s rights activists and international feminists harbor a bitter belief that Western feminists willfully misrepresented the plight of the Afghan woman, portraying her as the “silent and passive victims of their culture, their men, and their politics,” as Spogmai Akseer writes in “Afghan Women: Identity and Invasion.” This supplied the West with a moral reason to invade the country and “rescue” the women, an imperialist invasion disguised as a humanitarian rescue mission, instead of empowering Afghan women on their own terms.

When you base your entire project to free women on an untruth, is there any surprise when it fails? Today, as Afghan women struggle as mightily for their rights as they historically always have, they remain victims not just of gender-based violence but of a cross-cultural dissonance that has produced ill-informed stereotypes which continue to resonate today. This continued portrayal of Afghan women as victims marginalizes them from Afghanistan’s beleaguered peace process, and ensures that project will fail as well.

Gender-based violence specialist and aid worker Lina Abirafeh spent five years from 2001-2006 working in Afghanistan. In her research and humanitarian work with Afghan women and men, she discovered that aid programs had been implemented without any gender analysis aimed at an understanding of how women-centered aid programs might affect the political situation of women’s rights on the ground. 

She also found that there was a huge gap between what Westerners understood about the experience of Afghan womanhood, and how Afghan women saw themselves. Feminism has always existed in Afghanistan, Abirafeh asserts, but with long-established internal mechanisms working for women’s rights: informal and formal women’s groups, social safety nets, community organizers. Many of these groups documented the Taliban’s worst abuses, hiding cameras under burkas and documenting public executions. 

Enfranchised in the 1964 Afghan constitution and given equal rights in 1977,  the self-image of Afghan women doesn’t match the victimhood awarded them by Western aid workers; they see themselves as brave, capable, and strong. Islam is important to them, and so is their honor. They want to be active participants in their own liberation, but they want to set the pace of their struggle, instead of submitting to a Western-driven agenda that understands neither their contexts nor their character. 

Although they have always been conscious of their suffering, Afghan women did not think of themselves as weak or in need of being saved by outside forces, says Abirafeh. In fact, they resent greatly the idea that foreigners need to intervene on their behalf. The violence against them comes in great part as a backlash against the speeded-up process forced upon them by “outsiders”, whom Afghans have historically always resented. One of Afghanistan’s greatest heroines is Malalai of Maiwind, who urged her compatriots to rise up against the British and was killed at the Battle of Maiwind in 1880 (Malala Yousufzai is named after her).

In 2013, I traveled to Konya, Turkey, for a conference on the poetry and life of the great Sufi poet and mystic Rumi. Amongst our delegation were two young Afghan women (who I will not name in order to protect their security). The first, gentle and reserved, was the director of a cultural house in northern Afghanistan and the editor of its monthly magazine. She was studying Dari literature at university, and had done extensive research on Rumi, and compiled youth poetry written in the Dari language.  The second woman was a fiery and outspoken poet who wrote for a feminist newspaper and also managed a radio station.

These two women were no victims, no poster children for invasion, even though they’d come to Konya through a foreign grant, and their projects at home were being funded by international organizations. They were young women just like I had been in my 20s; studying, working, building a life for themselves. They both kept their hair covered at all times; the first woman with a light scarf, the second with colorful turbans and headwraps. But they argued and debated, laughed and sang with the rest of us as we made our way from Konya to Cappadocia. Last year the fiery poet was elected to her provincial council.

Dr. Sahraa Karimi, a renowned Afghan filmmaker recently spoke at a planning session for a women’s festival in Karachi. She made no pretense of the fact that Afghan women are still suffering greatly. “To be an Afghan woman is very very painful, whether you are ordinary or rich or well-educated. But just because it’s painful doesn’t mean we do nothing.”

According to Karimi, Afghan women are still seen either as victims or as a project – neither attitude leading to true progress. In Afghanistan, development workers and selected Afghan women — Western success stories, as Abirafeh calls them — grow rich on “Women’s Empowerment Projects” and “Minority Interest Projects.” Meanwhile, high numbers of Afghan women intellectuals leave the country in a debilitating brain drain because of their dangerous working conditions and suffocating social environments in the ordinary areas of Afghanistan outside the fortified Western compounds.

Karimi’s outlook is hopeful and positive: Afghan women are now able to raise their voices for justice, with the help of international organizations that are supporting their efforts. Even in the midst of ongoing attacks and violence against women, workshops, trainings, have enabled Afghan women to speak up for themselves to tell their own stories of their suffering, instead of Westerners speaking on their behalf.

Yet Afghan women have to be chiefly responsible for their own uplift, instead of succumbing to the victimhood thrust upon them by the media and the aid machine. As Karimi says, “Peace in Afghanistan is impossible without women. The terrible situation in Afghanistan is because of the absence of women, of respect and acceptance for them.  If they gave even a 10% opportunity to women to be part of the change and decision-making, Afghanistan would see peace.” 

Such a peace can only come when the West abandons the long-cherished idea of Afghan women as victims, or a problem or project to be fixed, and instead continue to support them in their own struggles, giving them the agency they already know is theirs by right. 

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