The War for Afghan Women


After the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom, the burqa-clad Afghan woman became iconic as the poster-child for the war, “the visible sign of an invisible enemy that threatened not only ‘us’ citizens of the West but our entire civilization”. In the theater of war, the US drew on the classic dichotomy of good versus evil in its rhetoric to galvanize international support for the invasion, specifically emphasizing the American imperative of “saving Afghan women”. Despite the rhetoric of the US moral crusade for the liberation of Afghan women, women’s actual security and empowerment have yet to be prioritized in the decision-making and peacekeeping processes on both the policy and grassroots level in the war in Afghanistan. Contrary to stated intentions, the issue of Afghan women has never been a key policy objective for the US government; instead, the symbol of the Afghan woman has been wielded as a political instrument to justify US involvement in the region. The US claim of commitment to Afghan women’s liberation is discredited by the following acts: (1) historical indifference to women’s security in the region before 9/11; (2) objectification of Afghan women in the essentialist discourse on Afghanistan before and after the US invasion; (3) adoption of policies that made women more insecure in Afghanistan in the post-9/11 period; (4) indifference to policies implemented by the Karzai government that threaten women’s rights and security; and (5) US support for reconciliation with the Taliban.

In the years that followed the collapse of the Soviet regime in Afghanistan, women were politically and socially purged from the region’s landscape, rendered invisible by the radical policies of the Taliban. Lauded by the international community for its promise to bring law and order to a war-torn country, the Taliban – a faction of the US funded and armed Mujahedeen – brought peace to the country with its rise to power, albeit at the expense of women. Though the tribal civil war had officially ended with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the civil war against women continued. Despite the brutality of the Taliban regime towards women, Afghan women were virtually forgotten by the international community until 2001, when the US appropriated their image as moral justification for the war in Afghanistan.

While certain organizations had attempted to raise awareness of their situation, it was not until 2001 that the condition of Afghan women had become an American national security objective. The US war in Afghanistan was the first time inthe postcolonial period where “military success was celebrated first and foremost as the liberation of women”. The instrumentalist use and objectification of the Afghan woman was thus a key element in establishing a neocolonial paradigm wherein war became a just and necessary act in order for ‘white men to save brown women from brown men’. Laura Bush’s 2001 radio address encapsulated the exploitation of the Clash of Civilizations ideology and a recreation of the neocolonial Other in the Afghan context, particularly with her comment that “civilized people throughout the world were speaking out in horror – not only because our hearts broke for the women and children of Afghanistan, but also because in Afghanistan, we saw the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us”. Additionally, the othered representation of Afghan woman as infantile and victimized served to support the Administration’s construction of the war’s moral crusade for the liberation of women, while it simultaneously served to “increase female insecurity by promoting various forms of neocolonial violence”. The objectification of women on a policy level reinforced the patriarchal use of women as political tools, while the American caricature of the Afghan woman as victim allowed for a denial of her agency, and legitimized her exclusion from political space.

The appropriation of the image of the subaltern Afghan woman became central in the reification of a national mythology in which the US played the role of the civilizing warrior and protector in the face of the demonic and uncivilized Other. This neocolonial paradigm was a key component in mobilizing US support, as the American public’s ability to absorb the costs and casualties of war are directly related to their perception of a war’s righteousness and success. Americans are more willing to fight for an idealized sense of justice and thus are more likely to support a war as justified if it is dichotomized as a battle between good and evil. By creating a strong moral imperative, the US government was initially able to overcome the increasing difficulty in galvanizing public support for war and justify continued US involvement in the region for domestic political constituencies.

Not only did the neocolonial paradigm serve to simplify the war as an ideological battle of good against evil, but it also served to erase the US’ complex role in the establishment of the Taliban regime. Though the US had previously “pursued a policy of promoting extremist Islamist groups in the region by equipping them with the most sophisticated military and intelligence equipment” and thus “created a climate in which the Taliban’s emergence was a predictable outcome”, the good/evil binary allowed for the absolution of US responsibility in militarizing Afghan society and abetting the Taliban’s rise to power. The US continued their engagement with the Taliban after they seized control of the government, “considering deals with Taliban representatives on oil and gas resources”, despite their record of human rights abuse, which later became the basis for US invasion and the key defining point of the Islamist group’s ‘evilness’. Yet the history of continual indifference on behalf of successive US Administrations to the condition of women under the Taliban regime (until it became convenient to care in the post 9/11 period) is another example of the US government’s use of Afghan women as rhetorical devices.

The launch of Operation Enduring Freedom brought promise for the Afghan people, especially women. The US invasion had brought Afghan women freedom and mobility, albeit on a superficial level. As stated by Laura Bush in 2002, “because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment… the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women”.

While Afghan women were given such rights with their ‘liberation’, few Afghan women have been able to enjoy their access to rights, empowerment, opportunity or protection as a result of increasing insecurity. Though the US toppled the Taliban government, their nation-building and reconstruction policies did not address the elimination or amelioration of “socio-historical, cultural or traditional foundations for gender violence”; in ignoring the root causes of gender-based violence and conflict, the US and its allies allowed for the continued existence and regeneration of misogynistic principles and practices in a “liberated” Afghanistan. “Attempts at addressing issues of gender justice through institutional and legal reforms fell short of acknowledging the interactions of gendered disadvantage with the criminalized economy, erosion of local livelihoods and insecurity at the hands of armed groups, or their long term effects on deepening disadvantages for women and girls”.

Not only did the US lack commitment to the issue of Afghan women’s security in practice, it also explicitly undertook policies that undermined their security. One such policy was the US coalition with the Northern Alliance, a group “notoriously misogynistic” and “comprised of soldiers who lead campaigns of rape, torture and slaughter in Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover”. They were also known for their frequent participation in the abduction of young girls and women, gang rapes and lust-based murders.

Conditions of war tend to exacerbate pre-existing patriarchal behaviors and attitudes, which may intensify as a responsive mechanism to undergoing oppression, being involved in conflict and/or as a “backlash against occupying forces”, and often lead to a reinforcement of neocolonial paradigms. Portraying Operation Enduring Freedom as a movement to bring women liberation through the imposition of war and western style rule of law allowed Islamist and insurgent forces to garner support for their side by appealing to religious and cultural authenticity, thus categorizing women’s rights as a western concept incompatible with being a citizen of both Afghanistan and Islam, reinforcing the conflict as a struggle to retain cultural purity in the face of westernization on the battleground of the woman’s body. The American characterization of the war as a moral crusade for the liberation of Afghan women ignored the cultural consequences of US policy on Afghan women and their security, and excluded Afghan women from being participants in their own liberation by pitting them against their cultural identity, neither of which were conducive to establishing women’s agency in the aftermath of the US invasion.

Afghan women’s exclusion from the reconstruction process at the Bonn Conference further discredited the US claim of working towards the liberation of Afghan women by failing to give Afghan women legitimate political space and voice. While the Bonn Conference participants included Afghan military commanders, representatives from different Afghan ethnic groups, representatives of the exiled monarch, expat Afghans and the Northern Alliance, the Conference did not include representatives of the interest of Afghan women. Subsequently, the Bonn Agreement, which outlined the reconstruction process, included minimal guarantees of women’s empowerment or protection. The document also did not include any of the demands for increasing women’s security as requested by Afghan women outside of the policymaking circle, such as the establishment of a war crimes tribunal or the initiation of a disarmament process.

Though Afghanistan has instituted a number of constitutional and legal reforms in order to protect and empower Afghan women, the condition of over 80% of Afghan women remains relatively similar to their state ten years ago under the Taliban. While women may have been granted rights and protection in law, in practice Afghan women continue to face severe insecurities as a result of continual war and its effects, such as extreme poverty, militarization, starvation, rape, widowhood and the lack of economic opportunity, all of which intensify in rural areas.

Additionally, Islamist factions have “continued attacking girls schools, restricting women’s movements in areas under their control and preventing women from working outside the home”, and have threatened, persecuted, abused and assassinated high profile female leaders as part of their campaign to maintain power. Though Afghan women have called for the prosecution of such crimes, the Afghan government has yet to do so. Certain scholars argue that Afghan women’s insecurity today is more extreme than their level of insecurity under the Taliban regime, as women still continue to face political marginalization and social oppression, except now, they do so in an environment of war.

Despite its rhetoric, the US has not seriously pursued women’s empowerment as a national security objective in Afghanistan. Though the US has publicly reaffirmed their commitment to women’s security, its indifference to the Karzai administration’s policies threatening women’s security is representative of the marginalization of women’s security on the US foreign policy agenda. Both the US and Karzai governments continue “upholding the principle of gender equality and social inclusiveness officially while marginalizing women in the allocation of development aid and accommodating political demands that many women’s groups are engaged in combating.”

The Karzai government has shown little if any real political will and commitment to the establishment of women’s security and has, instead, taken steps to increase their insecurity by “passing laws undermining women’s empowerment” as well as by “making concessions to the Taliban at the expense of women”. The Karzai Administration’s passing of the bill on Shia Personal Laws was a key example of both, in its legalization of allowing husbands to withhold money and food from wives who refused to provide sex in the Shia community. The law also restricted Shia women’s right to mobility by requiring them to seek permission from their families to travel.

Another example is the Karzai government’s initiative to pass new rules and restrictions on safe houses and shelters for women in the country and to require all shelters to fall under the direct control of the Afghan government, a move made to appease the conservative constituency. The Karzai Administration has also allowed the continued existence of the Islamist established Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, an institution previously responsible for a number of highly misogynistic mandates, including restrictions on women’s mobility (“women are not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary”) and women’s behavior (“women are not to laugh in public nor wear attractive clothing or perfume”).

Overtures of political commitment to women’s issues, such as the establishment of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in accordance with the objectives outlined in the Bonn Agreement, do not have any public legitimacy or actual authority and are therefore rendered meaningless especially in light of the Afghan government’s disregard for women’s real empowerment or protection.

Afghan women have nonetheless made a number of advances over the years, especially in legal, political and educational sectors. Legal reform has included Afghanistan’s status as signatory to the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) without reservations, and the integration of gender equality within the Constitution. (However, though the Afghan Constitution recognizes women’s right to equality, education and work, the Constitution does not guarantee them; the document states that it must be in accordance with the Shariat, thus allowing Constitutional rights to be subject to the governing power’s interpretation of Shariat).

Political reform as a result of a quota system has allowed for Afghanistan to have one of the highest global rates of female representation in Parliament, with 28% of members being female; but aside from its symbolic virtue, the impact of the quota may be inconsequential in real terms. The quotas are “not matched by sufficient investment in women’s leadership skills”, rendering women’s public participation fairly inefficient; women in leadership positions are not taken seriously by their male counterparts and continue to be marginalized as a result of insufficient investment in reforming socio-cultural and systemic gender-based prejudices. This was exemplified in the response of the Deputy Director of the High Peace Council to the request of female High Peace Council members to meet with Mullah Omar – “women want to go as a group to meet Mullah Omar, but that is not possible; if they go, they will be killed… and anyway, we all know that women can’t keep a secret for more than 34 hours”. Additionally, many women in positions of political leadership may not have the will, commitment, capacity or power to support women’s rights, as a result of their accountability to their local warlords and/or their adherence to pre-existing patriarchal structures.

Today, most of the country remains governed by warlords, many of whom legislate misogynistic principles and practices within their communities. “Indeed, advances in political participation by women and school attendance by girls have been offset by a failure to insist on accountability for warlords whose forces committed sexual violence during the years of conflict and continue such abuse today; instead, a number of these criminals have been given positions of power.” Furthermore, “recent data show women’s personal safety, opportunity and human rights beginning to revert to conditions before Taliban expulsion”. Women’s advances are not only fragile but vulnerable to reversal, increasingly weakened by the US and Karzai governments willingness to treat them as a bargaining chip for “winning the support of warlords, traditional leaders and even Taliban figures whom [the governments] cannot afford to alienate through an overemphasis on women’s rights and protection”. Such forms of engagement with the Taliban on behalf of both American and Afghani governments only serve to reinforce a culture of impunity for the Taliban and their actions as well as a normalization of violence and oppression against women.

Though the US claims that ensuring women’s security is a political objective, women are the collateral damage of the war. The US support for reconciliation with the Taliban shows the US’ willingness to sacrifice women and their security for the cessation of violence in the public sphere. In the traditional paradigm of security, where the definition of winning a war is based on military success instead of establishing the foundation for sustainable security, women’s empowerment and protection become less and less of a national security priority. For instance, several nation-building initiatives have “removed specific women’s rights requirements”, replacing concrete targets for improving women’s status with vague, rhetorical measures under the banner of gender mainstreaming. As stated by a senior official in the Obama Administration, “gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities; there’s no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project, all those pet rocks in our rucksack are taking us down”. This portrays a fundamental problem with the field of national security as well as the American strategic culture; the characterization of gender issues as a “pet project” instead of a serious national security imperative is indicative of the lack of importance given to women’s security within the policymaking community.

Though the dominant structure of the study and practice of security has adverse gendered effects on both theoretical and practical levels, gender has seldom been utilized as a category of analysis for understanding the implications of gender policy. While women have historically been disproportionately affected by conflict, they have also been systematically excluded from the processes involved in preventing, ameliorating and resolving conflict. Their exclusion from policymaking and peace processes have direct consequences on outcomes of insecurity, violence, development, democracy and stability; thus said, their inclusion in the field of conflict resolution and security is necessary not only for peace, but also for progress. “Incorporating gender analysis into development and implementation of peace processes has been shown to have significant impact on effectiveness and sustainability of peace-building and reconstruction efforts”. American and Afghan leaders and policymakers must understand that stability – the real political objective – will not be reached without women. While both acknowledge this in rhetoric, both must take concrete actions to implement this.

Although Afghan women have made some considerable constitutional and legal gains in recent years as a result of US (and NATO) support, the impact of the US intervention on their overall security remains minimal at best. As the war comes to a close with the imminent withdrawal of foreign troops, the security of half the population remains imperiled, their relative gains on the brink of dissolution. If the US and the international community is truly committed to the establishment of stability in the region and consequently, to the liberation of Afghan women, they must do more than just rhetorically recognize the necessity of female empowerment and agency. They must integrate a gendered approach in the paradigms, policies and practices in their efforts to achieve positive and negative peace in the region so that women are not required to sacrifice their rights so that the war can be ‘won’. ■

* Ainab Rahman is an MA candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Affairs. She has previously interned with the Women’s Foreign Policy Group in DC and the UNDP in Dhaka, Bangladesh.