Women at the UNICEF-supported Mirza Mohammad Khan clinic in Afghanistan (Courtesy UN News /Alessio Romenzi).
The latest Black Alliance for Peace Afghanistan update presents an interview with a specialist in women's movements and legal reform in Afghanistan and links on other news sources.
This article was originally published in Black Alliance for Peace.
Propaganda continues to justify the U.S./EU-backed economic war on Afghanistan, which the Black Alliance for Peace (BAP) has argued constitutes a crime against humanity. That is why the BAP Solidarity Network’s Afghanistan Committee has steadfastly shone a light on the invasion and 20-year war, its devastating consequences, and its punishing lawfare and sanctions. In this newsletter, we focus on the ideological gender and sexual “empowerment” stories that underlie the war.
In December, Marya Hannun addressed questions about women and gender in Afghanistan. Hannun completed a Ph.D. in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University and is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Exeter's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, where she serves as the Managing Editor of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP). Her current research examines women’s movements and legal reform in early 20th-century Afghanistan.
The views expressed below do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Black Alliance for Peace.
Would you give us a sense of your biographical background as well as intellectual and activist interests?
I became interested in Afghanistan’s history in my early years of graduate school in the 2010s. Like many in the United States with Arab or Muslim backgrounds, I devoted a lot of energy to combatting damaging stereotypes about Muslims, particularly Afghan women. These concerns formed the backdrop of so much intellectual engagement in Middle East Studies in the decade after 9/11. This work, while crucial, was often superficial. Many of us only knew Afghanistan’s history through the lenses of invasion and war. Moreover, intellectual study of Afghanistan was not part of our training as gender scholars in Middle East Studies.
What are the problems with the concept “Afghan women and girls” so frequently and effectively deployed by imperialist and colonial forces like the U.S. State Department and mainstream media outlets?
By creating this monolithic category, and then using it to justify a war that, as Shah Mahmoud Hanifi described, was really “an imperial punishment exercise” for 9/11, the U.S. occupying forces had a rhetorical frame to deflect accountability. They sold the war to U.S. and Western audiences by pointing to some women who were going to school or imperialist programs costing billions of dollars that purportedly built an “inclusive civil society.” But by subsuming all women under the technical term “Afghan women and girls,” they flattened out the gendered, classed, and regional experiences of war and tried to erase their own production of massive levels of violence and poverty. The more it was reproduced the more ingrained (and meaningless) it became as a category. It left no room for the women who never gained access to these international streams of funding and education during the war, or who experienced violence under the U.S.-NATO occupation—including dead and injured spouses or children—in battles, drone attacks, and night raids by the same NATO-backed forces purporting to save them.
How does the category work when deployed by the Taliban, especially since the occupation has technically ended?
The Taliban also instrumentalize women’s rights in damaging ways. When it comes to girls’ and women’s education, for example, the leadership deflects questions about when schools will reopen by saying they are working to create a “safe environment” for them. But their access to education has been eroding steadily, with the latest blow coming in the recent government announcement that women are formally banned from universities. Here, we have the imperialist rhetoric of war to protect Afghan girls and women also used to justify national policies that deny girls and women access to schooling and mobility. Meanwhile, many international organizations and donor governments are leveraging the re-opening of women’s schools and making aid conditional on this. Reporting on behind-the-scenes negotiations indicates the Taliban are divided on the issue of education, but ultimately catering to the most conservative elements among their ranks. This serves to illustrate the continued extreme politicization of women’s situations by all sides.
Beyond “women and girls,” the post-withdrawal political order led by the male Pashtun-dominated Taliban includes discrimination, insecurity, and violence for many groups across gender who are being forced to negotiate new forms of survival. For example, in the year-plus since the Taliban took over the central government, Hazaras have been purged from government ministries and forced to leave their homes and communities in several provinces in Afghanistan. Hazara and Shia communities such as Dasht-e-Barchi in Kabul are being targeted in attacks by ISIS-K, as occurred in a bombing on September 30. Sufi communities have faced violent attacks over the past year in Kabul and Kunduz.
How do class, region, education, and other factors disrupt or complicate this category of “Afghan women and girls”?
In some ways, it’s a really obvious point, but it gets lost time and again. How can we speak about a single category of “Afghan women and girls” when people’s experiences diverged so greatly during the 20 years of intervention depending on class position, access to university education, quality of roads and transport in their villages, and who held power and managed access to utilities in their municipalities? All these factors shaped how people experienced the invasion and occupation, their priorities and demands, and how they organized their lives.
In addition, Afghanistan’s population composition is ethnically and religiously diverse. Even before the Taliban returned to power in Kabul, the Ghani-led state was channeling ethno-nationalism, contributing to the marginalization of Hazara and Shia communities, in particular. The rural-urban dimension is another important axis of difference in Afghan society.
At the same time, I have been wary of an overemphasis on difference in Afghanistan, or simplistic “corrective” explanations of who won and who lost during the war and after the U.S.-NATO occupation collapsed. One narrative I saw a lot in the wake of the withdrawal is a binary between two categories of Afghan girls and women: urban residents who gained as a result of occupation and rural residents who were on the frontlines of drone strikes, night raids, and everyday militarized violence. In this narrative, the urban residents lost and the rural residents gained after the U.S.-NATO withdrawal.
This works to reproduce the same narrow analytic of “women’s rights” in relation to Afghanistan, but framed through an urban-rural dichotomy. For example, Kabul is a city of 5 million residents, including the urban poor, internally-displaced people (IDPs), and a variety of neighborhoods and communities that overlap with these categories, such as Hazara, Sufis, and transgender women. Many of its residents have family they are in regular contact with in the provinces, so they cannot be understood as separate from rural communities. Moreover, Kabul was never protected from the occupation and war. It was full of blast walls and checkpoints and its residents were regularly subjected to bombings and kidnapping threats. The city was heavily polluted and overpopulated as a result of the U.S.-NATO occupation and war. My point is there was, and is not, a single urban woman’s experience in Afghanistan. Similarly, rural Afghanistan is diverse and people in different regions of Afghanistan experienced the war and occupation differently. An overemphasis on divisions undermines solidarity and organizing for a new generation of women’s movements, certainly among the activists I was in contact with in the years before the withdrawal.
You have written that “we,” which we’re guessing are the imperialist, colonialist, and adjacent formations in the West, often ask the wrong questions about girls and women in Afghanistan. What should we be curious about instead?
I’m really motivated by Cynthia Enloe’s concept of cultivating a feminist curiosity. At the heart of such curiosity is the idea that all women’s experiences are worth unpacking and are often by definition “messy” when considered within larger constellations of power. In examining the Afghanistan past, we find women’s rights have been central to debates about modernity/progress and authority/legitimacy from early in the 19th century. The state’s views of and projections about women in these earlier periods tells us little about their everyday lived experiences, triumphs, or the violence they were subjected to. [Take], for example, under the rule of Abd al-Rahman Khan (r. 1880-1901), when internal colonization and conquest of space included the concubinage/enslavement of Hazara women, who would serve in households in Kabul in subsequent decades.
Not unlike today, in the 1920s—the period I research—we find a recurring tension between political discourses on women’s rights and women’s actual social realities. During that time as well, women’s education was a source of enormous contention between state leaders, who wanted to establish a system, and “civil society” actors in Kabul and other areas, who were opposed. Relying solely on the available archives, much of this debate was between men. There has been little attention, in the words of anthropologist Sonia Ahsan-Tirmizi, to how women “understand and inhabit their own worlds.”
What are some mistakes in how gender relations, sexuality, and other dimensions of life for Afghan boys and men are typically framed by outsiders?
A flipside of the obsession with “saving Afghan girls and women” was and continues to be the demonization and disregard for the lives of Afghan boys and men. During the 20 years of U.S. war and occupation, they were the implied other from whom Afghan girls and women had to be saved. As Sahar Ghumkhor and Anila Daulatzai have written, this view deems that the “‘toxic masculinity’ of the Taliban fighters is somehow more toxic than unrestrained white violence, white occupation, white torture, white drones. Theirs is a violence that is otherworldly, and unlike [violence perpetrated by] the West, it is savage, intentional and remorseless.”
There has been little interrogation of the lived realities of men, their status as survivors of violence and trauma, and their relational existence with men and women in their communities. In an exception, Andrea Chiovenda did sustained research exploring the way masculinity is relationally understood, lived, and performed in the predominantly Pashtun southeast.
As a historian, I find it notable that the unruly violence today’s imperialists associate with Afghan and Pashtun masculinity has colonial roots. In the 1920s, the same regions that in contemporary times were sites of the most intense drone warfare were subject to heavy aerial bombardments by British forces, who saw the frontier as a uniquely ungovernable space, where the wives of colonial officers were not allowed to accompany their husbands. Large-scale imperial violence was rationalized as necessary because people in these regions, in the imperialists’ view, “only responded to violence.” Similar racist imperial projections onto Afghan men justified drone warfare over the past 20 years and allowed for massive numbers of deaths and injuries to be framed as acceptable “collateral damage.”
What do you see as the major social and political obstacles (at multiple scales) to Afghans’ right to self-determination and their ability to build a more just society?
The question of scales is a good one. Afghanistan and Afghans have been facing overlapping and intersecting crises at various scales and timelines. The political insecurity and violence of the current moment under the Taliban has been compounded by shorter and longer-term problems, keeping in mind the cynical and self-serving nature of the World Bank position that describes the current economic situation in Afghanistan as stemming from the “political crisis that began in August 2021.” Even before August 2021 [when the U.S. military pulled out of Afghanistan], half of the Afghan population depended on humanitarian support for survival. The economic situation worsened following the U.S. [military] withdrawal and suspension of foreign aid, but this was a function of the extreme dependence on foreign aid that was cultivated during 20 years of occupation and war and the ongoing U.S. freeze of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves, which among other things devalues the country’s currency.
Another crisis unfolding over a longer timeline is climate change. Over the past four years, drought has caused widespread internal displacement and contributed to massive food insecurity. Then there’s the environmental damage produced by the war itself, which we’re just beginning to explore. Shah Mahmoud Hanifi has written about the “20-year monsoon of bombs,” beginning with the U.S.-NATO aerial bombardment campaign of Afghanistan’s east and south in 2001 and reaching a climax with the so-called “Mother of All Bombs” detonated in 2017 in Nangarhar, the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used. Hanifi talks about the lingering debris, such as depleted uranium in groundwater, and the long-term impact on human and animal life. He likens it to the situation in Fallujah, Iraq, resulting from the 2003 U.S. invasion and war. U.S. military bases and burn pits in Afghanistan have devastated topsoil as well.
There is no political will to acknowledge and investigate this violence and its consequences, let alone a system of accountability. These are huge obstacles to building a more just society. How can Afghans be expected to resolve and keep paying for crises manufactured by U.S.-NATO imperialism?
Finally, tens of thousands of Afghans who fled the country around August 2021 remain in precarious positions in multiple parts of the world. In the U.S. alone, 70,000 Afghans are on temporary Humanitarian Parole, which is set to expire, and their pathway to permanent legal status is uncertain. The Afghan Adjustment Act, a congressional proposal to change this, has been blocked from moving out of committee level.
Do you see any anti-imperialist, anti-sectarian inclusive left formations or possibilities in Afghanistan? If yes, where are they? If not, why do you think that is?
I’m not the best person to speak to this, as I’m not currently in Afghanistan, but there have been glimpses on social media of public anti-sectarian and anti-patriarchal resistance. I’m thinking of the women who led demonstrations in October against attacks on Hazaras and women-led protests in solidarity with Iranian women. Some media organizations, like Hasht e Subh and Rukshana (a women’s media organization), are covering the situation on the ground through websites and Twitter accounts and providing a kind of oppositional viewpoint that wasn’t possible in the 1990s. At the same time, open political resistance and mobilization is not possible under the Taliban’s authoritarian political order. That doesn’t mean things are not being organized and negotiated informally and beneath the public surface. Outside Afghanistan, there is a growing and active diaspora, such as Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, grappling with how to build a people-centered, anti-imperialist, anti-sectarian movement to support Afghans.
The Truth About Afghanistan's Zero Unit Night Raids
December 15, 2022, by Lynzy Billing for ProPublica
For many Afghans, U.S. terror came at night. Throughout the United States’ occupation of Afghanistan, CIA-backed operations killed countless Afghans. Unjustly, the United States has yet to be held accountable.
U.K. Prince Harry Claims to Be Responsible for Murder of 25 Afghans
January 9, 2023, by Solcyre Burga for Time
In a bold confession fit for an imperialist prince, the Duke of Sussex claims to have killed over a score of Afghans from his Apache attack helicopter during his two military tours of Afghanistan. He coldly credits his past video game skills.
Let Afghanistan Rebuild
December 13, 2022, by Graeme Smith and Delaney Simon for Foreign Affairs
Even U.S. State Department consultants admit that, for conditions to improve in Afghanistan, the United States must diplomatically work with the Taliban to alleviate the economic war inflicted upon Afghanistan by the United States. Not only do they contradict the U.S. State Department’s rhetoric, but they implicate that same government in the collective suffering of Afghans.